Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the Past

One of my favourite pieces of literary criticism/ theory is Gillian Beer’s “Introductory” in her Arguing With the Past (Routledge, 1989). Beer’s chapter is about unfinished and failed readings, and about reading as a debate, a struggle, an argument between the writer and the reader. It’s rather a reader-response theory type analysis she makes, though she’s not that indebted to the Isers, Jausses, Fishes of this world; instead, her style marks her out as an aficionado of the older humanist tradition, as indeed do many of her subject-choices. She also brings a certain eccentricity to the work, as seen in titling her opening “Introductory” rather than Introduction.

Her thesis, too, is by its nature (and its title) past-directed, concerned with “the encounter with otherness” (Arguing, 1) that is reading literature of a bygone time. Apparently, “the problem of how to think outside the accrued meanings of our time is one Professor Beer has pursued throughout her career“. This project intrigues me, partly because it provides a rationale for studying 19th-century literature at the expense of that of the 20th-century. It is because it is “an encounter with otherness”. A second point she makes in the opening paragraphs that resonates with me concerns reading as a solitary activity and, though it can be rendered communal, that is not its normal state. She goes further than this, finding that the self who reads is another self than the self who otherwise is:

We never read only ‘in our own person’. The writing is there before us; its words, its syntax, its narrative sequences organize our entry into the text and order our roles within it. (1-2)

I need to go back and read the chapter a few more times, as my reading is still unfinished, but what immediately attracts me about Beer’s position is that it includes both text and reader: neither exists independently, but neither can dominate the other, either. So, Barthesian as the abovequoted sentence sounds, she’s no Death of the Author-ist She develops this in the course of the book by looking at writers engaging with past reading as they are writing. It’s the unfinished reading, she says, that loom largest in the psyche of the writer. The approach makes sense in that the reader we can analyze in greatest detail is the reader who has gone on to write, who left a record of his/her reading in their own words.

All reading, Beer avers, is arguing with the past: the writing is already past, done, completed, when the reading takes place. Some readers are taken account of and anticipated in a work: the first readers; to know the first readers is to know the work in a more resonant way. It is also to guard against the narrow reading, the ideological reading, and here I think Beer may be warning against the Identity Politics so central to contemporary academic reading:

But reading only along the grain of our pressing cultural and personal needs […], may too easily become a matter of subjugating the text and evading the awkward questions it poses. the reader claims sovereignty. The text becomes the subject, and subjected. It falls silent or speaks only what the sovereign wishes to hear. (6)

There are, indeed, those who can only read in one way, who read a book only for one thing, and continue to read and use it only insofar as it can be read with the preconceived end in mind, and academics can fall into that category. But Beer wants a more capacious reading. The word she wants to centralize is a good one: complexity.

The privileging of complexity in literary works, objected to by some interpreters, is a privileging of contestation. Complexity challenges the reader by refusing single resolution, by offering questions we had not thought of, and suggestions not on our terms. It persuades the reader into experience not chosen. (6)

With such contestation comes, obviously, conflict, and here is where Beer brings in the nice idea of the “unfinished reading”, and its “return”. It’s easy to put a book down, cast it across the room or whatever, but that is not necessarily the end: “Reading does not stop when we close the book.” (8) What happens once you have dismissed or cast aside the book? That is what Beer goes into in the rest of the book.

I came across Arguing with the Past because it deals with Carlyle, and his unfinished reading of Kant. He couldn’t get through Kant, but he agonized over whether he was missing out or not; also discussed is reading Carlyle himself, and its dynamic, energizing qualities: “Carlyle’s style demands the reader’s resistance, and draws energy from that resistance.” (77) As good a summation of how Carlyle works, and how he worked on his contemporaries, as any.

I like Beer’s thinking in Arguing with the Past because it’s all about the messy and conclusionless way we as individuals and as communities deal with ideas and situations. There’s no end, no firm conclusions or lessons to be drawn. You just have to keep dealing with things as they come up, and let them sink into the brain attic (as Holmes would say) to come out again when and if needed. You don’t know at the point of initial reading what this means – at least, not what it means to you – and you may never know, all one can do is remain attentive to the shifts in thinking and perception that take place within.

And I like her attitude to the literature of the past, too. Such literature is by its nature challenging. They don’t think as we do – and yet, they kind of do. Most importantly, they don’t take for granted the same things we do; to really register this fact is to be able to take far fewer things for granted at all, both a challenge and a move, one hopes, towards intellectual independence.

To be challenged by a work is perhaps the most important feature it can have. This is important in thinking of Carlyle. We peg him as authoritarian, but his readers often were inspired in far other ways by him. The authoritarianism scarcely seemed to register with many of his 19th-century readers. In Jonathan Rose’s fascinating The Intellectual Life of the Britiish Working Classes (Yale UP, 2010), he includes a section on many working class socialist activists who were deeply moved and inspired by reading Carlyle. Even as he was idolizing the Great Man, Carlyle was denuding the establishment of its moral authority for his lower-class readers. Here’s one of his quotes, from an early 20th-century socialist named Helen Crawford:

He stripped naked the Law, the Church and many of the fraudulent shams of his day. I was deeply impressed by his denunciation of quackery masquering as Truth, his honour of honest work, his exposure of war, his gift of stripping people of all the vestures designed to overawe the simple – the bombazine gown, the horsehair wig of the judge, the Crown and Scepter of the Kings and Queens, the cheap snobbery of “Gigmanism”. (44)

So the end of Carlylean theory might indeed be blunt power-worship, but for such readers as Helen Crawford, that end barely appears; it’s about what happens first: the demystification of the symbols of imposture and oppression; the empowerment of the poor, downtrodden intellectual who was enabled to inwardly stand up to the ideology of power and its symbols that surrounded them. Carlyle truly was helping his readers to “think outside the accrued meanings of the time”, and if Rose’s research is an indication, he did it more successfully than almost any of his contemporaries, though Ruskin and Dickens also had many readers among working-class socialists. And, still now, reading Carlyle will force you to think outside the accrued meanings of the time, and that is still a gift. But the only way to read Carlyle is the unfinished reading, is to argue with him; it’s impossible to read him with total agreement, but the forced disagreement, even the necessary ultimate rejection, may itself be the beginning of a journey towards knowledge and open-mindedness.