2 Feb 2016

Iser (§2) “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” part II, summary


by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. All boldface and parenthetical commentary are my own.]



Wolfgang Iser


“The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”





Brief summary:
Phenomenologically speaking, to each sentence we read in a literary text there is a mental experience providing conscious content corresponding to that sentence. This content we may call the intentional correlates of the sentence. Each correlate gives us a part of the story’s world. But these parts in sum do not make up that world, because they are not inherently inter-connected within a fully coherent and complete system of facts. Rather, our minds creatively generate that coherence by filling in gaps in the story-world and in its series of events. The way we construct that series of events can be understood in terms of Husserl’s analyses of time consciousness, in which he identified three inter-penetrating layers of our awareness: {a} awareness of current mental contents, or intentions, {b} awareness of passed contents, or retentions, and {c} awareness of future contents, or protentions. In Iser’s terminology, these three are perspectives, recollections, and preintentions, respectively. Just as in our everyday time-constituting consciousness that provides the temporal coherence to our world, this process of story-world realization is under continual modification across all three temporal dimensions as we proceed through the text. For, new events cause us to modify our understanding of past ones and to anticipate certain other ones to come. When we reread a text, we know the outcomes. However, we still constitute the text using the same process, only this second time we see the events under a new light, which alters again with each subsequent rereading.





[Previously Iser ended the section by describing the interactive process between reader and text, by which certain unstated implications (imagined, interpreted, evaluated, and so on) are woven into the text by means of the reader’s creative contribution to the literary work’s realization: “Thus begins a whole dynamic process: the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten implications in order to prevent these from becoming too blurred and hazy, but at the same time these implications, worked out by the reader’s imagination, set the given situation against a background which endows it with far greater significance than it might have seemed to possess on its own. In this way, trivial scenes suddenly take on the shape of an ‘enduring form of life.’ What constitutes this form is never named, let alone explained, in the text, although in fact it is the end product of the interaction between text and reader” (281).] Iser now wonders to what extent we may describe the process of reader-text interaction that realizes the literary work. There is a psychological element that needs to be described. But attempts at examining this psychological element so far have largely been psychoanalytic, [which is problematic, because it begins first with theoretical assumptions regarding the unconscious that it then seeks to find exhibited in the psychological elements in the reader-text interaction. Phenomenological analyses, however, do not begin with theoretical assumptions but rather only with methodological tools enabling raw descriptions of consciousness made from inside the conscious experience. Any structures to be found are presumably ones that are inherent to and discoverable in consciousness, rather than being structures posited in advance of the analysis. Let me quote since I may be interpreting incorrectly.]

The question now arises as to how far such a process can be adequately described. For this purpose a phenomenological analysis recommends itself, especially since the somewhat sparse observations hitherto made of the psychology of reading tend mainly to be psychoanalytical, and so are restricted to the illustration of predetermined ideas concerning the unconscious. We shall, however, take a closer look later at some worthwhile psychological observations.


[I do not quite grasp the next concepts. One basic idea is that sentences in literary texts do not correspond to any objective reality outside themselves. I assume the idea is that in fiction, we are not describing parts of the actual world. Instead, what concerns us are the “intentional correlates” of the sentences. On the basis of what is written, which I will quote below, I cannot define this term. But from what I gather about intentionality in phenomenology, I would guess that an intentional correlate to a sentence are the states and acts of consciousness, and more importantly the contents of those states and acts of consciousness, that one has when reading intently those sentences. Take for example the opening sentence of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” As we read this, we are not just aware of the black squiggles on a white page background. Our consciousness is much richer than that. The squiggles are not seen as such but as taking a particular formation determined by social custom and personal habit. And it is not just a visual experience, but as well an audio and even tactile one, as we might have slight impressions of our speaking apparatus in motion while reading it (this is perhaps more evident when there are elements like alliteration which invite an imagined or actual vocalization). But more important are the images and meanings evoked by these symbols, and the world of imaginable sense-data and also the signifiances in this fictional world. It is not our world, but we build it up with conscious contents, which are perhaps what are called ‘intentional correlates’ here, from our given stock. Iser’s point seems to be that each sentence gives us a fragment of the story world, which is composed of conscious contents from our own given mental stock. And the combination of the contents correlated to each sentence of the story in sum are all the explicitly given parts of the world that the literary work presents to us. Iser then makes another point that I also may be missing. Buy it seems he is saying that even the sentences alone (along with their respective specific intentional correlates) are not enough even in sum to give us this whole fictional world, because still more on the part of the reader needs to be added in order to fill out that world, because much is still left out. For example, the reader never learns what kind of an insect Gregor is. We either need to determine that ourselves, taking a personal liberty not directed by the text, or we must navigate Kafka’s highly imaginative world with the central part left unimaginable to some degree. There is also an interesting point at the end of this paragraph that the intentional contents also have subtle implicit connections that enable the more explicit statements and claims to interconnect and thereby to obtain their meanings. So we can be handed a number of parts of a world. But that is not a world. They only take on a world-like structure by means of their interconnections, and perhaps that work of interconnecting has a lot to do with how the reader creatively uses the subtle connecting implications of each sentence to string the parts together into meaningful coherent ways.]

