Aspects of the Self and the Reader:
In a recent post, we looked at point of view from a traditional perspective. We also considered the shift that reader-response theory brought to our understanding of the reader's role as experiencer in the reading process. When we look at the reader as the experiencer of story, we must take into account many aspects of the person, not only the physical, but thoughts, memories, feelings, and awareness of being or consciousness. Consciousness is fundamental to all these aspects of the self.
Reading involves all these aspects because it is a process that is both outward (eyes following the text, brain processing of letters, syllables, etc.) and inward (an experiential move to more subtle levels of thoughts, for example, our knowledge of context, of literary constructs; memories of our past experiences that may be relevant; emotions that may be tied up with those memories, etc. All of these aspects of self are expressions of our most fundamental consciousness.
So how do we understand this wholeness of consciousness in relation to reading? Does the writer or the narrator shape the meaning of story? Does reading involve just the reader and the text on the page? It is true that the writer can control, even shift the reader's experience of characters and events in a story by selecting the point of view from which the story is told. While the reader may be manipulated by the writer (or by the narrator), the reader is ultimately the one who fathoms the manipulated awareness of the narrator and also the awareness of the various characters, as well as the explicit and implicit interactions among them. When this larger wholeness of awareness occurs, multiple viewpoints are present in the reader's experience of story. To understand how this plurality of viewpoints operates synergistically, we must first have an understanding of the dynamics of consciousness itself.
We can understand how consciousness comes into play when we read by first looking at the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique and the experience of pure consciousness that it produces. When practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique, an individual experiences deep rest1. As the physiology settles down, so does the mind, settling through subtler levels of thought to the source of thought and the experiences of pure consciousness or Transcendental Consciousness. Pure consciousness is the totality and foundation of all more expressed values of consciousness.
Pure consciousness, which is the basis of all experience, is itself conscious, and being conscious, is aware of itself. In other words, consciousness is naturally self-referral. It is the nature of consciousness to become aware of itself. So, where does reading fit into this self-referral experience of pure consciousness?
We may not completely transcend (i.e., transcend all thought) when we read, but we do experience the story by turning inward and moving away from the gross structures of the text. When we read, we pull the experience of the story through the filter of our own consciousness, turning back on our own consciousness to experience the story. This filter allows for multiple viewpoints to be experienced—the narrator’s viewpoint, the viewpoints of various characters, the reader’s initial and later viewpoints, the evocation of different memories, experiences, or accumulated knowledge stored in the reader's awareness which may offer different perspectives. The reader also is aware of even more underlying viewpoints when he or she “fills in the gaps” of the story, the phenomenon that Stanley Fish recognized. Multiple viewpoints are always at work in any reader’s experience of story, and in the next post, we'll look at the potentiality for this plurality of viewpoints in story.
1The Science of Consciousness, sourced in the ancient Vedic tradition of knowledge and brought to light by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in his Science of Creative Intelligence and Maharishi Vedic Science, provides both an experiential and theoretical component for understanding consciousness. The experiential component is the Transcendental Meditation technique, which allows an individual to settle down and experience the silent awareness at the source of thoughts. The research that shows how this deep rest is produced can be found in the following articles: American Psychologist 42 (1987): 879-881; Science 167 (1970): 1751-1754); American Journal of Physiology 221 (1971): 795-799.