Friday, June 18, 2021

The Lectional Person

Human beings are rational in such a way as to be social in their reasoning; we see this in the fact that we often understand things better by treating them as quasi-persons. We do this, of course, with moral and juridical persons; we do this by personifying animals and inanimate objects, and so forth.

I think it's an important and relatively unremarked aspect of our reading that we read texts as if they were persons; the text is a lectional person. Of course, this is quite obvious if you read, say, an anonymous fictional work, which in some ways is not really much different from hearing a tale by a storyteller you do not otherwise know. We read texts as having a voice and coming from some where, as expressing a personality, and this is true even with works growing out of multiple redactions, like the Arabian Nights, which thus have no single author -- it's very natural nonetheless to read the text as if it were, in fact, expressing a single person.

This explains, I suspect, two common phenomena of reading. First, people often tend to read even obvious fiction as in some way autobiographical, and as expressing at least something about a real person's life. We see this in a lot of movies about writers (Being Jane Austen, Moliere, Tolkien are three I can name off the top of my head), in which their lives are treated as direct sources for their fictional works, despite this being immensely implausible. I think this arises due to the ambiguity between the lectional person of the text and the authorial person, in something like the way we might sometimes get confused about how the juridical person of a corporation sole (like the British Crown) relates to the person in that office (Queen Elizabeth II), blurring the lines between the two.

The second phenomenon is the very natural way in which we can think of our relationship with a text as being one of hospitality (Ricoeur) or, even more often, friendship. It's very remarkable how easily concepts like these, which are paradigmatic cases of person-to-person relationships, are transferred by analogy and metaphor to talking about texts. Your favorite novel is indeed a sort of old friend; a good new book is indeed a sort of welcome guest; we relate to the text as a quasi-person, as a person-for-the-purposes-of-reading like a juridical person is a person-for-the-purposes-of-law. The text is a lectional person.

There are other phenomena that may also be related to this, although I'm somewhat less certain of them, like the distress readers often feel at the denigration or deliberate destruction of books, or the fact that women, usually associated with more social and person-to-person interaction, are massively more likely to be serious readers than men. But regardless, I think the previous two points go quite far toward establishing the point.

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