I want to draw a distinction between two types of reading. The first, what I’ll call Reading Against, is a form of reading that reads a text against itself. It explicitly contains the idea of disagreement, but also implies the reverse, that one might agree with the text, or that the text might agree with itself. Reading against a text, that is, reading a text as though it has, like wood, a grain that we can move with or against, is the proper mode of almost all academic reading I’ve ever encountered. It is how I was taught to read through undergraduate and graduate school, and I could talk at length about its many forms.
However, I’m going to focus on a second and more significant type of reading, what I’ll call Reading Up Against. Where Reading Against forces one to approach a text from a predetermined direction, making reading into a decision about which way to work the text, Reading Up Against a text is more tentative and less decided.
The easiest way to describe it is to show it happening. I pulled two books down from my shelf in order to write this, both of which have had a profound influence on the way I think and believe. The first is one that I have written about a great deal in the past, and will likely return to many more times, Heidegger’s “What is Called Thinking?“ The second is Girard’s “I See Satan Fall Like Lightening.“ Both books provide excellent examples of what it means to read up against a text through reading Nietzsche.
The majority of Part I in “What is Called Thinking?” is devoted to a discussion of Nietzsche and his thought. For Heidegger, the way to thinking begins with an attempt to come to terms with the tradition, or perhaps with the end of the tradition as foreseen by Nietzsche:
Nietzsche, who from his supreme peak saw far ahead of it all, as early as the eighteen-eighties had for it the simple, because thoughtful, words: “The wasteland grows.”
The encounter with Nietzsche is not the goal. Rather, it points in the direction we must go:
But to encounter Nietzsche’s thinking at all, we must first find it. Only when we have succeeded in finding it may we try to lose again what that thinking has thought. And this, to lose, is harder than to find; because “to lose” in such a case does not just mean to drop something, leave it behind, abandon it. “To lose” here means to make ourselves truly free of that which Nietzsche’s thinking has thought.
This reading requires us to both find and lose. It does not approach the text in order to work with or against it. It always remains close but separate and distinct:
The real nature of thought might reveal itself to us if we remain underway. We are underway. What does that mean? We are still inter vias, between divergent ways. Nothing has been decided yet about which is the one inevitable, and hence perhaps the only, way. Underway, then–we must give particularly close attention to that stretch of way on which we are putting our feet…As a marker on our path of thought, we quoted the words of the West’s last thinker, Nietzsche. He said: “The wasteland grows…” We explicitly contrasted these words with other statements about the present age, not only because of their special content, but above all in view of the manner in which they speak. For they speak in terms of the kind of way on which Nietzsche’s thinking proceeds. That way, however, comes from far away, and at every point gives evidence of that origin. Nietzsche neither made not chose his way himself, no more than any other thinker ever did. He is sent on his way. And so the words “The wasteland grows…” become a word on the way. This means: the tale that these words tells does not just throw light on the stretch of the way and its surroundings. The tale itself traces and clears the way.
He goes on to say that he is “trying to look in the direction in which Nietzsche’s thinking proceeds.” In doing so he hopes to find his own way, and while it wanders beside Nietzche’s, he will take it and recognize what he finds there.
Girard does a similar thing, although he would not approve of my comparison of himself with Heidegger, the “latter-day Nietzschian.” In chapter 14 of his book, a chapter called, “The Twofold Nietzschean Heritage,” he goes about reading Nietzsche in order that he might also go where his thinking lies. He writes:
Nietzsche was the first philosopher to understand that the collective violence of myths and rituals (everything he named “Dionysos”) is of the same type as the violence of the Passion. The difference between them is not in the facts, which are the same in both cases, but in their interpretation.
…In certain unedited writings just before his final breakdown, Nietzsche escapes the twin errors of the positivists and the nihilists, and he discovers the truth that I only repeat after him, the truth that dominates this book: in the Dionysian passion and in the Passion of Jesus, there is the same collective violence. But the interpretation is different.
…Between Dionysos and Jesus there “is not a difference in regard to their martyrdom.” In other words, the accounts of the Passion recount the same kind of drama as the myths, but the “meaning” is different. While Dionysos approves and organizes the lynching of the single victim, Jesus and the Gospels disapprove…As incredible as it may seem, no one made this simple but fundamental discovery before Nietzsche–no one, not even a Christian!
After walking a certain distance with Nietzsche, Giard does what Heidegger does and takes another way. I can’t hope to do either book justice by extracting a few quotations. Tonight I’m less interested in what they say than in how they say it. Both men read Nietzsche. Neither wishes to end there. The model of reading they provide is significant, for it shows us that the way to our destination can be circuitous instead of straight, and not to worry when it crosses paths with others who are also on the way, even if ultimately on a different way. Reading does require us to be for or against the author, in agreement or disagreement with the text. We can simply walk along side it, always aware that the path leads one way, but our next step can easily go another.