Boustrophedonics; or, Oxbows

As a boy, I had bow hunted after birds, pulled taut the ligament while bunching up the horns of it. I would let the bull expand back to its unstrung far extremes, and I would place the arrow’s notch over the string. I pulled back, my fingers at the fletching. . . . How soon my arms would shake the open frame of me.

UNSAID was both surprised and reassured to find the following Kantian reflections while reading ‘Yale Deconstructive Critic’ J. Hillis Miller’s “The Ethics of Reading.” What Miller says of reading, we would assert is also true of writing: it almost never happens. But it can, because it must.

“I shall argue that there is a peculiar and unexpected relation between the affirmation of universal moral law and storytelling. It would seem that such a law would stand by itself and that its connection either to narration as such or to any particular narrative would be adventitious and superficial at best. Nevertheless, as I shall show, the moral law gives rise by an intrinsic necessity to storytelling, even if that storytelling in one way of another puts in question or subverts the moral law. Ethics and narration cannot be kept separate, though their relation is neither symmetrical nor harmonious. Moreover, the stories that confrontation of the moral law generates are precisely versions of the kind of teleological, reasonable, and lawfully determined narration we call history. . . .

I claim that [this topic] is of fundamental importance for literary and humanistic study today. The stakes are large in getting it right, and there is a corresponding danger of getting it wrong, perhaps through fatigue or boredom or anxiety, or as a result of some other weakness preventing one from keeping ones’ mind on the topic, in place, so to speak. The attractions of inattention are immense, . . . and we are likely to be too tired to follow out all the pathways of thought into which a given story leads. Or we may be prone to fall asleep just when we are at last about to have a chance to confront the authority who might clarify everything. Reading itself is extraordinarily hard work. It does not occur all that often. Clearheaded reflection on what really happens in the act of reading is even more difficult and rare. It is an event traces of which are found here and there in written form, like those tracks left in a bubble-chamber by the passage of a particle from outer space. The passage I propose to discuss here are such traces or tracks. . . .

The ethical moment in the act of reading, then, if there is one, faces in two directions. On the one hand it is a response to something, responsible to it, responsive to it, respectful of it. On the other hand, in any ethical moment there is an imperative, some “I must” or Ich kann nicht anders. I MUST do this. I cannot do otherwise. If the response is not one of necessity, grounded in some ‘must,’ if it is a freedom to do what one likes, then it is not ethical. On the other hand, the ethical moment in reading leads to an act. It enters into the social, institutional, political realms, for example, in what the teacher says to the class or in what the teacher writes. Not doubt the political and the ethical are always intimately intertwined, but a moral act that is fully determined by political considerations or responsibilities is no longer moral. . . . If there is to be such a thing as an ethical moment in the act of reading, teaching, or writing about literature, it must be sui generis, something individual and particular, itself a source of political or cognitive acts, not subordinated to them.”

— J. Hillis Miller, 1985

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