As a starting point for a phenomenological analysis we might examine the way in which sequent sentences act upon one another. This is of especial importance in literary texts in view of the fact that they do not correspond to any objective reality outside themselves. The world presented by literary texts is constructed out of what Ingarden has called intentionale Satzkorrelate (intentional sentence correlatives):

Sentences link up in different ways to form more complex units of meaning that reveal a very varied structure giving rise to such entities as a short story, a novel, a dialogue, a drama, a scientific theory.... In the final analysis, there arises a particular world, with component parts deter- mined in this way or that, and with all the variations that may occur within these parts – all this as a purely intentional correlative of a complex of sentences. If this complex finally forms a literary work, I call the whole sum of sequent intentional sentence correlatives the ‘world presented’ in the work.5 |

This world, however, does not pass before the reader's eyes like a film. The sentences are “component parts” insofar as they make statements, claims, or observations, or convey information, and so establish various perspectives in the text. But they remain only “component parts”– they are not the sum total of the text itself. For the intentional correlatives disclose subtle connections which individually are less concrete than the statements, claims, and observations, even though these only take on their real meaningfulness through the interaction of their correlatives.
[Ft.5: Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks, p. 29.]



Iser then wonders, how should we understand these connections between the intentional correlates? [I am uncertain about this next idea. It might be that the connections are understood in how they create a network that is continuously building and in that process creates expectations that are more or less fulfilled. I am still not sure what is meant by “perspectives”. It might be the limited views of the much larger world that each sentence gives us. It also might be his term for “intentions” as Husserl uses it. I cannot interpret all the ideas in this paragraph, reproduced below, but it seems there is a certain pregnancy of the sentences in a literary work, and they continually open a horizon of further world-revelation. So let us examine again the sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” We now have open temporal horizons, because we might  wonder for example, who was Gregor before the transformation, and what will he do now? We also might ask ourselves, where is he now, and who else is with him? What kind of a life does he normally live? What kind of a person is he, and how will he deal with this transformation?]

How is one to conceive the connection between the correlatives? It marks those points at which the reader is able to “climb aboard” the text. He has to accept certain given perspectives, but in doing so he inevitably causes them to interact. When Ingarden speaks of intentional sentence correlatives in literature, the statements made, or information conveyed in the sentence are already in a certain sense qualified: for example the sentence does not consist solely of a statement – which, after all, would be absurd, as one can only make statements about things that exist – but aims at something beyond what it actually says. This is true of all sentences in literary works, and it is through the interaction of these sentences that their common aim is fulfilled. This is what gives them their own special quality in literary texts. In their capacity as statements, observations, purveyors of information, etc., they are always indications of something that is to come, the structure of which is foreshadowed by their specific content.


[It seems the core of the next ideas are that the generation of the literary work’s world is a process of gradual unfolding. This process has something like Husserl’s tripartite structure of temporal consciousness, with a focus on the future-ward protentional expectations. With each new sentence, our prior anticipations are more-or-less fulfilled as more of the story world and its events’ development are revealed. But in the same stroke of that revelation, new possibilities, uncertainties, and anticipations are created, with this process continuing constantly.]

They set in motion a process out of which emerges the actual content of the text itself. In describing man’s inner consciousness of time, Husserl once remarked: “Every originally constructive process is inspired by pre-intentions, which construct and collect the seed of what is to come, as such, and bring it to fruition.”6 For this bringing to fruition, the literary text needs the reader’s imagination, which gives shape to the interaction of correlatives foreshadowed in structure by the sequence of the sentences. Husserl’s observation draws our attention to a point that plays a not insignificant part in the process of reading. The individual sentences not only work together to shade in what is to come; they also form an expectation in this regard. Husserl calls this expectation “pre-intentions.” As this structure is characteristic of all sentence correlatives, the interaction of these correlatives will not be a fulfilment of the expectation so much as a continual modification of it.
[Ft.6: Edmund Husserl, Zur Phiinomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, Gesammelte Werke 10 (Haag, 1966), 52.]


