Bakhtin on Reading
In his essay "The Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity", Mikhail Bakhtin writes about the importance of balancing between putting yourself into the character you are reading, and emptying yourself as best you can to properly enjoy the read. You will see him employ the phrase I-for-myself to convey a self-centered reading - one that refuses to see the beauty within the work, if that work does't immediately "speak to them". Now, he does spend time on over-empathizing, but that will be saved for another post
So, What is the I-for-myself Reading?
Ultimately, he wants the reader (the I) to not read as an omnipotent/omniscient minded thinker, which would make them completely disconnected with what the art conveys. To put it simply, he's more so addressing the extent to which we can too easily be the judge. However, that disconnection makes the reader an other, who is distant, and outside of himself - as no man is truly omnipotent/omniscient. This level of assumed omniscience doesn't come naturally, thus resulting in a perversion and distortion. This is the I-for-myself reading.
This causes the reader to cease to be an I. This is someone aware of his own limitations; a typical man - to whom the author writes. This puts him outside of the humble mindset that he should have... making him an other, something elevated above a human reader. This otherness even sets him outside of himself - again, outside of the realm of man. This detachment now makes the reader an other, which, Bakhtin argues, calls into question the appreciation of Christ's incarnation. This is because it was the marriage of the other with the I; God, the other, comes to man, the I. When we forsake the I as a reader, we indirectly forsake a part of Christ's incarnational beauty.
What are Its Effects
I know, you might be thinking that this is a stretch. And that's fine... as much as I love Bakhtin, I still have some small issues with his theories. However, the seriousness of this comes out as he describes what this basic reading-ethos does to the reader's theology (whether they recognize it or not).
...in all of Christ’s norms the I and the other are contraposed: for myself — absolute sacrifice, (and) for the other — loving mercy. But I-for-myself is the other for God. God is no longer defined essentially as the voice of my conscience, as purity of my relationship to myself (purity of my penitent self-denial of anything given within myself), as the one into whose hands it is a fearful thing to fall and to see whom means to die (immanent self-condemnation). God is now the heavenly father who is over me and can be merciful to me and justify me where I, from within myself, cannot be merciful to myself and cannot justify myself in principle, as long as I remain pure before myself. What I must be for the other, God is for me.
In short, Bakhtin is simply saying that living within an I-for-myself mentality can be a means of fragmenting our understanding of God. Now... like I said, that might be extreme, but I think he's on to something by alluding to the reality that reading fiction might play into our theology.
What's the Alternative?
Bakhtin was worried about how we properly engaging thought in a Modern/Postmodern world. Here're his solutions:
Recognize your limitations and your need for others. - maintain humility.
- Ultimately, Bakhtin saw a trend of thinkers arising, promoting the reader as more superior than the author. One of the motives he believes we all go to reading for, whether recognized or not, is for self-betterment. So, if we aren't practicing humility in our reading, we're only enjoying it, then, to a light degree.
Recognize you're entering into someone else's creation. - maintain readiness.
- This can be seen a couple of ways in his works. The first is to be ready to be taught or entertained. Don't expect to find problems... or you will. All men are fallible, and therefore, so are their works. The second is to be ready to acknowledge faults, though humbly. He's warning us to not be naive, and assume that what we're about to read is gold. But as we find issues, don't disregard the work entirely. In other words, "don't throw the baby out with the bath water."
Recognize your freedom as a creative "author". - maintain enjoyment.
- Though some are very clear-cut, many works are left ambiguous for the reader's imagination. One of which is the Stendhal's The Red and the Black. Told with the styling of a Les Miserables, Stendhal's work has many ambiguous scenes (and even ending). Bakhtin thinks you're equipped enough to handle them with artistic freedom.
Recognize that reading affects you as a whole. - most things go back to theology for Bakhtin.
Bakhtin appears to be very anti-compartmentalization. To him, almost all things affect all things. So, theology will come up in most of his works - and rightfully so. His hermeneutic is a reminder that the self is always wanting to elevate itself to a faulty extreme - to the degree that the reader unintentionally idolizes the self over others people, and therein, over God.
Maybe there's something for you here. Maybe not. Either way, I hope you check Bakhtin out sometime. He offers a ton!