Reading and Writing

Robert A. Segal & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), A Vocabulary for the Study of Religion, Volume 3 (Leiden & Boston: Brill Press, 2015), pp 196-202.


Reading and Writing



This article offers an overview of the relationship between writer and reader, as understood from the ancient world to the present day. It traces this relationship through Greek philosophy, Elizabethan poetics, eighteenth-century criticism, and so to Romanticism and its legacy. It then addresses the twentieth-century attempt to put the writer and reader in their place, before commending the contribution of one particular thinker—a Christian philosopher—to the debate. 


The relationship between reading and writing might seem natural and inevitable: writers write so that readers can read. Over the centuries, however, secular literary theory in the West has returned again and again to the issue of what that relationship involves and, more specifically, what effect the writer’s efforts have on the reader.

Early Views

Our starting point must be ancient Greece, and the radical disagreement between the philosopher Plato and his pupil Aristotle. One of the reasons that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic was that their works encouraged indulgence in emotions rather than a state of contemplative reason. Aristotle’s response was his theory of “catharsis”, which he formulated in the course of his account of the structure and function of tragic drama. Tragedy, he proposed, necessarily aroused two main emotions—“pity” (for the suffering protagonist) and “fear” (of the power of the gods who administered his or her punishment)—but with the very purpose of purging the audience of those emotions by the end of the play. Even though the events performed on stage were illusory (an actor playing a king in a story that may never have happened, for example), the result had a healing effect on the lives of those who witnessed them. This impact was succinctly summarised in the words of the English poet John Milton, who produced his own Christian version of classical tragedy in Samson Agonistes (1671): the desired state was “calm of mind, all passion spent.”

It might be said that the whole history of literary theory goes back to the disagreement between Plato and his pupil. Certainly, Aristotle’s defence of literature on the grounds that it has a beneficial impact on the reader has been repeatedly invoked in various forms over the millennia. The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney may have been conveying the wisdom of his own age when, in his Defence of Poesy (1595), he stated that the point of poetry was “both to delight and to teach” (Sidney 1968: 9); but he was also invoking classical authority, given that his statement was based on sentiments uttered in the ancient world by the poets Ovid and Horace, themselves very much aware of Aristotle’s thesis.

Of course, the very claim that literature improves readers by presenting them with an inspiring illusion only begs the question of how far literature tells the truth about reality. We are not here directly concerned with this issue of “mimesis”, or representation, but it relates to the reader’s dilemma: How much trust should she or he place in the author’s words? Sidney believed that that trust should be absolute, for the poet improves upon the reality we know: “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as divers poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden” (Sidney 1968: 7). Hence it will be a foolish reader who looks to the writer for factual, as opposed to imaginative truth: “Now, for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth” (Sidney 1968: 733).

The principle at which Sidney is hinting here is what he refers to elsewhere in his Defence as “feigning”. That this was a popular notion of the period is evident from the fact that four years later, Shakespeare had one of his comic fools, Touchstone, declare: “the truest poetry is the most feigning” (As You Like It, III.iii.15). That creative writers ‘feign,’ that is, invent or pretend, means that their works have to be taken on faith by the reader, with the hope that the benefits will be sufficient to make the act of reading worthwhile. In the words of the Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose admiration of Shakespeare’s art knew no bounds, it is necessary to adopt “that willing suspension of disbelief … which constitutes poetic faith” (Coleridge 1971: 248).

Before the Romantics, however, English criticism of the earlier eighteenth century—what we often refer to as the neo-classical period—had produced its own model of literature, rather more measured and sober than Sidney’s. “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”: so wrote Samuel Johnson, the great spokesman for critical common sense in that period (Johnson 1984: 536). His own preoccupation being endurance rather than enjoyment, Johnson famously objected to Shakespeare on the grounds that he did not offer improvement for his readers: in short, that his plays lacked “moral purpose”. This in turn prompted Johnson to state what he took to be a general truth: “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place” (Johnson 1968: 71). Through those words we can intuit the confidence which the neo-classical period had in the idea of a culture of shared values, a public sphere of agreed assumptions—what Johnson encapsulated in his famous phrase, “the common reader.”

However, there being in most cases a considerable distance between the author sitting down to write and the reader sitting down to read—in some cases, several centuries—the problem had to be addressed of how far the reader’s interpretation may legitimately depart from the author’s text. Writing not long before Johnson, the poet Alexander Pope gave the following advice in his versified “Essay on Criticism”: “In every work, regard the writer’s end / Since none can compass more than they intend” (Pope 1963: 152). It sounds eminently reasonable to say that readers should not, for example, read Milton’s Paradise Lost in order to find out about gardening (though the descriptions of the garden of Eden might please them); but is the reader always to be constrained by what he or she knows of “the writer’s end”?