[Because each fulfillment widens the phenomenal horizon and creates newer expectations,] the anticipations created by literary texts are almost never fulfilled. [Sometimes they are fulfilled. I do not gather the idea here, but perhaps he is saying that the degree to which the text fulfills expectations, the less literary it is and the more didactic it is. Perhaps the problem is that we would feel too forced along the line of reasoning of the text. The next idea is interesting. Not only are the expectations continually modified, but with each new revelation or development, we might retroactively modify what has come before. There is more discussion of this retroactive modification in Husserl’s time consciousness here.]

For this reason, expectations are scarcely ever fulfilled in truly literary texts. If they were, then such texts would be confined to the individualization of a given expectation, and one would inevitably ask what such an intention was supposed to achieve. Strangely enough, we feel that any confirmative effect – such as we implicitly demand of expository texts, as we refer to the objects they are meant to present – is a defect in a literary text. For the more a text individualizes or confirms an expectation it has initially aroused, the more aware we become of its didactic purpose, so that at best we can only accept or reject the thesis forced upon us. More often than not, the very clarity of such texts will make us want to free ourselves from their clutches. But generally the sentence correlatives of literary texts do not develop in this rigid way, for the expectations they evoke tend to encroach on one another in such a manner that they are continually modified as one reads. One might simplify by saying that each intentional sentence correlative opens up a particular horizon, which is modified, if not completely changed, by succeeding sentences. While these expecta- tions arouse interest in what is to come, the subsequent modification of them will also have a retrospective effect on what has already been read. This may now take on a different significance from that which it had at the moment of reading.


[I think it is possible that here Iser is discussing two sorts of gaps. {a} One sort is filled somewhat mechanically by using a basic inferential sort of thinking. We draw conclusions based on evidence, and we fill in story gaps with a relatively high degree of certainty about our inferences. But this process can still be engaging, if we as the reader are invited to tell interesting parts of the story this way. {b} The other sort of gap could be ones that have an infinite richness to them, because for one reason or another, any one way of filling them seems somehow to not be definitive or entirely satisfactory. Let me try to illustrate this distinction with some story “gaps” in Don Rosa’s Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. (If you have never heard of this graphic novel, please do not let its title mislead you about its worth. It in fact is a masterpiece of visual story-telling, and there are few graphic novels that I can recommend as highly.) The first illustration, below, will demonstrate the first type inferential gap-filling, which we said was mechanical but potentially interesting. We see in the second panel a character peeking into the women’s backstage dressing room.  (The first panel tells us that he knows he should keep his eyes covered at all times.) The third panel does not give us any information about what he is doing. But the fourth panel shows him knocked out with the woman’s hairbrush broken above his head.

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.Companion.p130.hari brush.2M_zps0zfwh5ux.jpg

So here is a gap in the action. It causes us to imagine him getting hit on the head, for doing something foolish and improper. Here the author leaves it to our imagination to animate this funny slap-stick part of the scene. And since there are few other ways he could have gotten knocked out along with the hair brush being broken, we can be relatively certain that is what happened, and probably we will not reconsider that inference (unless of course other information later on causes us to retroactively modify that interpretation).

There however is another element of inconsistency or gap in this story-world which gives it immense emotional power. Scrooge is an interesting character:  he values money over not just all other things, he even values money over the things that money can buy. Thus he lives relatively frugally but enjoys swimming in his money. (This frugality of course places a strain on his relations with his close family members.)

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.V2.p58.swim barrels.2_zpsk3kdrv2v.jpg

This is interesting. It is not just greed or a hunger for material goods. It is more idealized. It is a pure love of money itself and of its accumulation. (By the way, Eric Alliez has an interesting discussion of a similar idea, chrematistics.) But even this seemingly straightforward characteristic is not entirely certain, as there are often moments of inconsistency. He at times shows genuine empathy for creatures in need (but he is careful to hide this other side of his personality).

 photo Rosa Don. Magesty McDuck.birds_zpsa1ga8nlv.jpg

Also his greed is mixed with other traits that we might actually admire, like determination and pluck.

