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Reading as resonance

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How much can be said about what cannot be explained?

Resonance: Something in a book corresponds with something in me, and vice versa. Though I immediately know what I mean, this insight crumbles as I try to communicate it. One way to explain resonance would be to try to identify the aspects of the book that I resonated with, e.g. language, composition, narrative, mood, etc. etc. Otherwise I could try to express resonance in terms of what I cherish, love or hate about book.

In fact I could adopt virtually any arbitrary methodological key to systematise the features of text or of the very reading itself and simply proceed accordingly, hoping that the results would capture the nature of the experience I am after. Become some kind of Carol Linnaeus of my own reading with a reductionist bent – A made me feel Y, B made me feel Z, C…. Such masquerade could save me from being vague. I could communicate something concrete, with clarity, something others could refer to.

This possibility seems almost tempting, but it would be precisely that: Masquerade. As I read a book, I do not dissect it. I can do so, but only subsequently. In comparison with the experience of reading itself the resulting image is distorted, impoverished, caricatural. A text is, after all, never just a simple sum of all its parts, but always characterised by a certain excess. Therefore I could not talk about resonance under such a systematic disguise. Text resonates as a whole, not as the aggregate of its discreet aspects. And what interests me is this wholeness, the one which seems to disintegrate as soon as the focus shifts to the components.

We can read the same book: we can never share the same resonance.

What if I reverse the logic of my investigation and attend to what happens when others tell me about their reading, about their books? They tell me that they did or did not enjoy some book. Why does it fail to mean much to me? I hear and understand them: I am never moved. Even if occasionally I can recognise in what they talk about this peculiar trembling which I call resonance, this recognition does not amount to much: It is their resonance, their books, their reading. I can acknowledge and enjoy their engagement; I cannot participate in it. As their words fail to move me comes a realisation: We are different. We can read the same book; we can never share the same resonance.

(One night I read Gadamer’s interpretation of Celan. I follow his exegesis and enjoy his insights, wondering at the richness he is able to discover in poems’ raw lines. Yet, I cannot participate in Gadamer’s resonance. In Celan there is always only one poem, one I do resonate with, regardless of what Gadamer or anyone has to say about it:

Du warst mein Tod:
dich konnte ich halten,
während mir alles entfiel.

And I know that all I could say about it would miss the mark. But if so, why should I even talk about it?)

Artwork: .isaste. by Jeronimo Panmazák

I rarely, however, hear this question. If any, I usually come across another one: “What do you think about the book?” It rarely comes from the text itself, it most certainly does not arise as I read. It comes from others. I answer, to my best abilities: “It resonates with me” in hope this will be enough. (I know it is not, it is simplistic and naive, but I still hope it will do). I am as sure of my satisfaction vis a vis myself as I am sure of my dissatisfaction vis a vis others. In the last analysis, it can perhaps explain why, as I read, my simple private answers are enough for me: They are not really answers at all, they just are. I try to explain, but I sense that what I say is never adequate, the same way that what others say never is so. How can I explain that it is impossible for me to talk, that as soon as I do, I sense that I am talking about something else (always only aspects of a case, rather than case itself)? I am not sure I can.

Perhaps the flaw of the whole enterprise lies in the fact that it attempts to talk in general about something which cannot be generalised in principle. Perhaps there is no resonance as such, but only separate, independent resonances, never adding up to anything universal? After all, if any truth resonates with me in the text, it is never global but always fundamentally local. Nothing encountered on one occasion can be simply projected on other texts (what I find in Celan’s poem has no “use“ anywhere else, neither for me, nor for others). Each text is a new happening.

And yet, if something universal lurks in the resonance it may be perhaps this: Each time, it leaves a mark in me. If this is so, then the best I can offer as a definition of a resonance is to substitute one metaphor with another: “It is a feeling that what have I just read will not pass by but will leave a mark.” Why talk about it? Because I am marked, affected, changed. In other words, resonance is not indifference. (I do not overlook, I do not forget, I do not pass by: I am touched, I am moved, I am arrested).

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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