The era of Romanticism, which departed so radically from the critical assumptions of the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, was if anything even more preoccupied with the notion of the ‘authority’ of the author than the neo-classical era had been. This in turn had implications for the way the reader should regard him or her. With the Romantics, the idea of the author as solitary genius came to the fore; and with it, the idea of the reader as initiate worshipping at the shrine of creativity. The poet and painter William Blake famously declared to a correspondent in 1799: “You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men” (Blake 1988: 702). Only those of strong disposition, who are willing to make the effort to follow the trajectory of the author’s majestic imagination, need apply for the role of reader.

How far that imagination should follow its own laws is another matter. If it is given total freedom, the result may be confused and obscure; if it is constrained too much by form and decorum, the result may be dull and obvious. The Romantic poets pondered this dilemma at some length. When William Wordsworth joined with his friend Coleridge to produce a volume called Lyrical Ballads in 1798, it met with incomprehension. This was due to their refusal to imitate the “poetic diction” of their predecessors, and their desire to celebrate the earthy, passionate life of rural folk. Their audacious decision to explore the psychological depths of their subjects, and of themselves, produced some unsettling verse which was received badly by the critics. Wordsworth felt obliged to set out the two authors’ intentions in his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which appeared two years later. In doing so, he developed his ideas about the relationship between writing and reading.

It is in this preface that Wordsworth famously defines the poet as “a man speaking to men.” This definition in itself would hardly have offended Pope and Johnson. However, he has no sooner offered it than he qualifies it significantly: “He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than one supposed to be common among mankind …” (Foakes 1968: 35). What Wordsworth is trying to do is reconcile a model of linguistic communication, whereby the writer addresses the reader directly as an equal, with a model of imaginative consummation, whereby the writer’s genius moves him or her to use language in a way that the reader never could. The import of the latter model is that, if that reader is prepared to surrender to the writer’s spell, she or he may catch something of that “spirit of life” which informs the poem.

Imaginative consummation is what Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge came to believe was the more important characteristic of poetry. Indeed, the figure of the “man speaking to men” did not feature significantly in the latter’s extensive speculations in the years following Lyrical Ballads. His preoccupation in Biographia Literaria (1817) is with the very name and nature of ‘imagination.’ What he meant by it may be briefly conveyed by a phrase from one of his most famous poems “Dejection: An Ode,” which he wrote fifteen years earlier. Here he laments the decline in his own loss of formative creativity, even while seeking to define that power: Every moment of despair that he experiences “Suspends what Nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination” (Coleridge 1971: 107).

The idea that great poetry works according to a quasi-divine force (“Nature” for Coleridge being a sacred totality), which enables us to find pattern and meaning in our experience, is at odds with Wordsworth’s more modest claim. Wordsworth may regard the writer as possessing superior faculties, but he assumes that he has a duty to speak as directly as possible to the reader. Coleridge may believe that all human beings are capable of imagination, but he does not believe that the poet’s privileged access to the “shaping spirit” should be compromised due to an assumed demand for immediate sense. Hence his two most famous poems, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”, are celebrated not for their communicative power so much as for their elusive and haunting beauty. The reader of these poems must not expect an easy journey or a conveniently packaged message. For the poet’s obligation is to his “shaping spirit,” which moves in a mysterious way, not to the casual reader seeking diversion.

Coleridge’s “shaping spirit” and Wordsworth’s “man speaking to men” each fostered a strain of nineteenth-century thinking about literature. The “shaping spirit” led ultimately to the aesthete who practises “art for art’s sake.” The “man speaking to men” led to the Victorian sage who offers moral advice to his age. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold united both strains. In “The Study of Poetry” (1880), he argued that the decline of religious faith meant that literature itself was filling the void, both as moral guide and as aesthetic refuge: “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.” (Arnold 1964: 47). There could not be a more explicit case for the idea that the writings of great minds had a beneficial effect on its readers.

