Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America

Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America

by Gillian Silverman


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In nineteenth-century America, Gillian Silverman contends, reading—and particularly book reading—precipitated intense fantasies of communion. In handling a book, the reader imagined touching and being touched by the people affiliated with that book's narrative world—an author, a character, a fellow reader. This experience often led to a sense of consubstantiality, a fantasy that the reader, the material book, and the imagined other were momentarily merged. Such a fantasy challenges psychological conceptions of discrete subjectivity along with the very notion of corporeal integrity—the idea that we are detached, skin-bound, and autonomously functioning entities. It forces us to envision readers not as liberal subjects, pursuing reading as a means toward privacy, interiority, and individuation, but rather as communal beings inseparable from objects in our psychic and phenomenal world.

While theorists have long emphasized the way reading can promote a sense of abstract belonging, Bodies and Books emphasizes the intense somatic bonds that nineteenth-century subjects experienced while reading. Silverman bridges the gap between the cognitive and material effects of reading, arguing that the two worked in tandem, enabling readers to feel deep communion with objects (both human and nonhuman) in the external world. Drawing on the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century readers along with literary works by Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Susan Warner, and others, Silverman explores the book as a technology of intimacy and ponders what nineteenth-century readers might be able to teach us two centuries later.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812244151
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date: 05/23/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gillian Silverman is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Read an Excerpt

Preface: Reading and the Search for Oneness

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.
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1860)
In Leaves of Grass , Walt Whitman articulated a theory of reading that would be satirically celebrated in an advertisement for the gay-positive magazine, The Advocate , a little over a hundred years later. According to this vision, reading is a physical experience—involving, above all, the sensory perception of touch—that leads to a deep spiritual and erotic connection, either between author and reader (as in Whitman's example) or between readers of the same text (as in the cheeky Advocate ad shown in Figure 1). This study investigates this fantasy of communion as it developed and played out in nineteenth-century American literature and letters. I suggest that reading in this period could be a way of envisioning bodily intimacy with desired subjects. It facilitated unfamiliar forms of social intercourse, allowing readers to imagine physical contact and merger with populations who were absent or otherwise inaccessible.

The profound communion that I place at the center of nineteenth-century reading practices is a far cry from the diffuse, anonymous "communities" that critics often associate with reading—Benedict Anderson's "imagined communities," Stanley Fish's "interpretive communities," Michael Warner's abstract reading "public," and so forth. As the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century subjects attest, reading was most important not because it created broad affiliations along national or demographic lines, but because it promoted a heightened connection to a specific other. Readers described individual authors and their fellow readers in intimate and exclusive terms; they likened the experience of engaging a common text to Holy Communion, involving both shared consciousness and bodily merger. This fantasy of consubstantiality challenges psychological conceptions of discrete subjectivity along with the very notion of corporeal integrity—the idea that we are detached, skin-bound, autonomously functioning entities. It forces us to envision the reader not as a liberal subject—pursuing reading as a means toward privacy, interiority, and individuation—but rather as a being in self-diffusing touch with objects in her psychic and phenomenal world.

Reading is more than a private traffic with printed matter. It is an engagement achieved through the imagination, across a distance; a tightly knit affair between a speaker and a listener; a survivor's gesture of reconnaissance and affection toward the past. Reading is mourning—a community forming around a likeness, around a death or a fall. (Wayne Koestenbaum)
In some important ways, this project began thirty years ago, in 1982. At that time, my father, a psychologist, published a book titled The Search for Oneness. He and his cowriters, Frank Lachmann and Robert Milich, argued that unconscious "symbiotic-like" wishes and fantasies—that is, unconscious fantasies that are directed toward a state of oneness with another person—can have adaptive potential. Because they tap into early experiences of mother-infant intimacy, when the infant felt protected and emotionally bolstered by the mother's supportive presence, oneness fantasies in later life can ameliorate anxieties and even promote enhanced performance. Of course, such fantasies can also trigger maladaptive behavior particularly when they invoke an overwhelming or engulfing (rather than a gratifying) maternal presence. But for the most part, and at least in populations with strong ego boundaries, unconscious fantasies of oneness tend to alleviate pathologies and create healthier psychic states.

