11 Aug 2016

Iser’s (§4) “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” part IV

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[The following is summary. All boldface and parenthetical commentary are my own. You may encounter typos, because proofreading is incomplete. I apologize for the distractions.]

Wolfgang Iser

“The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”


Brief summary:
The literary work is created when a reader takes the givens of the text and fashions a coherent world with them. But that fabricated coherence of the fictional world is something open to constant reconfiguration. The author leaves out gaps in the plot and in the descriptions of situations, events, and characters. The reader, then, by using imagination and logical inference, fills in those gaps to generate an interpretation of what they think the author wants the reader to conclude at that point of the text. The reader thus supplies elements that are not given in the text, and since these parts are not given, they can be thought of as illusory. The reader oscillates between a mode of immersing themself in these illusions they fabricate and a mode of standing outside the illusory world to question the viability of its interpretational connections and to reconfigure the world as new inferences compel the reader to believe that alternate interpretations are more appropriate.


[Recall from section 3 Iser’s point that the author leaves out details so that the reader, through their creative interaction with the text, pictures those details in their imagination in their own way. This allows the reader to become artificially and imaginatively aware of the perceptible features of the story’s elements. And note also the basic idea of the whole being the sum of the parts in Gestalt theory [see this entry and this one for discussion of Gestalt theory and its role in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. Iser will speak of the gestalt of the literary text. He might mean how the text gives us fragments, and our imaginative interaction with it creates a whole greater than those parts, by filling in the details. Iser then has us consider what he said in section 2. He explained how the tripartite structure of temporal consciousness plays a large role in how we construct a unified literary work through the reader’s creative interaction with the author’s raw text. As new events enter into our intentional awareness of present givenness, we modify, add to, and even revise our understanding of past events in our retentional awareness and shape our vaguer sense of events to come in our protentional awareness. What Iser stresses now about this process is the continuity and unity that this structure of interlocked layers of time consciousness produces.]
The “picturing” that is done by our imagination is only one of the activities through which we form the “gestalt” of a literary text. We have already discussed the process of anticipation and retrospection, and to this we must add the process of grouping together all the different aspects of a text to form the consistency that the reader will always be in search of. While expectations may be continually modified, and images continually expanded, the reader will still strive, even if unconsciously, to fit everything together in a consistent pattern. “In | the reading of images, as in the hearing of speech, it is always hard to distinguish what is given to us from what we supplement in the process of projection which is triggered off by recognition ... it is the guess of the beholder that tests the medley of forms and colours for coherent meaning, crystallizing it into shape when a consistent interpretation has been found.”12 By grouping together the written parts of the text, we enable them to interact, we observe the direction in which they are leading us, and we project onto them the consistency which we, as readers, require.
[Footnote 12 (quoting): 12 E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (London, 1962), p. 2o4.]
(Iser 288-289)

[Iser’s next point is that this gestalt process of creating the text involves illusions created in the mind of the reader. I am not entirely sure I understand, but he might be saying that not only does the reader invent these imaginary worlds, but they also may potentially have a pathological element to them. For, one might escape from the real world around them into their illusory make-believe world in their minds. (The following quotation continues the prior paragraph, then includes the next one.)]
This “gestalt” must inevitably be colored by our own characteristic selection process. For it is not given by the text itself; it arises from the meeting between the written text and the individual mind of the reader with its own particular history of experience, its own consciousness, its own outlook. The “gestalt” is not the true meaning of the text; at best it is a configurative meaning; “... comprehension is an individual act of seeing-things-together, and only that.”13 With a literary text such comprehension is inseparable from the reader's expectations, and where we have expectations, there too we have one of the most potent weapons in the writer's armory – illusion.
Whenever “consistent reading suggests itself ... illusion takes over.”14 Illusion, says Northrop Frye, is “fixed or definable, and reality is at best understood as its negation.”15 The “gestalt” of a text normally takes on (or, rather, is given) this fixed or definable outline, as this is essential to our own understanding, but on the other hand, if reading were to consist of nothing but an uninterrupted building up of illusions, it would be a suspect, if not downright dangerous, process: instead of bringing us into contact with reality, it would wean us away from realities. Of course, there is an element of “escapism” in all literature, resulting from this very creation of illusion, but there are some texts which offer nothing but a harmonious world, purified of all contradiction and deliberately excluding anything that might disturb the illusion once established, and these are the texts that we generally do not like to classify as literary. Women's magazines and the brasher forms of detective story might be cited as examples.
[Footnotes 13-15 (quoting, and note footnote 14 references: E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (London, 1962)):
13 Louis O. Mink, “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension,” New Literary History, I (1970), 553.
14 Gombrich, p. 278.
15 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York, 1967), pp. 169 f.]