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.Companion.Captain inspiration_zpsaxljdewg.jpg

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.V2.p87_zpsbvj66nlp.jpg

We find also that in his past he had fallen in love with Goldie, who as well fell in love with him. What is interesting and compelling about this relationship is their difficulty in expressing that love directly. And in Scrooge’s case, his feelings might be so strong that for one reason or another he cannot risk learning  how Goldie feels about him. Their love affair is told through flashback, beginning with a question that triggers a flashback deep into his memory. So we know it is a profoundly important element of his past that maintains its inner significance even to the present of his life.

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.Companion.p81.flashback_zpsdtuaeebx.jpg

At first Goldie and Scrooge rightfully mistrust each other’s intentions, but they also admire one another and secretly each falls in love with the other. Scrooge of course has a reputation of valuing his money and property to a pathological level of obsession. But Goldie finds out that the true object of Scrooge’s cares is in fact she herself.

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.Companion.p105.hair_zpsnnuopfrd.jpg

In the following gorgeous and powerful scene, Goldie presents herself in a position that would allow Scrooge to overcome his emotional barricades and give into his love for her.

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.Companion.p134.fire_zps2jgpipms.jpg

However, Scrooge is knocked out accidentally in the next part of this scene, and thus instead of saving Goldie, she must drag him out of the burning building herself. So Goldie later writes a letter that presumably expresses her love to Scrooge, which she then dispatches to him on his journey away from the town.

 photo Rosa Don. Life Times Scrooge McDuck.Companion.p137-8.letter.2_zpsrzpphdbx.jpg

But as you can see, we never learn of the contents of the letter, and Scrooge and Goldie’s love for each other is never fulfilled.

Now, in contrast to the first case we examined, the final scene with the letter in the snow invites us not just to fill in some small plot gap, like how we figured out that the peeper gets knocked down by the hairbrush. Rather, the gap this scene creates is one that challenges us to rearrange many of the other connections in the story. Since much of the story and its significance revolve around Scrooge and his true inner nature, this more profound gap invites us to reconstitute very basic structuring principles in the story itself. A lot of the coherence of the story elements hinges on knowing why Scrooge makes this fateful decision that he never resolves throughout the rest of his life. Yet we as the reader are not able to know why, and thus Rosa creates a profoundly rich openness or “gap” in the story-world. In his own commentaries on this story, Rosa himself writes, “Finally, what do you suppose was in the letter that Goldie sent to Scrooge in the final scene, and which he never read, fearing that it was more hateful comments from the woman he secretly loved? How would his life have been forever changed from that point on? Would he have still become the richest duck in the world? Hm...” (Rosa, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: Companion, p.140). So as you can see, the author wanted this gap to remain open, despite its central importance to the character.]


[Returning now to the Iser text.... Whatever we read sinks into our memory and might be recalled later. But when it is recalled, it is modified by the current act of consciousness; and mutually so, that current act will be modified by the memory, and both together shape our expectations.]

Whatever we have read sinks into our memory and is foreshortened. It may later be evoked again and set against a different background with the result that the reader is enabled to develop hitherto unforeseeable connections. The memory evoked, however, can never reassume its original shape, for this would mean that memory and perception were identical, which is manifestly not so. The new background brings to light new aspects of what we had committed to memory; conversely these, in turn, shed their light on the new background, thus arousing more complex anticipations. Thus, the reader, in establishing these interrelations between past, present and future, actually causes the text to reveal its potential multiplicity of connections. These connections are the product of the reader’s mind working on the raw material of the text, though they are not the text itself – for this consists just of sentences, statements, information, etc.


[The next point connects the created world of the literary work with reality, and more specifically, with a virtual reality. The first point might be that the events appear real perhaps because they are constituted by means of the same phenomenal constituting processes and structures that we use to constitute the reality of the normal world around us. Or perhaps the idea is that they seem real on account of the strong binding phenomenal coherence of these worlds, which is woven using the intimately inter-connected layers of temporalized consciousness. The next idea is that this reality endowed upon the literary world is generated through the creative activities of the reader’s faculties. And finally, this reality of the literary work exists on a virtual dimension, because it exists neither in the text itself nor in the reader’s imagination but rather at their point of their intersection, which is elusively somewhere else.]

This is why the reader often feels involved in events which, at the time of reading, seem real to him, even though in fact they are very far from his own reality. The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the “reality” of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written. | The literary text activates our own faculties, enabling us to recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality. This virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination.