To demonstrate these claims, my father's team conducted a series of empirical experiments designed to test the effectiveness of a subliminally administered "oneness stimulus." In these studies, two groups of schizophrenics were asked to look into a tachistoscope where they viewed a message lasting four milliseconds. The message appeared as a flash of light and could therefore register only on an unconscious level, if at all. The control group received a placebo stimulus of relatively neutral import: "People are Walking." The experimental group received a stimulus designed to activate symbiotic wishes: "Mommy and I are One." In support of their hypothesis, the research team found that the group exposed to the oneness stimulus showed considerable increases in adaptive behavior. Later studies indicated that subliminal stimulation of oneness fantasies could also have a positive effect on more general populations, contributing to weight loss, reduced anxiety, diminution of phobias, decreased addictions (especially to alcohol and cigarettes), enhanced proficiency in reading and test-taking, and general happiness and well-being.

Four years after the publication of The Search for Oneness , in 1986, my father died unexpectedly in a drowning accident that left my family crushed and bereft. He was fifty-six years old, still in the early stages of what he imagined as a long career as a researcher and clinician. I was nineteen when my father died, a sophomore in college and only beginning a course in reading that would change my way of seeing the world and ultimately send me to graduate school for a degree in literature. His death had the effect of plunging me all the more soundly into my studies, and as I read, a curious ritual ensued. I imagined my father as fellow reader, sharing my outrage over a preposterous theoretical claim or bonding with me in response to a mutually appreciated authorial sensibility. Likewise, he became my idealized audience when I wrote, his projected responses conditioning my authorial decisions. In other words, textuality—the imagined dynamics around reading and writing—was the primary vehicle through which I restored my father's presence.

The ease with which I took up these practices no doubt resulted from the countless hours my father and I had spent reading together, time during which I acquired a refined sense of his readerly inclinations and dislikes. Even before this, I knew my father best as a man of language, a lover of puns, verbal pranks, and neologisms. My earliest memories are of competitive nightly games of hangman, and of a tune my father used to sing that we called "The Alphabet Love Song" ("A you're Adorable, B you're so Beautiful, C you're a Cutie full of Charm . . ."). But while playful, my father's interest in language always had a psychological dimension, stemming as it did from Freud's recognition that wordplay was crucial to the unconscious mind. I was around twelve years old when he suggested to me that an anxious dream about a bear might be related to shameful feelings about my changing body, particularly in its naked—or bare —form.

Our relationship, then, was deeply mediated by both narrative and psychoanalysis. Perhaps for this reason, reading in the wake of his death became a means of imaginatively forging contact with my father, a practice that did much to counteract what were otherwise solitary episodes with books. At the time, I was only dimly aware that I was partaking in a strange ritual of communion. Only in retrospect (and with the help of reading in psychoanalysis) was it clear that I was using books as a way of uniting with my father, making reading into a kind of grief work. The irony, of course, was that such a practice had its origins in my father's own academic interests. That is, through reading I was participating in a variant of the oneness fantasy that he understood as so essential to psychic life.

Years and years later, my experience of communion through books became the basis for this study. In it, I argue that reading and authorship can be acts of intimacy, ways of establishing a therapeutic experience of merger or union with an inaccessible other. Although my focus in this book is on the nineteenth century, the culmination of my own narrative came this year, when, for the first time, I read my father's book, The Search for Oneness , in full. This experience did much to confirm many of my observations about nineteenth-century readers—their sense that reading could create shared consciousness, that books, despite their inanimate status, could seem uncannily alive or "breathing," even their fantasy that in touching the material book, they were somehow making physical contact with a beloved author or fellow reader.

To be sure, in reading my father's book, there were also moments of painful disidentification, of critique and even irritation (especially from a twenty-first-century feminist perspective). These reactions complicated, while never fully undermining, the experience of reader-author communion, which was also, in this case, an instance of daughter-father oneness. That I read my father's book while completing my own only enhanced these identificatory relays, allowing me to imagine my father's rejoinders to my writing alongside my own readerly responses to his. These fantasies of reciprocal reader relations transformed my understanding of academic work and made the completion of this study an act of intimacy as much as scholarship. This book, then, is dedicated to the memory of my father and to my mother (whose equally profound influence deserves a preface of its own), with love and gratitude.

Table of Contents

Preface: Reading and the Search for Oneness
Introduction: The Fantasy of Communion
Chapter 1. Railroad Reading, Wayward Reading
Chapter 2. Books and the Dead
Chapter 3. Textual Sentimentalism: Incest and the Author-Reader Bond in Melville's Pierre
Chapter 4. Outside the Circle: Embodied Communion in Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative
Chapter 5. "The Polishing Attrition": Reading, Writing, and Renunciation in the Work of Susan Warner
Epilogue: No End in Sight


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