Reading the old guys can be tricky sometimes. After I reviewed Robert E. Howard’s Almuric last week, I got some correspondence accusing me of being “politically correct” (that terrible thing it is so incorrect to be nowadays) because I had suggested, in the mildest possible way, that REH’s depiction of the black-skinned, sexually predatory and cannibalistic Yagas has racist overtones. Well, in my view, it has, and I didn’t draw that opinion from a bank of statements pre-approved by some central committee. If we entertain, for the sake of argument, the idea that I am right about this, what does it mean about how we read REH?
It means we read REH the same way we read anyone else: in two different ways, simultaneously. Umberto Eco famously dubbed these two readers the naive reader and the sophisticated reader. The naive reader wants the hero to kill the bad guy and marry the space-princess (or space-prince, or what have you). The sophisticated reader is muttering, “Yes, this is much like the plot Burroughs used, with overtones of Hamlet and the occasional oblique reference to postmodernism which is de rigueur for self-consciously retrogenerical pastiche, n’est-ce pas?” The naive reader just wants to sit back and enjoy the movie. The sophisticated reader is the guy sitting in the row behind who won’t STFU.
Everybody has the naive reader experience and everybody has the critical reader experience. The cry of political correctness is just one example of the type of objection which is usually raised when someone’s sophisticated reader is interfering with someone else’s naive reader: e.g. “This story about space pirates is Just For Fun! Your comments about the historical reality of piracy and slavery in the ancient Mediterranean are unwelcome to me. Drop dead, won’t you?”
But the sophisticated reader will never drop dead, or at least will never stay dead, because everybody has one hard-wired into them. More importantly, the defense usually used of naive reading is a bad one because it tends to undervalue the experience. The naive reader experience is fun, but why is it fun? What makes certain symbols, certain imaginary experiences emotionally powerful, and others emotionally trivial? Why are certain stories appealing to some people and repellent to others? Where shall wisdom be found? Where is the place of understanding? Answering these questions, or even discussing them, requires some effort from the sophisticated reader, and that effort is worthwhile if it deepens the reader’s experience. And the nature of sophistication is that it’s a community experience: one becomes sophisticated by contact with others, and it is natural for our sophisticated reader to be informed by the readings of others.
But the naive reader’s objections about interference are not ill-founded. In fiction, anyway, the naive reader is the real reader, the one for whom the reading experience is emotionally fulfilling. Sophisticated readings may disrupt that experience without adding anything of real value. The guy talking behind you may distract you from something potentially important that is happening up on the screen. So how do you tell when a sophisticated reading (whether your own, or one borrowed from someone else) is going to fatally disrupt your naive reading experience?
The rule is that there is no rule. Say that there’s someone approaching you with a knife, proposing to cut you open. How do you tell whether he’s a serial killer who wants to add your liver to his collection, or a surgeon who wants to remove your burst appendix and save your life? Context will help: is this happening in an alley or a hospital? Other clues may help: is he wearing a hockey mask or an operating mask? In the end, you’ll have to make a judgement call.
And sometimes those judgements will be wrong. With the worst intentions in the world, the serial killer may not even be able to seriously threaten you. With the best intentions in the world, the surgeon may kill you. What this metaphor means (at least what I mean it to mean) is that sometimes a naive reading experience will be fatally compromised by a sophisticated analysis. (Don’t even ask me about the last time I read Asimov’s Foundation; I don’t want to talk about it.)
Is this bad? Maybe. Maybe not. If naive readings die, but the naive reader within you lives on, maybe it’s not so bad. Nothing lives forever–unless, somehow, it can never die.
You knew a unicorn would have to show up at some point.
And where’s the promised review of Kline’s The Swordsman of Mars? Still just a promise: I’ll kick that out next week. Really. If you can’t wait: the capsule review is that anyone who likes sword-and-planet should read the book. Watch this space for further details from both my naive and sophisticated reader.