[I am uncertain about the first idea in the next paragraph, but I think it is again that there is the tripartite structure of retention, intention, and protention, each being simultaneously co-modifying in the way we mentioned above. Then the next idea might be that although this process is always at work, that does not mean that it generates the same literary work with each reading, because different dimensions or aspects of the work’s virtual reality can be brought out in each case. The third idea of this paragraph I find the most important and interesting. Iser’s comment is formulated in response to Ingarden’s belief that the phenomenal unfolding of the text should always be continuous such that each expectation is harmoniously fulfilled for the most part with the next sentence to be read. Iser’s point is that actually disappointments to previously established expectations are in fact vital to the literary work rather than being evidence of compositional flaws. This I think may be similar to Deleuze’s (metaphysical) concept of “dramatization”. There is something substantial about discontinuity and inconsistency. If a long story is entirely self-consistent, I imagine you can probably reduce it to a simple summary, to a cliché perhaps. Instead, a story can obtain more substantiality were it to be filled with parts that do not fit so cleanly together for reasons that provoke us to delve deeper into its workings. So inconsistency is substantial in the sense of irreducibility. We can think also of the substantiality in terms of a feeling of dramatic weight that certain specific moments can have. If the story is compressible, then each moment will seem to be channeled to some outcome or to a limited range or types of outcomes. But if the story instead contains discontinuity and uncertainty, then those moments in which we do not know where the story might go obtain a certain weight to them. As far as an event goes, there is something really there to such an event, some real importance or weight, and in that way on account of its discontinuity and inconsistency it gains substantiality. Another thing to consider is openness and productivity. Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’ parable in The Trial is simple but has something inconsistent or uncertain about it that leads us to continually reconsider it anew, just like the series of commentaries the Priest gives after telling the story. As a text, this parable is brief. But as a literary phenomenon constituted in the reader’s consciousness in her continual interaction with the text, it is infinitely rich and extensive. Iser highlights the gaps and blockages that we in a gestalt sort of way fill in, and these contributions we make are our own (the reader’s) artistic creations. Now, let me just briefly summarize my three points about the “substantiality” of “dramatization:” certain inconsistent, discontinuous texts are substantial because {a} they cannot be compressed (and thus cannot have any of their bulk removed), {b} they have ‘weight’ (since many pivotal moments have an  undecidability that gives them dramatic importance), and {c} they are productive of an endless series of significances, interpretations, rereads, and so on (and thus they are substantial because they never stop proving their worth and wealth; they never stop demonstrating that there is more inside them).]

As we have seen, the activity of reading can be characterized as a sort of kaleidoscope of perspectives, preintentions, recollections. Every sentence contains a preview of the next and forms a kind of view-finder for what is to come; and this in turn changes the “preview” and so becomes a “viewfinder” for what has been read. This whole process represents the fulfilment of the potential, unexpressed reality of the text, but it is to be seen only as a framework for a great variety of means by which the virtual dimension may be brought into being. The process of anticipation and retrospection itself does not by any means develop in a smooth flow. Ingarden has already drawn attention to this fact, and ascribes a quite remarkable significance to it:

Once we are immersed in the flow of Satzdenken (sentence-thought), we are ready, after completing the thought of one sentence, to think out the ‘continuation,’ also in the form of a sentence – and that is, in the form of a sentence that connects up with the sentence we have just thought through. In this way the process of reading goes effortlessly forward. But if by chance the following sentence has no tangible connection whatever with the sentence we have just thought through, there then comes a blockage in the stream of thought. This hiatus is linked with a more or less active surprise, or with indignation. This blockage must be overcome if the reading is to flow once more.7

The hiatus that blocks the flow of sentences is, in Ingarden's eyes, the product of chance, and is to be regarded as a flaw; this is typical of his adherence to the classical idea of art. If one regards the sentence sequence as a continual flow, this implies that the anticipation aroused by one sentence will generally be realized by the next, and the frustration of one's expectations will arouse feelings of exasperation. And yet literary texts are full of unexpected twists and turns, and frustration of expectations. Even in the simplest story there is bound to be some kind of blockage, if only for the fact that no tale can ever be told in its entirety. Indeed, it is only through inevitable omissions that a story will gain its dynamism. Thus whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to | bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections-for filling in the gaps left by the text itself.8


The gaps as we said are filled in a gestalt-like way, and since they do not exist in the text itself, they exist on a “virtual dimension”. But, there is no predetermined way for the reader to fill in those gaps. Thus one text can be realized many different ways, on account of there being a variety of ways that the gaps affect the processes anticipation and retroactive re-interpretation. And in fact, no one reading of a text (nor perhaps the sum of all readings) can exhaustively realize it. Modern texts especially make intentional use of the text’s inexhaustibility. For example, they might be more fragmentary to make us more aware of our own active contribution to filling in the gaps. The text always has more potential than any reading can bear out, and with each rereading often more of its wealth can be extracted.