The Twentieth Century

The relationship between writers and readers, far from being hereafter taken for granted, was debated at length in the twentieth century. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), the Anglo-American poet and critic T.S. Eliot suggested that the “individual talent” meant nothing without the “tradition” to which it belonged, even while that talent might extend that tradition, or else help us appreciate it anew. On this basis, he advocated a doctrine of “impersonality”, which stated that the person who writes the poem should be of no interest to the reader. Speculation about the state of mind, heart or soul of the author was futile: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (Eliot 1975: 43). Effectively, Eliot had offered a rebuke to the Romantic manifesto articulated by Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Eliot was also implicitly querying Arnold’s idealistic claims for the impact of poetry, even though he himself revered “tradition” in a quasi-religious manner.

By the time we get to the North American movement of the mid-twentieth century known as the New Criticism, all talk of the writer’s aims in writing and of the reader’s benefits in reading was becoming suspect. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley produced two uncompromising essays: “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) and “The Affective Fallacy” (1949). The first of these argues that the intention of the author is “neither available nor desirable” as a standard for judging the success of a work of literature. The work should be read objectively, in its own right, and should be assessed only on intrinsic grounds (see Wimsatt 1954: 3-20). If the author’s life is banished from his own poem in that first essay, the second essay banishes the reader’s life from the act of reading: to equate the meaning of the poem with its psychological impact on the reader is to surrender to “impressionism and relativism.” It does not matter what various people of different times and places have discovered in a poem; what matters is the poem itself (see Wimsatt 1954: 21-39).

Though New Criticism was based in the USA, it had been anticipated in England by such works as I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929), which resulted from Richards’ experience of seeking responses from his Cambridge students to poems that were provided without attribution of author, or even date. Richards had been shocked by a general failure to understand what the poems were about, let alone recognise the importance of tone, imagery, and so forth. He set himself the task of outlining a proper method for analysing literature, which this and other books of his laid out. A younger Cambridge academic F.R. Leavis was initially much influenced by Richards’ “practical criticism,” but subsequently recuperated the Romantic idea of the great author. The genius who expressed his or her affirmation of ‘life’ (a word Leavis never tired of using), would thereby encourage in the reader a parallel affirmation. Taking his career as a whole, we may say that Leavis owed far more to Arnold than he ever did to Richards.

Leavis died in the 1970s, at about the time when French literary theory had begun to encroach upon English academic criticism. No doubt due to an entrenched empiricism, the latter had been slow to respond to structuralism, which offered a highly abstract key to all possible sign-systems. It saw all language, including the literary use of it, as a self-perpetuating system of signification rather than as a means of individual expression. Roland Barthes, who had early on been an exponent of structuralism, did not begin to have any impact in England or the United States until he took the structuralist approach to its limit, thus indirectly providing a manifesto for what became known as post-structuralism. In his essay “The Death of the Author” (1968), he might seem to be simply restating the New Critical orthodoxy that the writer is not a legitimate reference point for the reader who wishes to understand the writer’s work. Again, to demonstrate how an individual author relies on the collective code of language was already acceptable structuralist practice. However, here Barthes is going much further.

Echoing the “deconstruction” of Jacques Derrida, which challenges the idea of a fixed meaning, and anticipating the “reader-response theory” of Stanley Fish, which challenges the idea of a fixed text, he subverts simultaneously the idea of fixity and the idea of authority, which he sees as synonymous. As the writer disappears from view, readers are free to engage with the language of the text in any way they choose; there are no constraints, because there is no author/authority. Instead of a stable text, the product of the writer’s mind, we are dealing with unstable ‘texture’ – with ‘writing,’ a tissue of signs which has no hidden ‘secret’ to reveal: “To give a text an Author [sic] is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” The reader, by contrast, is a far less predictable entity, and so a more promising figure altogether: one who may reconstruct the text just as he or she wants. Thus: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Newton 1988: 157).

If we no longer feel obliged to “regard the writer’s end,” in Pope’s words, then an obvious danger is an anarchy of interpretation; Barthes was fully prepared to run that risk. Anglo-American criticism was not prepared to go all the way with Barthes, however. In Structuralist Poetics (1975), Jonathan Culler seemed to concede a good deal to post-structuralism by focusing on the reader, but he did so only in order to seek a new sense of order: the need, as he saw it, to delineate the nature of “literary competence”, which meant formulating the legitimate “conventions” by which readers made sense of texts (Culler 1975: 258). However, Culler’s assumption was that these readers were affiliated to an existing, stable institution, namely a university, in which consensus was essential to the well-being of the academic community. In his later work, Culler made much more allowance for the variety of interpretation, and the fact that readers of different times and places would read the same text differently.

