It is by reading that one learns how to write – that is the very type of synthetic formula which bears within it several truths, but that due to its recurring usage is taken, in the end, as having value on its own, like a fetish, empty of that valuable content which, in order to be apprehended, would require the formula to be negated and dialectically relativized rather than uncritically accepted.
Reading, yes, but reading what? And is reading enough or is it also necessary to do something else with what is read? When the formula ends by substituting these two questions instead of raising them it is not worth a thing anymore.
The selection of reading material presupposes several readings, and there would be no way out of this vicious circle without a distinction between two types of reading. Reading merely for research conducts to the choice of a certain number of titles for attentive and profound reading. It is the latter which teaches one how to write, but it is not possible to get to it without the former. The former, on the other hand, presupposes searching and consulting. There is no serious reading, thus, without the mastery of chronologies, bibliographies, encyclopedias, and broad historical reviews. One who has never read through a book, but who from intensive search of indexes and archives has acquired a systemic view of what one should read in the following years, is already a more educated man than he who, right from the start, has delved deep into the Divine Comedy or the Critique of Pure Reason without knowing where they came from nor why he reads them.
But there is also that which, if I am not mistaken, was said by Borges: “To understand a single book, it is necessary to have read several books.” The art of reading is a simultaneous operation on two planes, as in a portrait on which the painter had to work at the same time on the front details and the background lines. The difference between the educated and the uneducated reader is that the latter takes as background, in reading, the current language of the media and of low-level conversation, which is a one-dimensional frame of reference where everything that is most subtle and profound, most personal and significant in a writer is lost. The latter, on the other hand, has more points of comparison; for, being acquainted with the tradition of the art of writing, he speaks the language of writers, which is never “the language of everyone,” no matter that some good writers, misguided about themselves, think that it is.
Strictly speaking, there is no “language of everyone.” There are the languages of regions, groups, and families, and there are the broad codifications which formalize them synthetically. One of these codifications is the language of the media. It works through statistical reduction and the establishment of standard turns of language which, for being recurrent, acquire automatic functionality.
Opposite to that, there is the language of literary art. It works by making good use of the most rich and significant expressions, capable of conveying what could hardly be conveyed without them.
The language of the media or of the public square repeats, in the quickest and most functional manner, that which everyone knows. The language of writers makes communicable that which, without them, would barely be perceived. The first determines a collective horizon of perception within which everyone, since they perceive simultaneously the same things in the same way and without the slightest effort of attention, presumes to perceive everything. The second grants attentive individuals access to the knowledge of things that had been perceived, previously, only by those who paid such things a lot of attention. It also establishes a community of perception, but not that of the public square: it is that of attentive men from all times and places—the community of those whom Schiller denominated “sons of Jupiter.” This community is neither gathered physically as the masses in a stadium nor statistically as a community of consumers and voters. Its members communicate but by the reflexes sent, over a long space and time, by the eyes of the solitary souls which flicker, in the dark vastness, like the lights of farms and villages seen from the window of a plane at night.
One, after all, is the language of false obviousnesses; the other, however, is of those “authentic personal perceptions” of which Saul Bellow spoke. Several mad scientists, amongst which are our literature professors, assure us that there is no difference. But the only scientific method on which they lean to make that assertion is the argumentum ad ignorantiam, the most foolish of sophistic artifices, which consists of deducing from one’s own lack of knowledge of a certain thing the objective inexistence of the thing. The literary language exists, indeed, due to the simple fact that the great writers read one another’s works, learn with each other, and have—as in any other community of métier—their learning traditions, passwords, and codes of initiation. Trying to deny this historical fact by reason of the impossibility of deducing it from Saussure’s rules is negating the existence of atomic particles by reason of the impossibility of knowing their velocity and their position at the same time.
The selection of readings must be guided, first of all, by the desire to apprehend, in the variety of all things read, the unwritten rules of this universal code which unites Shakespeare to Homer, Dante to Faulkner, Camilo to Sophocles and Euripides, Eliot to Confucius and Jalal-Ed-Din Rûmi.
Thus understood, the act of reading is something of an adventure of initiation: it is the conquering of that lost word which gives access to the keys to a hidden kingdom. Outside of that, reading is but professional routine, pedantry, or childish entertainment.
But the acquisition of a code requires, besides reading, active absorption. It is necessary that, aside from listening, you practice the language of the writer being read. To practice, in Old Portuguese, also means to talk. If you read Dante, try writing like Dante. Translate excerpts; imitate the tone, the symbolic allusions, the manner, the worldview. Imitation is the only form of deeply assimilating. If it is impossible to learn English or Spanish by listening only, without ever trying to talk, why would it be different with a writer’s style?
The current fetishism of “originality” and “creativity” inhibits the practice of imitation. It is desired that pupils create out of nothing, or out of the pure language of the media. However, the best they are able to do is to creatively produce standardized banalities.
No one achieves originality without mastering the skill of imitation. Imitation will not make a servile idiot out of you; firstly, because no servile idiot elevates himself to the point of being capable to imitate the great; secondly, for by imitating one author, then another, and another, and still another, you will not become like any of them, but rather, in composing from what you have learned with them your own arsenal of modes of expression, in the end you will be none other than yourself, just empowered and ennobled by the weapons acquired.
It is in this sense and in this sense only that one learns to write by reading. It is a form of reading which requires selective search for unity behind variety, learning through active imitation, and the constitution of personal repertoire in constant expansion and development. Many who today pose as writers not only have never been through such a course of learning but moreover are not even suspicious of its existence.
Out of it, though, everything is barbarity and industrialized ignorance.
Olavo de Carvalho
O Globo, 3rd of February, 2001
Translation by Pedro Cava