These gaps have a different effect on the process of anticipation and retrospection, and thus on the “gestalt” of the virtual dimension, for they may be filled in different ways. For this reason, one text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities; as he reads, he will make his own decision as to how the gap is to be filled. In this very act the dynamics of reading are revealed. By making his decision he implicitly acknowledges the inexhaustibility of the text; at the same time it is this very inexhaustibility that forces him to make his decision. With “traditional” texts this process was more or less unconscious, but modern texts frequently exploit it quite deliberately. They are often so fragmentary that one's attention is almost exclusively occupied with the search for connections between the fragments; the object of this is not to complicate the “spectrum” of connections, so much as to make us aware of the nature of our own capacity for providing links. In such cases, the text refers back directly to our own preconceptions – which are revealed by the act of interpretation that is a basic element of the reading process. With all literary texts, then, we may say that the reading process is selective, and the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations. This is borne out by the fact that a second reading of a piece of literature often produces a different impression from the first. The reasons for this may lie in the reader’s own change of circumstances, still, the text must be such as to allow this variation. On a second reading familiar occurrences now tend to appear in a new light and seem to be at times corrected, at times enriched.

[I am not certain about the next point, but it is possible Iser is referring to two sequences of time: {a} the sequence of story events that we construct in our imagination as we read the specific event descriptions and also infer other events that are implied, and {b} the “real-time” sequence of the reader’s conscious awareness. I mention these two streams, because it seems Iser is saying that no matter how short the text is, in order to constitute a we also need some durational extent of  b. But as we read, the series of anticipations of events that are forthcoming and in fact even tour recollections of hose that already happened are under continuous modification, especially I think with plot-twist mechanisms that get us to entirely reconfigure our assumptions about the past. His next observation is about what happens when we reread a literary text. The second time we already have the “future” moments in the story constituted, and this sheds new light onto what we are reading as we go along in the second reading. This allows for an alternate phenomenal construction of the story’s world. It is not necessarily more accurate or more complete; it is rather just the same thing from a different set of perspectives.]

In every text there is a potential time-sequence which the reader must inevitably realize, as it is impossible to absorb even a short text in a single moment. Thus the reading process always involves viewing the text through a perspective that is continually on the move, linking up the different phases, and so constructing what we have called the virtual dimension. This dimension, of course, varies all the time we are reading. However, when we have finished the text, and read it again, clearly our extra knowledge will result in a different time- | sequence; we shall tend to establish connections by referring to our awareness of what is to come, and so certain aspects of the text will assume a significance we did not attach to them on a first reading, while others will recede into the background. It is a common enough experience for a person to say that on a second reading he noticed things he had missed when he read the book for the first time, but this is scarcely surprising in view of the fact that the second time he is looking at the text through a different perspective. The time-sequence that he realized on his first reading cannot possibly be repeated on a second reading and this unrepeatability is bound to result in modifications of his reading experience. This is not to say that the second reading is “truer” than the first – they are, quite simply, different: the reader establishes the virtual dimension of the text by realizing a new time-sequence. Thus even on repeated viewings a text allows and, indeed, induces innovative reading.


