Presence before interpretation

My conversations with Thoreau’s texts might be heard as interpretations of them, or of passages in them, but that might leave out something essential. Perhaps I don’t so much interpret a passage as deliver its presence and mood, the way it touches and envelopes me, the way it effects changes in mood and attunement directly through intimate contact. Take the touch and release of certain sentences from Walden. If their intimate contact transmits the sense of place – ominous or welcoming, lucid or misting, foul- or sweet-smelling, wafting or still — then the text is figuring the woods or meadows not just as bare things but as things radiating their presence, presence being something that addresses us. A presence is a ring or sound or climate that activates a membrane between the words and my body. Like the membrane of the ear, it gives the touch and sense of the place, and gives it not descriptively but viscerally.

A meadow’s presence – the brush of its allure or reserve — seduces us or makes us step back. The allure might arise through Thoreau’s lapse into an extended reverie on the meadow, a reverie that seems to arch from the meadow-linked page to envelope us in a kindly or unkindly shiver and anticipation, a presence before interpretation. The presence of geese arrives as a pair of welcoming, beckoning eyebrows. We are addressed thus – they strike us thus — well before we might retreat to ask explicitly what those eyebrows might mean, or how we know they invite us into a land of poetry.

My job in writing about writing, as I see it now, is to let that membrane be aroused in the address of the place, as it arises from the passages Thoreau offers us. My task is not to test a book’s representations against some other thing I awkwardly or despairingly call ‘reality,’ and it is not to set out immediately to interpret these reputed representations, or to enquire about their provenance (though these are legitimate tasks for another day). My job, as I see it, is to evoke the tone and movement and music of a text-delivered place that we can share. I want to share something about the meadow and maples, say, by letting their mood and climate address me, address us. Are they somber or lilting, discretely inviting or quite proud and foreboding? A presence that addresses is more than what bare descriptions convey. It is available to us, if we are available to it. Sharing it is letting words invade and work on us, the way we let music invade and work on us, and in the first instance, this is not interpreting the song or singer or world come our way, but letting its presence suffuse us.


4 comments on “Presence before interpretation

  1. dmf says:

    very good, i have been working on a different sense of critique along these lines, one that tries to give the reader a sense-impression (a taste as the kids say, echoes of an earlier drug culture where one might be given a pre-sale sample) of what the piece/subject is like, what the experience should be if they follow the critic’s lead and try it out for themselves.
    more like greil marcus than academic critics looking to use other people’s work to illustrate their own pet theories (their pre-judices):

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