Readings dutiful and revelatory

Annunciation (Mary reading) by Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535)I’ve just finished reading Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt. Towards the end of the novel, Byatt discusses the act of reading, as Roland (one of the two central characters) reads a work by one of the fictional Victorian poets around whom the plot of the novel revolves, Randolph Henry Ash:

There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, that snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.

Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.

This reminded me of John Bunyan’s description of his experience over many years of reading the Bible:

I have sometimes seen more in a line of the Bible than I could well tell how to stand under, and yet at another time the whole Bible hath been to me as dry as a stick; or rather, my heart hath been so dead and dry unto it, that I could not conceive the least drachm of refreshment, though I have looked it all over.

Another parallel can be found in the fact that Roland has read the Ash poem in question many times before, as can often be the case for us when we read familiar Bible passages:

Think of this, as Roland thought of it, rereading ‘The Garden of Proserpina’ for perhaps the twelfth, or maybe even the twentieth time, a poem he ‘knew’ in the sense that he had already experienced all its words, in their order, and also out of order, in memory, in selective quotation or misquotation – in the sense also, that he could predict, at times even recite, those words which were next to come, or more remotely approaching, the place where his mind rested, like clawed bird feet on twig.

The one place where the comparison breaks down – though Christians can be the first to overlook this point – comes in the next sentence:

Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other.

That’s often our (mis)perception of what reading the Bible is about. However, often the writer didn’t write alone, but were (at least) dictating to a scribe. What’s more, in most cases they were writing not to an individual, but for an audience. That is certainly true of the bulk of St Paul’s letters.

And nor do we read alone. Any true reading of the Bible (even if I am the only person in the room as I read) is with the church and in the church.

For all that, though, Byatt’s words on reading in general – or at least, the reading that is, like Roland’s “violently yet steadily alive” – strike a lot of chords about my experience of reading the Bible: at times (perhaps most times) “dutiful”; but at others, a reading in which “every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact”.

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