Academic journal article Style

The Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesel's 'Night.'

Academic journal article Style

The Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesel's 'Night.'

Article excerpt

A Dead Child Speaks

My mother held me by my hand. Then someone raised the knife of parting: So that it should not strike me, My mother loosed her hand from mine. But she lightly touched my thighs once more And her hand was bleeding -

After that the knife of parting Cut in two each bite I swallowed - It rose before me with the sun at dawn And began to sharpen itself in my eyes - Wind and water ground in my ear And every voice of comfort pierced my heart -

As I was led to death I still felt in the last moment The unsheathing of the great knife of parting.

- Nelly Sachs

The survivor [. . .] is a disturber of the peace. He is a runner of the blockade men erect against knowledge of "unspeakable" things. About these he aims to speak, and in so doing he undermines, without intending to, the validity of existing norms. He is a genuine transgressor, and here he is made to feel real guilt. The world to which he appeals does not admit him, and since he has looked to this world as the source of moral order, he begins to doubt himself. And that is not the end, for now his guilt is doubled by betrayal - of himself, of his task, of his vow to the dead. The final guilt is not to bear witness. The survivor's worst torment is not to be able to speak

- Terence Des Pres

In considering ethical reading, we should differentiate between an ethics of reading and an ethics while reading. For me, an ethics of reading includes acknowledging who we are and what are our biases and interests. An ethics of reading speaks of our reading as if, no matter how brilliant, it were proposing some possibilities rather than vatically providing the solution to Daniel's prophetic reading of handwriting on the wall; it means reading from multiple perspectives, or at least empathetically entering into the readings of those who are situated differently. For me, an ethics while reading would try to understand what the author was saying to her original imagined audience and both why and how the actual polyauditory audience might have responded and for what reasons. An ethics while reading is different from but, in its attention to a value-oriented epistemology, related to an ethics of reading. An ethics while reading implies attention to moral issues; generated by events described within an imagined world. It asks what ethical questions are involved in the act of transforming life into art, and notices such issues as Pound's or Eliot's anti-Semitism and the patronizing racism of some American-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers. What we choose to read and especially what to include on syllabi have an ethical dimension. Thus, I will choose to select other Conrad works for my undergraduate lecture course than the unfortunately titled The Nigger of the Narcissus.

Let me tentatively propose five stages of the hermeneutical activities involved in ethical reading and interpretation. Even while acknowledging that my model is suggestive rather than rigorous, I believe that we do perceive in stages that move from a naive response or surface interpretation to critical or in-depth interpretation and, finally, to understanding our readings conceptually and ethically in terms of other knowledge. Awareness of such stages enables us to read ethically. My stages are:

1. Immersion in the process of reading and the discovery of imagined worlds. Reading is a place where text and reader meet in a transaction. As we open a text, we and the author meet as if together we were going to draw a map on an uncharted space. We partially suspend our sense of our world as we enter into the imagined world; we respond in experimental terms to the episodes, the story, the physical setting, the individualized characters as humans and, the telling voice. While it has become fashionable to speak dismissively of such reading as "naive," or the result of the "mimetic illusion," in fact how many of us do not read in that way with pleasure and delight - and with ethical judgments? …

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