- Reading, Writing, Being: Persians, Parisians, and the Scandal of Identity
You—that is, I—that is, you—I am you….—Matei Calinescu (2004)
In Romania, I learned nothing about Romania.—Ioan Petru Culianu, qtd. in Matei Calinescu (2002)
One cannot read a book, Matei Calinescu echoes Nabokov in the epilogue to Rereading (1993); one can only reread it (277). But then, of course, the paradox—Barthes formulates it best apropos of his periodical returns to A la recherche du temps perdu—is that one does not, and practically speaking one cannot, reread the same book either. Proust, on whose novel Calinescu taught a whole course at Indiana in the fall of 1993, is here a case in point because reader after reader, Barthes included, have never gone back to the same passages of A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927), or to the same passages with the same intellectual fervor, emotional intensity, or motivation. This goes to show how fundamentally subjective, self-directed rereading and reading generally are. For, indeed, rereading is neither “objective,” applied to an external “object” proper, nor iterative. We reread what we have already read not to read it again, to merely reenact a past, mainly text-oriented routine and thus recover a meaning past—the text’s—but to discover a meaning present, ours; in an other’s work we are essentially looking for ourselves. Rereading is self-reading and helps us see that so is reading overall. As Calinescu reminds us in Rereading, in Le Temps retrouvé (1927) Proust himself suspects that “In [End Page 247] reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps have never perceived himself” (qtd. in Calinescu 1993, 25).
If all reading is rereading—Calinescu demonstrates that it is—and, further, if reading is performance (275), then reading’s twin, iterative-performative thrust is ultimately identity-fashioning in the precise sense that, across a geography otherness, we search for ourselves. Needless to say, this search makes, unmakes, and remakes us, as the case may be. Meaning-making in the margins of an other’s work is self-making, a self-centering identity protocol complete with its rewards and illusions—with identitarian illusion itself as the ultimate and vital reward, Calinescu suggests.
This illusion, a “realistic one,” as the same Barthes would probably call it, stands at the core of the various arguments Calinescu built throughout his career from his early 1960s Romanian books and articles to his last, revealingly titled monograph, Ionesco. Recherches identitaires (2005). What rereading does is this: it forefronts with superior clarity what reading at large—first, second, or last—does to and for readers, that is, how it provides them with an occasion to invent themselves. This opportunity is real, not an invention, but what this identity poetics brings about is a fiction. And yet, this fiction is necessary. For it makes life more meaningful, more bearable, whether the reader lives in a police state such as Calinescu’s Romania—where, back in the 1950s, people were sent to prison for circulating banned books, let alone for actually reading them—or in the U.S., where the critic defected in 1973. The identity we cobble together as we peruse others’ “inventions” is, to be sure, just another invention, a lie we tell ourselves with a straight face so we can go on and carry the burden of the truths life saddles us with. Reading-originated, the identity spawned by the encounter with an other’s literary musings is undoubtedly an “illusion,” but a “fertile” one, is fiction prompting self-fictionalization, unlocking as it does creativity and its corollary, self-creativity.
As Calinescu writes in his 1994 memoir Amintiri în dialog (A Memoir in Dialogue), whatever we make of the world and ourselves, it happens, semiotically and existentially, in dialogue. The “I,” he recapitulates an entire philosophical tradition (or traditions, rather), is a dialogical formation. If it comes along, it does so across or through (diá, in...