On Not Being Able to Read by Myna Trustram

My aim in this experimental essay is to open an imaginative and a cognitive space within which I might explore my bizarre and troubling experience of not being able to read. I open a book, let’s say Five Ways of Being a Painting1 that I suspect will reveal to me things I want to know, and I am unable to go beyond a few paragraphs. It is not due to lack of time or dyslexia. When I describe this to friends, a few recognise it but most do not. I know it is about the emotional world that I enter when I read. The essay does not offer a coherent narrative because so far my mind does not think in that way about this topic; it is a collection of fragments from an unwritten work.

This book, having been written, has become part of the given and must now be overcome in the minds of its readers and its author. Having been written, it is static and no longer becoming anything other than itself.

This opening paragraph of Thomas Ogden’s The Primitive Edge of Experience, offers some clues to the difficulty of reading. He goes on,
The potential value of this book lies in the degree to which it creates a possibility for the given (of which it is now a part) to be overcome through interpretation by the reader in a new and more generative way.2

The book has been made, it has become itself. The reader too needs to be made, to become herself (‘herself’ being an on-going, not a finished state). To overcome the book, I need to overcome the earlier, half-forms of myself. Acts of reading, and writing, help me do this but reading does not yet become me.

I went to the house but did not enter.3
I opened the book but did not enter.
I did not read the book for fear I would be knocked off balance because when I read I am washed over by another. A book is a worrying embodiment of what I don’t know, a vast resource which I fear will tell me more than I want to know or what I do not understand; it is a reminder of the impossibility of knowing enough.

When you read you take something inside, the content and the author. Melanie Klein writes, J. Strachey (1930) has shown that reading has the unconscious significance of taking knowledge out of the mother’s body and that the fear of robbing her is an important factor for inhibitions in reading.4

I know that reading threatens to open up a vast unknown area for me that is somehow greatly threatening; I don’t know if I am fearful for the effect of my reading on my mother. She adds that, it is essential for a favourable development of the desire for knowledge that the mother’s body should be felt to be well and unharmed.5

I was always anxious about my mother; I seemed to have an inordinately large role to play in her happiness.

Despite an aversion to long novels, I have read Middlemarch:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.6<\sub>

The roar of an opened book might make me die but could also help me to hear the squirrel’s heart beat yet, for the most part, I settle for the silence of a closed book.

My first teacher was Miss Quin but they soon said I had to move to Miss Vanderkist’s class which had small brown tables and chairs in a large space with white brick painted walls. I can no longer remember Miss Quin’s. A few times I went there, to Miss Quin’s, at the beginning of the day even though I knew I wasn’t meant to. They weren’t severe, but they didn’t understand the importance of my staying a little longer with Miss Quin; they couldn’t wait for me and in the end I gave up.

When I was an adult my mother told me that I was slow in learning to read and they were concerned about this. She might have said worried.

I appear to be wedded to a sense of inability.

I shall not first give an historical survey and show the development of my ideas from the theories of others, because my mind does not work that way. What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then, last of all, interest myself in looking to see where I stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any.7

This is Winnicott’s description of how he wrote his paper about primitive emotional development. Perhaps this is as good a method as any for reading: to gather this and that, here and there; to wander around, never lingering when meaning slips away. A primitive relationship with reading.

I am reading Seamus Heaney’s poem, North in which he suggests the poet lies down in the word-hoard of past and current centuries, and ‘trust the feel of what nubbed treasure / your hands have known.’ 8 This is it, to know sufficiently and trust the feel of my life so that I might read of others’ lives without falling away from myself.

When I read something I like, as I am now, R.F. Langley’s Journals9, it is as though my interest has depleted it. It is no longer there waiting for a reader; it is no longer unfound, unthought, unknown. I infect it with something of myself: an inadequate perception, an excessive need. He mustn’t know that I have read it, that I’m so taken by it, that I have taken from it something of him, his purity, he won’t like it.

Reading is relational, it requires the same skills as any other relationship. If one has only partially learned to make satisfying relationships, it is possible that the ability to read will be compromised.

I am not so much thinking and writing about reading, but thinking and writing about reading through reading. Whilst reading. I would like my experience of reading to be thickened through this process, but not thicketed! That’s the risk, that too much comprehension destroys the mystery and paradox.

I take from the library shelf Deborah Britzman’s, Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Towards a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning. She writes about ‘the quest to study not just the intolerable but also what I cannot tolerate knowing’.10 But what if I can’t tolerate knowing anything? What if knowledge, the actual knowing of something (as opposed to experiencing something or knowing how to clean my teeth) like a fact about ancient Rome or that Freud said that dreams are completely egotistical, what if knowing things like that is intolerable because they move me into a state of knowing that sets me apart from others?

Reading is about thinking, free-associating and imagining, all at the same time; when all goes well, it’s about how you might use the facts you discover to release imagination.

When I look at Matisse, ‘The Inattentive Reader’ (1919) and then at ‘The Silence Living in Houses’ (1947) I sense something of the loneliness of reading. In the first painting a lone woman sits staring away from the book that is open in front of her, text in the book is indicated with dense lines. In the other, two people (perhaps a mother and a child) look together at an open book on a table, the pages are blank.