At every moment of our lives, our consciousness phenomenally constitutes our world by means of these three inter-woven layers of temporal modification, and as well, they are employed when reading a literary text. This means that we can learn about how our normal time-constituting consciousness works by examining it at work when reading literary texts. [It seems the next idea is this: for example, just as the text is an open totality that is continually under “revision” by the reader, so too is the real world of our experience constantly under continual modification as we learn new details about it. To return to a specific example, the ‘Before the Law’ parable, with the Priest’s commentary, raises to our explicit awareness  how this continual modification of our understanding of the world is always at work. Then Iser quotes from Merleau-Ponty. There are two parts to the quote, as much text is elliptically removed. The first part’s meaning is obvious given Iser’s argumentation. The world is an open totality, and our phenomenal synthesis of it is inexhaustible. The second point I am not certain about.  It possibly means that if we take a phenomenological approach to knowledge, this means that we take none of our knowledge as a priori but rather whatever we learn is by means of introspective analysis and thus it is based on our experience. And perhaps the next idea then is, when we take this phenomenological approach, we have removed the basis for any such analysis to produce definitive knowledge, but rather it is always open to further revision, with each subsequent phenomenological analysis of our experience. The quotation will be given below, for your own interpretation. The following point I am also not grasping well, but it might be the following. The way we interpret a literary text has a lot to do with what is going on inside us. So for example, we might project our own beliefs and attitudes into the story’s construction. For instance, if we are cynical people, we might interpret a certain character’s seemingly innocent actions as really being self-serving or even malevolent. Thus, our interpretation of a text can tell us just much about ourselves as about the story world, and so our interpretations can serve as a kind of mirror to our own inner worlds. Iser says this is a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we are exploring our own true inner world. But we are doing so in our efforts to realize a fictional reality that is entirely different from our own “real” reality. (Note, they are both realities for Iser I think because they are both constituted through the world-creating process of time-constituting consciousness.) Iser’s final point seems to be that the literary work will affect the reader more to the extent that she fills in more of the gaps creatively. And, the more the reader fills in the gaps, the more the reader needs to go outside their own world of experience. (I do not know why that is, however. I would think that to fill in the gaps, one would need to draw from one’s own experiences to provide that material. The basic idea might be that the more you fill in the gaps, the more you must invent an alternate world on your own that is independent from your own, since it is fictional.) ]

In whatever way, and under whatever circumstances, the reader may link the different phases of the text together, it will always be the process of anticipation and retrospection that leads to the formation of the virtual dimension, which in turn transforms the text into an experience for the reader. The way in which this experience comes about through a process of continual modification is closely akin to the way in which we gather experience in life. And thus the “reality” of the reading experience can illuminate basic patterns of real experience:

We have the experience of a world, not understood as a system of relations which wholly determine each event, but as an open totality the synthesis of which is inexhaustible. ... From the moment that experience – that is, the opening on to our de facto world-is recognized as the beginning of knowledge, there is no longer any way of distinguishing a level of a priori truths and one of factual ones, what the world must necessarily be and what it actually is.9

The manner in which the reader experiences the text will reflect his own disposition, and in this respect the literary text acts as a kind of mirror; but at the same time, the reality which this process helps to create is one that will be different from his own (since, normally, we tend to be bored by texts that present us with things we already know perfectly well ourselves). Thus we have the apparently paradoxical situation in which the reader is forced to reveal aspects of himself in | order to experience a reality which is different from his own. The impact this reality makes on him will depend largely on the extent to which he himself actively provides the unwritten part of the text, and yet in supplying all the missing links, he must think in terms of experiences different from his own; indeed, it is only by leaving behind the familiar world of his own experience that the reader can truly participate in the adventure the literary text offers him.

[Ft9: M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York, 1962), pp. 219, 221.]




Main work cited:

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


Also cited:

Don Rosa. “The Making of ‘Hearts of the Yukon’ .” In The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: Companion. Los Angeles, California: BOOM KIDS! / Boom Entertainment, 2010.



Image credits:

Don Rosa. “His Majesty McDuck.” In Uncle Scrooge Adventures #14. Montezuma, Prescott, Arizona: Gladstone Publishing.


Don Rosa (Art & Story), Todd Klein (Lettering & Titles), and Susan Daigle-Leach (Color). The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: Volume 1. Copyright 2009 Walt Disney Company (some text and commentary of this edition are  copyright Don Rosa). Los Angeles, California: BOOM KIDS! / Boom Entertainment, 2009.



Don Rosa (Art & Story), Todd Klein (Lettering & Titles), and Susan Daigle-Leach (Color). The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. Volume 2. © 2010 Walt Disney Company (some text commentary of this edition is © Don Rosa). Los Angeles, California: BOOM KIDS! / Boom Entertainment, 2010.


Don Rosa (Art & Story), Todd Klein, John Clark, and Bill Pearson (Lettering & Titles), and Susan Daigle-Leach and Scott Rockwell (Color). The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: Companion. © 2010 Walt Disney Company (some text commentary of this edition is © Don Rosa). Los Angeles, California: BOOM KIDS! / Boom Entertainment, 2010.