Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Men Reading Women Reading: Interpreting Images of Women Readers

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Men Reading Women Reading: Interpreting Images of Women Readers

Article excerpt

In his History of Reading, Alberto Manguel notes that from the very beginnings of this remarkable activity readers have met with a fundamental ambiguity. While they are revered for possessing a special power, they are also condemned as escapists and suspected for harboring a depth of privacy that threatens the very basis of the communal order. "The popular fear of what a reader might do among the pages of a book is like the ageless fear men have of what women might do in the secret places of their body, and of what witches and alchemists might do in the dark behind locked doors." (1) Given the complex ambiguity that the reader presents, it is not at all surprising that the image of the reader is a recurring one in Western art and that most figurative artists have felt compelled to tackle this theme in some form or other.

What is surprising, especially considering the limited access women have had to literacy throughout history, is the number of images of women reading. Male artists have been drawn to this image out of all proportion to the frequency of its occurrence in daily life. Why is this? Why has the sight of a woman reading elicited such sustained and careful attention both from male artists and the viewers (mostly male) who influenced their production? What exactly does this sight do to the male psyche, or, in other words, how do men read women reading?


Let me begin to answer this question by turning to the fourteenth century, when images of women engaged in private reading first become common, mainly in depictions of the Annunciation. Undeniably, there are important theological reasons for depicting Mary reading at the moment of Incarnation, the moment when "the Word becomes flesh," but there are also important psychological reasons why this scene speaks especially well to the complexities experienced when any man views any woman reading. These complexities are best understood, however, if we focus not on the symbolic meanings of Christian iconography, but on the metaphorical meanings inherent in the act of reading itself.


At the very least, the basic mechanics of reading necessitate that the author's words become the reader's. As you read this writing, for example, the words that were on my lips inevitably become yours. Our lips meet and move in harmony. This union is sometimes deeper than the merely mechanical, a union not just of lips, but of ideas, spirits, hearts. Walt Whitman does not hesitate to characterize this union as an erotic one.

       Camerado, this is no book,
       Who touches this, touches a man,
       (Is it night? Are we here alone?)
       It is I you hold, and who holds you,
       I spring from the pages into your arms ... (2)

In writing, the author puts his or her self into the text of a book. The reader then spends much intimate time alone with this expressed self. A good book "holds" the reader, "touches" her, even as she takes tactile pleasure in its weight and the texture of its pages.

Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text is an extended reflection on the inherent eroticism of reading. In this work Barthes identifies the ways in which the site of reading is the site of eros, in which the "body" of the text is an "erotic body." (3) He draws a distinction between "the text of pleasure (plaisir)" and "the text of bliss (jouissance)." The former is a "comfortable" text, one that situates the reader securely into the established culture; the latter is a text that "discomforts," that "unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language." (4) In other words, the text of bliss is a scary, exhilarating flight beyond the bounds of conventional categories.

Whatever text Mary happens to be reading in scenes of the Annunciation, it is undeniably a text of bliss in Barthes's sense. …

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