Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Lire et Devenir: The Embodied Reader and Feminine Subjectivity in Eighteenth-Century France

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Lire et Devenir: The Embodied Reader and Feminine Subjectivity in Eighteenth-Century France

Article excerpt

In his Essai sur la lecture (1765), Louis Bollioud-Mermet exclaims over the ubiquity of the act of reading in eighteenth-century French society. "Everybody reads," he affirms. "It is life's ordinary occupation or amusement. The young and the old, women as well as men, the ignorant and the wise give themselves up to reading with more or less ardor, depending on their capacities, their tastes, and their positions." (1) Readers may be everywhere in pre-Revolutionary France, but, for Bollioud-Mermet as for other eighteenth-century French critics, the sudden public visibility of the material apparatuses enabling the activity of reading does little to facilitate attempts to determine the effects of this activity on actual reading subjects. The growth of a literate culture of bibliomanes during the eighteenth century belies the difficulty of discerning what, exactly, reading does to those who engage in it. (2) As Louis-Sebastien Mercier queries in his Discours sur la lecture (1764), "Does reading perfect the human spirit, does it nourish genius any more than reflection does, is it useful, is it harmful?" (3) The gradual emergence of new reading publics throughout the period--including "the young," "women," and "the ignorant"--only heightens the urgency of the central question that preoccupies Mercier and Bollioud-Mermet in their treatises: how should the social effects of an act that each author describes as "a secret conversation" between reader and text be understood and narrated? (4) The raptness of the reading subject, whether distracted or absorbed, both invites and defies interpretation. (5) As Michel de Certeau writes in L'Invention du quotidien, "Despite everything, the history of man's movements through his own texts remains in large part unknown." (6)

In his discussion of modern reading practices, Certeau, like the ancien regime authors cited above, is interested in the way in which the "secret conversation" that binds the reader to her book may conceal a moment of transformation, an instance of what Mercier calls "the mind in metamorphosis." (7) Certeau makes the point that the frequent illegibility of the act of reading itself--the difficulty of interpreting an event that generates so few material signs of its passing--need not inevitably foster a reification of readerly passivity; reading, even as a practice that leaves no traces, is always more than just the "reception [of the text] from others without marking one's place there, without remaking the text." (8) Instead, Certeau forcefully argues that reading can and, indeed, should be construed as a productive activity. Yet the "product" of the act of reading tends, even for Certeau, to remain tantalizingly unlocalizable--or, sometimes, all too easily assimilable to an act of writing, in which something very different is at stake. In Certeau's description of the "silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic" acts of readers, it is the very "silence" of these acts that guarantees their disruptive potential: "far from being writers, founding a place for themselves..., readers are travelers; they circulate on others' lands." (9) In his rehabilitation of reading as an authentically dynamic interaction between reader and text, Certeau has in common with his eighteenth-century predecessors Bollioud-Mermet and Mercier both a fascination with the profound resistance of the experience of the reader to exegetical penetration and an investment in the theorization of reading as a constructive relation. (10) For Certeau, the reader's muteness ideally hides the possibility of her freedom, while for Bollioud-Mermet and Mercier the "secret conversation" ideally works to solidify the reader's private attachment to virtue. But, from both perspectives, the results of reading remain tricky to measure with precision and difficult to regulate with any certainty.

If the event of reading has in some ways consistently been defined by the difficulty of quantifying its productive effects, the figure of the woman reader can be considered in this context a doubly evasive one. …

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