(Iser 289)

[I am still not entirely sure I know what Iser means by ‘illusion’. From what he says now, illusion might be the reader breaking even from the constricting influences of the given text and instead imagining things unguided by that text. I am puzzled here, so please be sure to read the quoted text to follow. What I gather from this paragraph is the following. The text gives us certain details. We add our own. What is our own creation could be illusory. This illusory element is what fills in missing parts in the text. Thus we need the illusory components in order to create a coherent phenomenal world for the literary work. The text itself suggests many interpretations and configurations. But we choose one, which is based largely on this illusory element. He writes: “The text provokes certain expectations which in turn we project onto the text in such a way that we reduce the polysemantic possibilities to a single interpretation in keeping with the expectations aroused, thus extracting an individual, configurative meaning. The polysemantic nature of the text and the illusion-making of the reader are opposed factors” (289). Let me quote as the ideas here are not yet entirely clear in my mind.]
However, even if an overdose of illusion may lead to triviality, this does not mean that the process of illusion-building should ideally be dispensed with altogether. On the contrary, even in texts that appear to resist the formation of illusion, thus drawing our attention to the | cause of this resistance, we still need the abiding illusion that the resistance itself is the consistent pattern underlying the text. This is especially true of modern texts, in which it is the very precision of the written details which increases the proportion of indeterminacy; one detail appears to contradict another, and so simultaneously stimulates and frustrates our desire to “picture,” thus continually causing our imposed “gestalt” of the text to disintegrate. Without the formation of illusions, the unfamiliar world of the text would remain unfamiliar; through the illusions, the experience offered by the text becomes accessible to us, for it is only the illusion, on its different levels of consistency, that makes the experience “readable.” If we cannot find (or impose) this consistency, sooner or later we will put the text down. The process is virtually hermeneutic. The text provokes certain expectations which in turn we project onto the text in such a way that we reduce the polysemantic possibilities to a single interpretation in keeping with the expectations aroused, thus extracting an individual, configurative meaning. The polysemantic nature of the text and the illusion-making of the reader are opposed factors. If the illusion were complete, the polysemantic nature would vanish; if the polysemantic nature were all-powerful, the illusion would be totally destroyed. Both extremes are conceivable, but in the individual literary text we always find some form of balance between the two conflicting tendencies. The formation of illusions, therefore, can never be total, but it is this very incompleteness that in fact gives it its productive value.

Iser’s next point is that literary works can never be made rigidly and unchangeably coherent. The reader might try to fix a meaning to every word. But still, certain parts of the text will create tensions in the reader’s mind that will cause them to reconsider the way they have cohered the parts together.
With regard to the experience of reading, Walter Pater once observed: “For to the grave reader words too are grave; and the ornamental word, the figure, the accessory form or colour or reference, is rarely content to die to thought precisely at the right moment, but will inevitably linger awhile, stirring a long ‘brainwave’ behind it of perhaps quite alien associations.”16 Even while the reader is seeking a consistent pattern in the text, he is also uncovering other impulses which cannot be immediately integrated or will even resist final integration. Thus the semantic possibilities of the text will always remain far richer than any configurative meaning formed while reading. But this impression is, of course, only to be gained through reading the text. Thus the configurative meaning can be nothing but a pars pro toto fulfilment of the text, and yet this fulfilment gives rise to the very richness which it seeks to restrict, and indeed in some modern texts, our | awareness of this richness takes precedence over any configurative meaning.
[Footnote 16 (quoting): 16 Walter Pater, Appreciations (London, I92o), p. 18.]
(Iser 289-290)

[So we configure the literary work by means of the illusions that fill in the gaps. But by doing so, we produce “alien associations” that undermine the integrity of the work’s configured unity.]
This fact has several consequences which, for the purpose of analysis, may be dealt with separately, though in the reading process they will all be working together. As we have seen, a consistent, configurative meaning is essential for the apprehension of an unfamiliar experience, which through the process of illusion-building we can incorporate in our own imaginative world. At the same time, this consistency conflicts with the many other possibilities of fulfillment it seeks to exclude, with the result that the configurative meaning is always accompanied by “alien associations” that do not fit in with the illusions formed. The first consequence, then, is the fact that in forming our illusions, we also produce at the same time a latent disturbance of these illusions. Strangely enough, this also applies to texts in which our expectations are actually fulfilled – though one would have thought that the fulfilment of expectations would help to complete the illusion. “Illusion wears off once the expectation is stepped up; we take it for granted and want more.”17
[Footnote 17 (quoting, and not it references: E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (London, 1962)): Gombrich, p. 54.]