Ricoeur’s Discourse Theory

Legitimacy and variety of interpretation are issues that have long since been addressed in the study of the Bible, but rather than provide a lengthy overview of the development of biblical study in relation to secular literary theory, it might be useful to look briefly at one particular contribution to secular literary theory which is informed both by scriptural scholarship and religious faith. I am referring to the work of the Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Ricoeur more than anyone addressed the relationship between the writer and the reader, and the status of the text which lies, as it were, between them.

Reacting against the structuralist model of language as system and linguistic unit as word, Ricoeur opts for that of discourse theory, which sees language as event and linguistic unit as sentence. As he reminds us, “the first and fundamental feature of disourse” is that “it is constituted by a series of sentences whereby someone says something to someone about something” (Ricoeur 1991: 82-83).This function is not radically altered when we turn from spoken communication to literary communication; but of course, the place and function of the text has to be addressed—and Ricoeur duly does so.

As we have seen, Romanticism gave us the idea of the writer as genius, with whom the reader seeks to empathise, hoping to experience the world in the same way, albeit at a lesser intensity. But New Criticism reminded us that it is only the author’s work, and not the author’s state of mind, that is available to us; and structuralism raised the question of whether language is a mode of individual expression at all. Thereafter post-structuralism gave full approval for the reader to respond to the text with complete disregard for any authority, authorial or otherwise. Ricoeur may be seen as comprehending these issues by addressing “the very historicity of human experience,” which involves “communication in and through distance” (Ricoeur 1991: 76). Hence he articulates the dialectic between “participation” and “distanciation”, between “understanding” and “objectification”, between the response to the event of “saying” and the recognition of the fixity of the “said”—a fixity which in literature is known as the text (Ricoeur 1991: 78).

When discourse passes from speaking to writing, we find that meaning becomes much more problematical but also much more promising. As Ricoeur reminds us: “writing renders the text autonomous with regard to the intention of the author. What the text signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant …” (Ricoeur 1991: 83). To recognise this, however, is not necessarily to abandon any notion of reference, to confine ourselves to an arid description of the language of the text, or to surrender to interpretative chaos. Ricoeur, drawing on his knowledge of hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation, asks to us to take as our focus “the world of the text”. It is this notion that permits us to attribute referential meaning to literary works. For “there is no discourse so fictional that it does not connect up with reality” (Ricoeur 1991: 85). But such discourse refers not to the first-order reference that we get in spoken discourse, when the speaker is able to point to a reality which is common to both him and the listener. Rather, we are dealing with a second-order reference which offers a much richer sense of reality.

Essentially, what is at stake here is a new model of the reader: one which must be clearly distinguished from the freewheeling and high-handed figure celebrated by Barthes. Consider Ricoeur’s own, very careful formulation of what is involved in the act of ‘appropriation’ which the reader performs. Despite the connotations of this term, what Ricoeur envisages is as far from interpreting the text just as one pleases as it is from expending all one’s energies on locating the supposed meaning of the author. “Ultimately, what I [as reader] appropriate is a proposed world” (Ricoeur 1991: 87-88). This is “not behind the text, as a hidden intention would be, but in front of it, as that which the work unfolds, discovers, reveals. Henceforth, to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text.” Though the reader is destabilised, the point is that it is the text which is doing the destabilising: “It is not a question of imposing upon the text our finite capacity for understanding, but of exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self, which would be the proposed existence corresponding in the most suitable way to the world proposed” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).  To apprehend such an existence demands a risk, or wager, of interpretation on the part of the reader: “just as the world of the text is real only insofar as it is imaginary, so too it must be said that the subjectivity of the reader comes to itself only as it is placed in suspense, unrealized, potentialized. In other words, if fiction is a fundamental dimension of the reference of the text, it is no less a fundamental dimension of the subjectivity of the reader. As a reader, I find myself only by losing myself” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).

Most people consulting the present volume will no doubt catch the allusion in that last statement to the Gospels. It is no coincidence. Ricoeur’s model of interpretation for secular texts works just as well for sacred texts. For in both cases, the goal of the reader is not to recover an authorial meaning that precedes the act of writing. Rather, it is to enter into the “world” of the text and to allow the realm of the “possible” to enter one’s life. In short, the end of the act of reading is revelation, which Ricoeur would have us conceive in the fullest sense, with all the Biblical connotations in play.

But even if one wishes to refuse the spiritual aspect of interpretation, one can still  agree that Ricoeur offers a most satisfying account of the relationship between writing and reading, event and understanding, even taking into account the brief history of that relationship which we have here provided.


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