Emotion colors perception wonderfully. The same aspen tree, with the same white bark and the same golden leaves fluttering in the same wind, is one tree to the moonstruck lover, another tree to the poet in search of joy, and still a third to the dismal soul doubting whether life has meaning. The same sensory input offers either a happy companion, or a wistful finger pointing to another realm, or a bleached-out bit of wood.
Real authors know this and put it to use. No writer worth his ink intends to convey the simple presence of an aspen tree: he feels a certain way about his tree, and he sweats over how his feeling can be captured, conveyed, and reproduced in the reader. Faithful reading goes beyond reproducing the author’s thoughts in the reader’s mind. Good reading of a good author involves reacting, feeling, engaging.
And it’s no good separating out “reading” and “reacting” as though they were two steps in a dance or successive rooms in the same hallway. We feel because we see, and we see at least in part because of what we feel; sight achieves its goal in feeling, and feeling impels us to read on. Meaning is more than cognition.
The consequences are scary. The best reading is not an objective one. The academically perfectly defensible “view from nowhere” that so pervades our age turns out to constitute not a defense of the author’s rights but the betrayal of his aims. The author practically sweats blood to rouse in his reader somehow, by some means, the delicate melancholy of an aspen in winter; the theorist of meaning thinks to himself that the author meant to convey this feeling, puts his own thought in a jar of formaldehyde, and labels the jar, “Meaning.”
But surely we can’t just read subjectively, imposing our own views and moods over what the author intended to convey! No indeed. But the way out of ourselves is not through objectivity, which isolates us from the text, the author, and everything else. The way out is through submission to the text, submission in some way to the author. Objectivity sets the reader apart from the text and, really, above it; submission commits the reader to the text.
Fine then, fine then, I’ll make sure to cry when I read Where the Red Fern Grows. What are we really talking about?
Scripture, of course: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart, Because I bore your name, O LORD, God of hosts.” (Jer 15:16)