‘The Silence Living in Houses’ is on the cover of Mary Jacobus’s book, Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Reading.11 I want to be the child in Matisse’s painting looking at a book with another person, recovering something through looking at emptiness. I don’t seem to know about looking at a book with another, only the lonely deciphering in a classroom. I can call upon others to help me with the writing of this essay, but I can’t get too close to Jacobus because she might take me into what she calls ‘an inhabited solitude’,12 a temporary form of madness.13 Or so it seems.

I am always following. My siblings have all gone before me as has any book that I open; it has passed through the mind of the writer. How can I absorb it into my mind without feeling that I have given up, lost something of myself?

Learning to read is not best approached as a cognitive task. Trying harder, trying to concentrate, trying to understand doesn’t help. It’s something about being free to move around within myself. Marion Milner found that being absent-minded was necessary for her to paint.14 These are field notes from inside a reading room. The room needs to be big and to hold more than me and a book.

The Feldenkrais15 teacher has a warm voice and repeatedly says, that’s enough, pause, let it go, do as little as possible. That is also good advice for a reader.

I found that to draw the line of one object with fully felt awareness of the line of a neighbouring one and of the patterns of space that they mutually created between them, seemed as potent an act as laying a wire across the terminals of a battery; and the resulting flash seemed to light a new world of possibilities.16

In her book, On Not Being Able to Paint, Milner describes how she taught herself to paint. Through close processual observation she records the pleasures of artistry, of living itself and she records its terrors. To open a book with fully felt awareness of its power to disrupt my habitual sense of myself and the world, requires a willingness to find pleasure and terror. She goes on to describe how she would rush to turn a scribble into something recognisable: ‘It seemed almost as if, at these moments, one could not bear the chaos and uncertainty about what was emerging long enough.’17 When reading, chaos and uncertainty similarly abound.

In an earlier book, A Life of One’s Own, she described her search for the kinds of experience that made her happy.
I wanted to keep rigidly within the bounds of my own actual observation, to try as far as possible to forget everything I had read, everything I had been told, and to assume nothing that did not emerge out of my own direct experience.18

Hurrah for the privileging of experience over theory. It would be comforting to believe that I am withholding from reading until I have a greater sense of self.

Strangely enough, I find Marion Milner’s books, the books on which this essay is premised, as difficult to read as any of the others I’ve quoted, harder in fact. It is something to do with their promise, the hunch that they could really help me to change if I only took them in. A friend recommended A Life of One’s Own forty years ago when I was in my twenties. Still much of it goes unread.

Library staff take my readerly inclinations more seriously than I do. They find and lend me books I never read.

Patricia Lockwood’s book reviews spin around the emotional as well as the intellectual impact of a book: The first time I read her [Lucia Berlin’s] stories I felt inexplicably lonely, and then realised it was because I wanted to have already read them a dozen times. I wished to get to the point where we were companions, where I could open the book at any page and pick up a conversation that was already ongoing.19

So this is what you might let yourself in for if you read! It sounds lovely, but could I tolerate such a companion?

‘whichever page you open there you are’.20

In The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf says, The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.21

But what if your instinct on opening a book is to close it?

A reader, like an analysand, dares to experience the disturbing feeling of not knowing each time he begins reading a new piece of writing. We regularly create the soothing illusion for ourselves that we have nothing to lose from the experience of reading, and that we can only gain from it.22

The idealisation of reading! It is rare to suggest that it is anything other than a longed for, glorious, unambiguous pastime. That one might need protection from the world of another’s thinking and imagination!

It is absurd to claim that I cannot read, clearly I can, and Milner could paint. We are writing about an inability to read or paint well enough to allow the activity to enhance ourselves as much as we suspect it might. A good enough parent is one who creates an environment that gives an infant sufficient nourishment and frustration in order to seek out satisfaction elsewhere. A good enough painter or reader might be one that is able to leave hold of what is known and risk being on the edge of madness.23

In any book worth reading, there is more than you can possibly take in. To read it you have to be able to leave things alone, to give up. When doing anything – looking at damson blossom, humming a tune, loving another – I can only really skim over its surface. How might I do justice to anything?

To describe my acts of reading as ‘unachieved’ lends them a kind of melancholic dignity. I found that word – unachieved – whilst reading R.F. Langley’s poem ‘The Upshot’: ‘We leave unachieved in the / summer dusk.’24 It reminded me of Winnicott’s description of emptiness as ‘nothing happening when something might profitably have happened’.25 Reading invokes chains of indebtedness. In fact, Langley took the sentence from Proust and gives no hint in the poem that it is not of his own making, which suggests that he is at ease in a world of writers learning and taking from each other.26 Writing also invokes chains of indebtedness which are all the more powerful when not acknowledged. There is more than enough of his own poetics and insight in the poem for Langley to get away with unacknowledged aesthetic and intellectual debt. Most likely I am concerned with referencing sources because of my academic training but also because I live in reference to my older siblings. I claimed little as my own because it all seemed to have been done before. I am a derivative!

Britzman writes of two irresolvable conflicts animated and transferred onto the scene of reading: encountering what is illegible yet impressive in psychical reality and putting these impressions into language to speak and write about what is ambiguous and unknown in external reality.27

And yet