What makes a difficult reading?
Some texts are dense. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason comes to mind. Others are poorly written, and I will not name names. Though I do have beef with the overuse of adjectives, particularly in contemporary children’s young adult literature. Some books presuppose significant prior learning, while others simply have very small print.
But there are other factors which can also make reading a slog.
Dickens’ David Copperfield was challenging for me because of the intense relationship between David and his mother. Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby left me numb from the opening page. Perhaps its undercurrent of emotional detachment and depression struck a nerve. I eventually read both of these novels, but only after returning to them years later, finishing David Copperfield after having started it for the third time over several decades. Perseverance paid off and it delighted me as most of Dickens, in the manner of an eccentric friend who needs much forgiveness despite his great virtues. I would not entirely mind such a eulogy.
Copperfield, for all its excellencies will never be my favorite in Dicken’s opus. Bleak House ever outshines that too tender work and Barnaby Rudge is a queer, delightful history to which I would more readily return. Yet, the case will not be closed until I pay a debt to my own Father and read the Pickwick Papers, his favorite.
I turn to the topic of difficult reading, however, in order to explore a specific motif that I find particularly taxing, what could be called the narrative of persecution or torture. Novels such J.K. Rowling’s Order of the Phoenix and Herman Wouk’s The Cain Mutiny each might lay claim to this genre; each has this psychological violin thread running through it.
Let me clarify. These are novels which I do not fault artistically in any substantial way. My difficulty begins and ends with character. In each of the novels, there is an antagonist who grinds against my psyche. Captain Queeg in Wouk’s novel and Dolores Umbridge in Rowling’s.
But to fill out this ‘genre’ or personality type, one might also include:
- Henry Wotten of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray
- Half the characters in Nicholas Nickleby, making it virtually unreadable!1
- The Bishop of Armor Towles Gentleman in Moscow
- Mary Poppins
- Buzz from Home Alone (I know this is not a book)
Characters like Queeg and Umbirdge present a kind of two-faced, bullying, egoistic personality. They are both desperate for status and respect, while simultaneously ready to systematically crush the will and spirit of those under them in order to produce conformity and compliance.
It is not the fact that they are villains. After all, I don’t have the same animosity to Voldemort or Bellatrix Lestrange. Nor does Cruella Deville, the Joker, or Emperor Palpatine irk me. So what is it that is so repellent about these hellions that I have singled out?
It seems to have something to do with a form of domineering coupled with hypocritical manipulation, a falsification of responsibility, lack of ownership, backbiting, calumny, as well as the continual undercutting of reason. This last one is quite painful. Did you do something out of accord with their will? It is only because you are an evil little snit and an idiot to boot. Your reasons are mere excuses, and your excuses are immoral, transparent attempts at subversion.
Their mode of attack takes on a form of psychological torture in which their ‘enemies’ are punished through shame, misinterpretation, and lies.
For this reason, each of these villains, if read through Dante, would descend through the circle of the incontinent, past the violent, and sink to the very deepest pits of Hell. Dante’s Inferno divides Hell into three great sections (incontinence, violence, and fraud). These characters would be firmly placed in that ultimate grave, among the fraudulent.
They would be among those who have betrayed bonds between man and God, sinning not only by a life of disordered desire, or by thumotic anger and brutality, but through an intellectual inversion: the malicious disavowal of our spiritual bonds, thus betrayal of our most fundamental relations. This is the sin of Cain and Judas, the disavowal of our brother and ultimately our Lord. Such unrepentant sinners have earned their place in Hell, not only by making the false seem true, but by inflicting that inversion upon their neighbors.
I can sympathize with the imaginative spiritual geography of Hell found in the Commedia.
The difficulty is that such reading takes on a form of torture, one which arouses in me bitter resentment and loathing. I am not convinced this desire is entirely ill founded (this longing for justice, even the payback of the unrepentant). But I sense the danger and I am not quite willing to make myself a final judge. I am not sure I can safely enjoy such feelings as entertainment.
I am also pretty sure that the tightness of chest, the anxiety, the bitterness I undergo is not entirely good for me! But even more, depending how predominant this element of fraud is, it is not very enjoyable as art.
There is one last difficulty in reading such characters. I have focused on the objective. But as said above, a difficult text can be difficult both in itself and in the hands of a certain reader. What is it that I find so abhorrent here?
It is, of course, recognition—knowing what it is like to be a bad leader, to abuse a position of authority, having the need to win arguments and crush opponents, the demand to be obeyed above and beyond the letter of the law, and then the next day punishing someone for not responding to the spirit of my words! Such reading becomes a mirror, a reminder that I sometimes have the look of a worm and not a man, that the mark of Cain lies hidden in my flesh and I am not above betraying someone with a kiss.
But let me not end here, simply by admitting that I am capable of fraud, that is, betrayal.
Let me for a moment remember what good leadership, let me read the character or gaze upon the true mirror of man. Let me be renewed in that Image which reflects to me the law of liberty and thus secretly what I am one day to look like.
What does the humility of Christ look like? How might the leadership of our Lord be seen reflected in us mortal spirits? It might look like a father saying he is sorry. It might look like a teacher learning from his students, or a supervisor learning and taking advice from a subordinate. It looks like being gentle when one might be harsh, giving credit and encouragement when it is due. In potency, it has an infinitude of a thousand delightful looks which open the door to that breeze, that breath of the Spirit which freshens the soul of a community and is the light of the inner man.
Reading about Queeg or Umbridge is in this respect like drinking bitter medicine, perhaps useful in limited doses.
Nevertheless, I am not convinced that the solution is more Queeg, more Umbridge, more aversion and fiery resentment. Rather, there is something else that must be remembered again and again: those virtues, worthy of love. I can be thankful for such characters, only insofar as they help me remember what it is that I have forgotten.
1Full Disclosure: David Copperfield features the detestable Uriah Heap who has a habit, similar to this author, of suppressing his ‘h’’s. Please note that I have not suppressed this information.