[Iser then notes that were it not obvious that we in a sense are living in an illusory world while reading, then we might never know that the world we are dwelling in is false. But because the text is never completely made coherent, we are constantly reminded that the illusion cannot be so, as its integrity is continually under question. Iser seems to be saying that we oscillate between participating in the illusions and standing away from them and examining them.]
The experiments in “gestalt” psychology referred to by Gombrich in Art and Illusion make one thing clear: “. . . though we may be intellectually aware of the fact that any given experience must be an illusion, we cannot, strictly speaking, watch ourselves having an illusion.”18 Now, if illusion were not a transitory state, this would mean that we could be, as it were, permanently caught up in it. And if reading were exclusively a matter of producing illusion-necessary though this is for the understanding of an unfamiliar experience-we should run the risk of falling victim to a gross deception. But it is precisely during our reading that the transitory nature of the illusion is revealed to the full. As the formation of illusions is constantly accompanied by “alien associations” which cannot be made consistent with the illusions, the reader constantly has to lift the restrictions he places on the “meaning” of the text. Since it is he who builds the illusions, he oscillates between involvement in and observation of those illusions; he opens himself to the unfamiliar world without being imprisoned in it. Through this process the reader moves into the presence of the fictional world and so experiences the realities of the text as they happen.
[Footnote 18 (quoting, and note it references: E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (London, 1962)): 18 Ibid., p. 5.]

[Iser’s next point seems to be the following. We oscillate between these two modes of participating in the illusions, and taking them as if they were real, and of questioning them on the basis of the alien associations that question the integrity of the cohesion of the illusory world. In order for the reading process to work, we need both. I am not sure why, but were we to remain in the illusion, we would not realize that we are actually constructing a literary work. But were we to only remain outside that illusory world, we would be unable to perform the constructive operations in which we generate illusory cohesive elements. Iser speaks of a balancing of these two modes, but I am not sure what that is. It does not seem to be giving equal time to both modes, because he says that the balancing is problematic in that it threatens the uniqueness of each mode, if I read him well. So the balancing might be some kind of hybrid operation. But were that the case, I would not know what that would be. Perhaps it would be like having one part of our awareness making and believing the illusion and another part of our awareness questioning the integrity of those illusory cohesions. I am not sure, because I do not know why that would be problematic. So you will have to discern the meaning from the quote below. Iser then gives a quote from B. Ritchie that is about the importance of surprise. Iser’s point in using the quote seems to be that we need both to create expectations (which would involve the illusory element) and we need to have those expectations defied (which would cause us to notice that the illusory cohesion that we have given the world is fragile). ]
In the oscillation between consistency and “alien associations,” between involvement in and observation of the illusion, the reader is bound to conduct his own balancing operation, and it is this that forms the aesthetic experience offered by the literary text. However, | if the reader were to achieve a balance, obviously he would then no longer be engaged in the process of establishing and disrupting consistency. And since it is this very process that gives rise to the balancing operation, we may say that the inherent non-achievement of balance is a prerequisite for the very dynamism of the operation. In seeking the balance we inevitably have to start out with certain expectations, the shattering of which is integral to the aesthetic experience.
Furthermore, to say merely that “our expectations are satisfied” is to be guilty of another serious ambiguity. At first sight such a statement seems to deny the obvious fact that much of our enjoyment is derived from surprises, from betrayals of our expectations. The solution of this paradox is to find some ground for a distinction between “surprise” and “frustration.” Roughly, the distinction can be made in terms of the effects which the two kinds of experiences have upon us. Frustration blocks or checks activity. It necessitates new orientation for our activity, if we are to escape the cul de sac. Consequently, we abandon the frustrating object and return to blind impulsive activity. On the other hand, surprise merely causes a temporary cessation of the exploratory phase of the experience, and a recourse to intense contemplation and scrutiny. In the latter phase the surprising elements are seen in their connection with what has gone before, with the whole drift of the experience, and the enjoyment of these values is then extremely intense. Finally, it appears that there must always be some degree of novelty or surprise in all these values if there is a progressive specification of the direction of the total act . . . and any aesthetic experience tends to exhibit a continuous interplay between “deductive” and “inductive” operation.19
[Footnote 19 (quoting): B. Ritchie, “The Formal Structure of the Aesthetic Object,” The Problems of Aesthetics, ed. by Eliseo Vivas and Murray Krieger (New York, 1965), pp. 230. ]
(Iser 291-292)

[Iser will build from this notion of the deductive and inductive operations involved in reading a literary text. I am not exactly sure I know what is meant by these terms. But, the inductive seems to be how we create expectations on the basis of what has happened. For example, we get evidence that a character is selfish. So in certain situations we expect them to act selfishly. Then, perhaps they do not act selfishly. We then perhaps use deduction somehow to realize that they only act selfishly for certain reasons, but deep down they prioritize other people’s interests. So now we use induction to expect them to behave selfishly in public but selflessly in private. I am just guessing. His next point is very interesting. He notes how deduction and induction take givens and draw inferences that generate coherence in the literary work. Since the inferred elements are not given, that means they are “unformulated” parts of the work that the reader formulates by means of these inferential operations. But, although the author left these inferred parts unformulated, they still gave the explicit givens on which the inferences are made. Thus we can think of these unformulated inferred parts as expressing certain “intentions” of the text. It is interesting here how that middle ground of the literary work is described by means of this inferential nature. The author gives clues with the intention that the reader follows one or another possible road of interpretation, and the reader chooses those roads and fashions the story along them in their own way, even though the author never paved these roads of possible interpretation. Iser’s last point in this paragraph is similar to the one he has been making. It is by inference that we construct these coherative interpretations. But since these inferences are never based on conclusive evidence nor do they produce conclusive interpretations, this inferential activity is also a source of the freedom of the reader to construct the work their own way.]
It is this interplay between “deduction” and “induction” that gives rise to the configurative meaning of the text, and not the individual expectations, surprises, or frustrations arising from the different perspectives. Since this interplay obviously does not take place in the text itself, but can only come into being through the process of reading, we may conclude that this process formulates something that is unformulated in the text, and yet represents its “intention.” Thus, by reading, we uncover the unformulated part of the text, and this very indeterminacy is the force that drives us to work out a configurative meaning while at the same time giving us the necessary degree of freedom to do so.

Iser then notes the dynamic involved in reading where significances shift. We have some interpretation that is later threatened by some other possible way of interpreting some element in the story. [Iser says that elements change their significance as other possibilities emerge and then come to our awareness. So in our example before of the selfish character, perhaps there were some ambiguous situations at first which hinted at her true selfless nature, and gradually those suggestions become real possibilities until we finally decide that they are the truth of the character.] Iser then says that this element of flexible significance is what makes novels true to life. [I am not sure what his final point is. It might be the following. The situations in the story are foreign to our actual life experience. But since we oscillate between immersing ourselves in this illusory world and standing outside it to evaluate it, this allows us to bring those illusory story events into our actual life. I am not sure that I have that right. But in the case of the selfish character, we might not know such a person, but by constructing her and seeing how such a personality is possible, we might start wondering if other seemingly selfish people in our own lives are really just hiding their true selfless inner nature. Let me quote so you can judge.]
As we work out a consistent pattern in the text, we will find our | “interpretation” threatened, as it were, by the presence of other possibilities of “interpretation,” and so there arise new areas of indeterminacy (though we may only be dimly aware of them, if at all, as we are continually making “decisions” which will exclude them). In the course of a novel, for instance, we sometimes find that characters, events, and backgrounds seem to change their significance; what really happens is that the other “possibilities” begin to emerge more strongly, so that we become more directly aware of them. Indeed, it is this very shifting of perspectives that makes us feel a novel is that much more “true-to-life.” Since it is we ourselves who establish the levels of interpretation and switch from one to another as we conduct our balancing operation, we ourselves impart to the text the dynamic lifelikeness which, in turn, enables us to absorb an unfamiliar experience into our personal world.

Iser then reviews the ideas so far. As we read, we oscillate between generating coherence in the text by means of illusions and breaking those illusions when they no longer hold up to scrutiny. We do so by means of inference on the basis of data, which are fixed points or givens in the text itself. These inferences are part of our effort to provide an interpretation of the how all these givens fit together in the way that we think the author intended them to be configured. In this way, the act of reading is one of recreation of the author’s creative act.
As we read, we oscillate to a greater or lesser degree between the building and the breaking of illusions. In a process of trial and error, we organize and reorganize the various data offered us by the text. These are the given factors, the fixed points on which we base our “interpretation,” trying to fit them together in the way we think the author meant them to be fitted. “For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent. They are not the same in any literal sense. But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced. Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art.”20
[Footnote 20 (quoting): John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York, 1958), p. 54.

Iser then notes that this constructive reading process operates in part by the interruptions that break the flow of interpretations. We at one point might be looking forward to what happens next, then suddenly we look back at what happened some time before. We form expectations, then they are defied by events that transpire. [Iser then says that there are two main structural components in this process. On the one hand, there are the structures which produce our sense of familiarity in the experience. He says that familiar literary patterns or recurrent literary themes, along with allusions to familiar social and historical contexts, are what constitute this structural element. So perhaps an example of a literary pattern might be certain notions about the way characters are designed and presented, which lead us to expect an antagonist to emerge at some point. And maybe the references to certain things in real life make us have other sorts of expectations about the situations and people’s behavior in them. The other structural part are the techniques the author uses to interject the unfamiliar into the familiar. I am not exactly sure how this works from Iser’s description. The effect is that the reader is defamiliarized from what was recognized. Iser says this somehow intensifies the reader’s expectations, but I am not sure how. He also says that the reader builds distrust in those expectations. This point is more obvious, as he is talking about operations in the text that cause one to question their own interpretations and expectations. I do not follow Iser’s next point so well. He says that another way we are made to be defamiliarized with respect to the story’s contents is by means of narrative techniques that create links between things we find difficult to connect. And this forces us to reconsider data that we previously found straightforward. He gives as his example an unreliable narrator, “whereby the author himself takes part in the narrative, thus establishing perspectives which would not have arisen out of the mere narration of the events described” (294). I am not familiar enough with this notion to understand exactly what he means. He later says that such a narrator “may act in permanent opposition to the impressions we might otherwise form” (294). The effect of this sort of unreliable narrator is that we come to question what he tells us all while at the same time it is all we have to construct our interpretation, and this enhances the illusion-forming and illusion-breaking pattern of reading. (In the paragraph after this one, Iser will give us an example.)]
The act of recreation is not a smooth or continuous process, but one which, in its essence, relies on interruptions of the flow to render it efficacious. We look forward, we look back, we decide, we change our decisions, we form expectations, we are shocked by their nonfulfilment, we question, we muse, we accept, we reject; this is the dynamic process of recreation. This process is steered by two main structural components within the text: first, a repertoire of familiar literary patterns and recurrent literary themes, together with allusions to familiar social and historical contexts; second, techniques or strategies used to set the familiar against the unfamiliar. Elements of the repertoire are continually backgrounded or foregrounded with a resultant strategic overmagnification, trivialization, or even annihilation of the allusion. This defamiliarization of what the reader thought he | recognized is bound to create a tension that will intensify his expectations as well as his distrust of those expectations. Similarly, we may be confronted by narrative techniques that establish links between things we find difficult to connect, so that we are forced to reconsider data we at first held to be perfectly straightforward. One need only mention the very simple trick, so often employed by novelists, whereby the author himself takes part in the narrative, thus establishing perspectives which would not have arisen out of the mere narration of the events described. Wayne Booth once called this the technique of the “unreliable narrator,”21 to show the extent to which a literary device can counter expectations arising out of the literary text. The figure of the narrator may act in permanent opposition to the impressions we might otherwise form. The question then arises as to whether this strategy, opposing the formation of illusions, may be integrated into a consistent pattern, lying, as it were, a level deeper than our original impressions. We may find that our narrator, by opposing us, in fact turns us against him and thereby strengthens the illusion he appears to be out to destroy; alternatively, we may be so much in doubt that we begin to question all the processes that lead us to make interpretative decisions. Whatever the cause may be, we will find ourselves subjected to this same interplay of illusion-forming and illusion-breaking that makes reading essentially a recreative process.
[Footnote 21 (quoting): 21 Cf. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1963), pp. 21 ff., 339 ff.]

Iser then provides an example from Joyce’s Ulysses. [I have not read this book yet, and I do not know the part Iser refers to. Apparently at one point Bloom’s cigar somehow alludes to Ulysses’ spear, but also somehow there is a narrative technique that makes them seem as if they are identical. Iser said in the prior paragraph that “we may be confronted by narrative techniques that establish links between things we find difficult to connect”. So here he gives an example. It illustrates how the text presents challenges to creating consistent interpretations that we can feel certain about.]
We might take, as a simple illustration of this complex process, the incident in Joyce’s Ulysses in which Bloom’s cigar alludes to Ulysses’s spear. The context (Bloom’s cigar) summons up a particular element of the repertoire (Ulysses’s spear); the narrative technique relates them to one another as if they were identical. How are we to “organize” these divergent elements, which, through the very fact that they are put together, separate one element so clearly from the other? What are the prospects here for a consistent pattern? We might say that it is ironic-at least that is how many renowned Joyce readers have understood it.22 In this case, irony would be the form of organization that integrates the material. But if this is so, what is the object of the irony? Ulysses's spear, or Bloom’s cigar? The uncertainty surrounding this simple question already puts a strain on the consistency we have established, and indeed begins to puncture it, especially when other problems make themselves felt as regards the remarkable conjunction | of spear and cigar. Various alternatives come to mind, but the variety alone is sufficient to leave one with the impression that the consistent pattern has been shattered. And even if, after all, one can still believe that irony holds the key to the mystery, this irony must be of a very strange nature; for the formulated text does not merely mean the opposite of what has been formulated. It may even mean something that cannot be formulated at all. The moment we try to impose a consistent pattern on the text, discrepancies are bound to arise. These are, as it were, the reverse side of the interpretative coin, an involuntary product of the process that creates discrepancies by trying to avoid them. And it is their very presence that draws us into the text, compelling us to conduct a creative examination not only of the text, but also of ourselves.
[Footnote 22 (quoting): 22 Richard Ellmann, “Ulysses. The Divine Nobody,” Twelve Original Essays on Great English Novels, ed. by Charles Shapiro (Detroit 1960), p. 247, classified this particular allusion as “mock-heroic.”]

[Iser then notes something particularly important for the experience of literary texts, but I am not sure I have it right. It seems to be that when we read a text, exactly how it operates on us personally will not be immediately obvious, but the fact that it does effect us will be apparent. For this reason, after finishing a novel, we will want to discuss it, so that we can come to be more aware of how it is affecting us. So there is an unconscious element to our participation in the work, and literary criticism is one way to bring that unconscious element to light.]
This entanglement of the reader is, of course, vital to any kind of text, but in the literary text we have the strange situation that the reader cannot know what his participation actually entails. We know that we share in certain experiences, but we do not know what happens to us in the course of this process. This is why, when we have been particularly impressed by a book, we feel the need to talk about it; we do not want to get away from it by talking about it – we simply want to understand more clearly what it is that we have been entangled in. We have undergone an experience, and now we want to know consciously what we have experienced. Perhaps this is the prime usefulness of literary criticism – it helps to make conscious those aspects of the text which would otherwise remain concealed in the subconscious; it satisfies (or helps to satisfy) our desire to talk about what we have read.

Iser then restates his point that the literary work is created by means of evoking the familiar in the reader’s mind then also negating the familiar that is established. [In real life, we gain experience by having our expectations defied. That is now we learn new things. Thus] the process inherent to the literary work “reflects the process by which we gain experience” (295). [The next idea is harder for me to discern. He seems to be saying that we can have an immediate experience of the text as soon as we take the experience it gives us as being what is really present to our experiencing. But let me quote as I do not know exactly what he means there.]
The efficacy of a literary text is brought about by the apparent evocation and subsequent negation of the familiar. What at first seemed to be an affirmation of our assumptions leads to our own rejection of them, thus tending to prepare us for a re-orientation. And it is only when we have outstripped our preconceptions and left the shelter of the familiar that we are in a position to gather new experiences. As the literary text involves the reader in the formation of illusion and the simultaneous formation of the means whereby the illusion is punctured, reading reflects the process by which we gain experience. Once the reader is entangled, his own preconceptions are continually overtaken, so that the text becomes his “present” whilst his own ideas fade into the “past;” as soon as this happens he is open to the immediate experience of the text, which was impossible so long as his preconceptions were his “present.”

Wolfgang Iser. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3 (1972): 279-99.


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