Difficult Texts

Reading difficult texts is essential for the development as a serious writer. Acknowledging how difficult many famous texts are helps to overcome the fear of not being publishable because what one tries to say and write is just not easy to say and write. All great writers, of course, there are exceptions, can pose considerable problems when one tries to “just read” them. Many of the “best” poems by Yeats for example refuse immediate comprehension and only the tenacious, curious and courageous reader has a chance to get a good sense for what they are about. Major works by Faulkner are far from easy reading. Many famous texts – if you really bother to read them – need elbows and the willingness for hard work: You have to “sit” at the table with the text in front of you and your elbows firmly placed on both sides, with a pencil for underlining and for making notes. At least, It is my repeated personal experience that discovering the “beauty” of good texts is the result of the work of trying to repeatedly make sense of them. How often did I not restart a single line in Keats because before I got to its end I had lost my understanding of its beginning. So many if not all of Beckett’s short texts, at first sight, throw you off like a wild horse an unprepared and inexperienced rider. (The long texts are not easier or more forgiving.) It happened to me to start reading texts like that from the end, from their last paragraph or from the middle or just line by line and this not necessarily in its given chronological order. I learnt that there is no good reason to assume that one should understand texts like that with ease and without effort or pain and frustration. After all, many took the writers months or years or decades or a lifetime to find their final shape.
Most complicated and inaccessible texts are also supreme examples of courage. The courage to write in a way which does not allow the difficulty of writing and the difficulty of the subject to be corrupted by the expectation to be “readable” or “publishable”. What is easily readable fails often its subject because all subjects are inherently complex and elusive. So many of Beckett’s texts are struggling with what lies at the furthest periphery of comprehension and awareness.
By the way, it has always struck me how many famous and “beautiful” texts are known only in snippets or quotations. Most prominent cases are Proust’s “madeleins” from the very beginning of “À la recherche du temps perdu” and Dante’s encounter with Virgil at the beginning of the “Divina Commedia”, to mention only two.
The German philosopher Adorno once described the situation of the common visitor to the opera or concert hall as someone “waiting for the beautiful parts”. The parts one knows, the parts one can sing, the parts which are so well known that they do not require any mental or emotional work for becoming enjoyable. What happens to the rest? Bach and Beethoven, in their most important works, are full with passages which are “hard” to understand, which pose real difficulties for an attentive and careful listener and might just stay unheard or unknown or immediately dismissed from perception. Joyces “Ulysses” is full with passages of this kind and Thomas Pynchon’s major novels are just difficult from the beginning to the end. To make sense of them needs a lot of work and to write stuff like that can only be done when courage is at its maximum.
Not all “beautiful” and important texts are like that. Albert Camus is one of the exceptions. “La Peste” like “L’Étranger” are masterpieces of “easy” writing and reading, and at the same time not less profound and “deep” as Dante, Proust and Joyce. But here I wanted to talk about the courage needed to write in a way which avoids being contaminated and corrupted by the fear of not being readable. Freud once said that psychoanalysis would never be “popular” because it was too uncomfortable. How lucky we are that he was so courageous and determined to write what he felt he had to. The question is not if one agrees with the writer or not, the question here is if the writer dares to defend his need to make sense and write as well as he is able to. To be able to do that one needs a lot of courage. One also needs courageous readers.