Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Notes Toward an Autobiography by Others

Xavier de Maistre, in his whimsical Journey around my Room, describes the way the body will go on doing things, even competently, while the mind is somewhere else. One of his examples is an activity that one might not think would be capable of going on without the mind’s participation — reading. Addressing the reader, de Maistre says:

When you read a book, sir, and a more agreeable idea suddenly strikes on your imagination, your soul straight away pounces on it and forgets the book, while your eyes mechanically follow the words and the lines; you come to the end of the page without understanding it, and without remembering what you have read.

De Maistre calls “soul” what I was calling “mind.” But it’s the same thing.

On the other hand, I don’t think I can completely miss what my eyes have read. The mind will capture some of the meaning of the words the eyes bring in, even if it’s not enough for comprehension. When I have gotten to the bottom of a page and realize I couldn’t tell you what was said, my conscious mind having been busy with other concerns, I will often reread the missed passage. And it will always be at least a little bit familiar. If you slapped the book shut before I had a chance to reread, then put before me a multiple-choice test covering the material, I bet I’d do significantly better than chance. Still, I do tend to read slowly, an internal voice sounding out the words as they pass. I wouldn’t have thought so if you’d asked me, but reading without connection to voice, I guess that is something I do now?

source: A Journey around my Room by Xavier de Maistre; translated by Andrew Brown. First published in French in 1795; this translation published 2004.
Hesperus Press Ltd, London UK

No comments: