7:49 AM 28th April 2020

Classics Pack A Latent Punch

Engaging with a good book is a truly magical and dynamic experience. The alchemy of the subjective prism through which we individually approach and respond to a book creates a unique relationship between the observed and the observer. Although this relationship may be similar to another person’s experience, it cannot be identical and is often idiosyncratically spiced and therefore unique to a particular reader. Moving on from this truth, we can add yet more individuality to the mix. A reader’s mind - indeed their entire moral paradigm, character and predispositions - is not a static entity. We as individuals are protean, existentially sculpted by forces within and outside of our control. We are the product of what we think, what we have experienced and what we both know and do not know. The only constant in life is change and as such an individual’s mind will inevitably reflect this organic flux.

To borrow from Heraclitus, “No man can step in the same river twice, for its not the same river and he’s not the same man”. True, if we replace the river with a book, we can’t say it’s the same book. However, our experience of the river will undeniably be conditioned by who we are when we when step into it. Each time we do go wading, we take a subtle set of changes with us. Leave a long gap between these aquatic activities, and our Egos, if not our Ids will have undergone both imperceptible and obvious changes. The callow youth entering that river is not the same person who does likewise decades later. Both versions of that person will bring a unique interplay of factors to their experience and each respond to that river in a fundamentally different way.

Bear with me…I’m laying the foundations for a conclusion that I think you will like!

Having established that no two people are identical in their intellectual or emotional sensitivities and that any particular individual will undergo a variety of iterations of the Self as they travel through life, it’s appropriate to make my next observation. Whilst visiting The Tate in Liverpool a couple of years ago, I enjoyed an exhibition entitled “Constellations”. The curator’s premise was that all art works and in this case the paintings, represented a particular artist’s response to the prevailing Zeitgeist, current artistic movements, personal creative impulses and the rich interplay upon their senses of contemporaneous works and of those produced in the past.

Each artist sits at a crossroads in the cultural flux at the point of expression and responds dynamically. Authors like artists conform to this pattern and so do readers. Early existential philosophy, and in particular the work of Edmund Husserl, stated that we are what we think about. Our minds will possess their own Constellations formed as a corollary of what we have read and how we have responded. Simply put, reading proactively changes who we are and forms cognitive connections which give rise to the organic expansion of our sensitivity and comprehension. The net outcome is that the prism through which we encounter the world and therefore books, is itself in a state of constant evolution and change. As our individual mental Constellations absorb new artistic or literary material, we change. We make new connections. We see the world differently. We respond in new and exciting ways. Our minds, if we are fortunate, continue to develop new frames of reference, experience innumerable fresh influences and therefore allow us as readers to relate and respond to any stimulus in new and exciting ways.

Viewer at the Constellations Exhibition - Tate Modern. Photo © Rikard Österlund
Viewer at the Constellations Exhibition - Tate Modern. Photo © Rikard Österlund
Now for the really exciting bit, (at least for me !). Sometimes the most obvious truths are the ones we overlook and perhaps fail to act upon. Any individual’s response to a certain book is not definitive or set forever in stone. It’s mutable. The book may be unchanging, however the mind through which it is experienced is not. I suspect that reading the same book more than once will be a different experience for any reader. I for one have ignored this obvious truth and been guilty of meeting a book once and reaching the conclusion that I’ve heard and understood all it has to say. The wonderful news to me is that I could not have been more wrong ! As an illustration, the undergraduate me was not one of those benighted individuals able to engage with a great work of the Classic canon and respond to it profoundly. Though bright, he interpreted the world through the intellectual focus operating within him at that particular moment. His mental constellation was a tad sparse. As such, unlike many of his fellow students, the antecedent me found many a lauded novel of little more than academic value. Worse still, he devoured them as part of a prescribed reading list, with the objective of completing the list uppermost in his mind. I’m not suggesting for one second that my truth is yours, my constellation anything like your own. I’m merely expressing my own truth as I understand it.

Nearly thirty years on since I last picked up any of the literary grandees of the established classical cannon, I’ve been subject to all of the points made earlier. I’ve changed. Stepping back into that river of classics is an entirely different me. As such, books that were once monochromatic are now experienced in glorious technicolor. Characters with whom I had next to no empathy are soul mates. Historical, literary, political and cultural references that hid amongst a forest of words are now radiant and if not obvious, osmotically comprehended. Technical virtuosity is appreciated and evaluated by dint of comparison with a myriad of other works. Emotionally provocative passages are deeply resonant and acutely felt. Concepts, moral perspectives, intellectual observations and subtle nuances are all revealed. Narratorial voices I once trusted are no longer granted impunity. Sagacious narrators I once disliked are heard with more discerning ears. Language which had baffled now delights. Authorial purpose once obscure and barely grasped, is understood. A wine I drank decades ago and found perhaps dry and unappealing now taste like nectar, my palate enabling me to truly experience the brilliance of the vintner and the sublime amalgam of subtle notes, mixed with powerful flavours and intense aromas. Each glass a delight rather than something to be consumed merely to empty the glass.

With all of the above in mind, I’ve discovered that picking up a dusty old hardback last opened by me decades ago is an absolute and ineffable delight. If not truly ready for, or able to fully appreciate, these wonderful luminaries of the literary pantheon, I’m certainly in a position to enjoy them on a wildly new level. The really exciting part and the point I’ve been building up to, is that my shelves are groaning with these acknowledged masterpieces and I’m finally ready to engage with them. My intellectual prism like a pair of new spectacles, calibrated to bring into focus what I could not previously see. Again, not everyone will have suffered from my particular form of myopia, however if any of the above has resonated with you, reacquainting yourself with the odd literary classic will prove to be a mind blowing experience. I will never tire of wanting to read new work by new writers and every book is a potentially magical experience, however in my experience the old classics have patiently waited for me to step back into them. With a fundamentally altered mental constellation and dramatically altered intellectual plane, I am not the same man that ventured into their river decades ago.

To say I’m excited about re-engaging with these classics would be a mammoth understatement. Now, has anyone seen my waders ?

Article by Paul Spalding-Mulcock