nov. 22


1.  Explain Sartre’s distinction between revealing (e.g. perceiving, reading, conjecturing) and producing (e.g. creating, writing, projecting).  Sartre says that a creative writer – as opposed to say “a carpenter or potter working according to traditional patterns” – can’t look at what she creates in the same way as a reader uninvolved in its creation.  The difference, Sartre argues, is that the writer “produces the rules of production.”  To ourselves our writing lacks the opacity and open-endedness (or “obscurity”?) that is the condition of objectivity (and likewise of reading): “without waiting, without a future, without ignorance, there is no objectivity” (50). So Sartre says the writer can never read, i.e. become an object for, himself:  “if he re-reads himself, it is already too late.  The sentence will never quite be a thing in his eyes.  He goes to the very limit of the subjective without crossing it” (51).  Hence Sartre claims that writing as a readable object is implicitly a “joint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind.  There is no art except for and by others” (51-2); do you agree?

2.  what does Sartre mean by the related claims i) that reading “posits the essentiality of both the subject and the object” because “the reader is conscious of disclosing in creating, of creating by disclosing” (52); and ii) that the “literary object, though realized through language, is never given in language,” but “is by nature a silence and an opponent of the word” (52)?  the implication of these claims for Sartre is that the literary text is inexhaustible:  “while [the reader] reads and creates, he knows that he can always go further in his read, can always create more profoundly, and thus the work seems to him as inexhaustible and opaque as things” (54).

3.  Sartre says two things in one paragraph concerning all literary works, but the connection between these two claims isn’t obvious: i) that every such work is an “appeal” (54), and ii) that the appearance of every such work is “a new event which cannot be explained by anterior data” (54).  What’s the relation between these two claims?  what is a literary work appealing for if not an explanation?

4.  what’s the difference between a “regulative function” (e.g. “playing”) and a “constitutive” one (e.g. “recomposing”)? (55)  between being and having an end (56)?  Sartre insists that freedom is a matter of acquiescing to an imperative (56) and that “at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative” (67):  what does this mean?  how does it relate to Lear’s claim that being a Crow isn’t just a matter of having certain empirical properties but of “making an ideal one’s life’s task” (43)?

5.  why is reading an “exercise in generosity” (58) and art “a ceremony of the gift” (60)?

6.  why does Sartre say that “with the realist we are closest to absolute creation” (62) but that our freedom is “never called forth by natural beauty” (59)?  do you agree?

7.   why is the bulk of this essay titled “why write?” not about writing but reading?  do you find this rationale compelling?


1.  What are the implications of defining a classic in terms not of intrinsic properties but of the “influence” it exerts on personal and cultural history (127-8)?  For Calvino the defining effect of a classic is its surprising richness:  “The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them” (129).  What do you think of this claim?  How does it relate to Sartre’s dialectic of writing and reading?

2.  Why does “no book that talks about a book say more than the book in question” (129)?

3.  Calvino says that a classic must be both intensely personal–that to function as a class means to function on some level as “your” personal classic (129f)–but also that it “takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans” (130); how does the classic reconcile the radically particular/personal with the absolutely universal?

4.  Calvino describes the classic in terms of its “echo effect” (130f); how does this relate to other accounts of echoing we’ve discussed in Kierkegaard, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats?

5.  Why does Calvino claim that “you have to know ‘from where’ you are reading…otherwise both the book and the reader will be lost in a timeless cloud” (132)?

6.  How do you interpret Canvino’s ultimate justification for reading the classics, “that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics” (134)?  how does this relate to the concluding anecdote about Socrates?


1.  Kundera addresses Husserl’s account of the “crisis” caused by the modern “reductive” (17) “passion to know” (3) in terms that echo those of many theorists we’ve discussed, above all Nietzsche on the will to knowledge as a will to death, and Adorno/Horkheimer on enlightenment.  In turn this crisis is associated with a “forgetting of being” and an end of history akin to the end of history discussed by Lear.  Kundera does not oppose the novel to knowledge–on the contrary he claims “knowledge is the novel’s only morality” (6); yet he suggests that novelistic knowledge is irreducible to any other kind of knowledge.  Hence espousing novelistic knowledge amounts to an “insistence in repeating:  the sole raison d’etre of the novel is to discover what only the novel can discover” (5); “the novel cannot live in peace with the spirit of our time.  If it is to go on progressing as novel, it can only do so against the progress of the world” (19).  What can such unworldly, novelistic progress mean?  Kundera’s conclusion doesn’t explain so much as demonstrate that his answer lies in a precisely quixotic devotion, which like Nietzschean love compels not in spite but in virtue of its apparent purposelessness and indefensibility.

2.  what does it mean to read a novel as an “inquiry” as opposed to “moral position” (7)?  Kundera criticizes ‘the desire to judge before understanding,’ but what does nonjudgmental understanding amount to?

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27 Responses to nov. 22

  1. Lauren Weatherdon says:

    Suppose I’ll take a risk and start things off…

    While I agree with most of Sartre’s argument, I disagree with one line: I believe it is too much of a simplification to state that “it is not true that one writes for oneself” (Sartre 51); this sentence is too all-encompassing, since a writer (in my view) does attain a sense of pleasure through the process of writing—otherwise, no one would write. Rather, and I think Sartre means to indicate this, it is the result of writing that is not meant to be for the writer himself. …. Except for the sense of accomplishment, which Sartre explains: “[The author] appreciates the effect of a touch, of an epigram, of a well-placed adjective, but it is the effect they will have on others” (Sartre 51). When placed in this context (i.e. the result of writing), the argument is very compelling: the author’s creation is an extension of his subjective self and, for that reason, he would not derive any further knowledge by then reading what he has already written. As Sartre points out, the author already knows the past, present and future of the text; he is caught in the confines of his own subjective interpretation, which is mirrored by the text. For this reason, he may be able to come close but will never quite reach a state where he can review his text objectively – where he can start over, as a blank slate. On the surface, as with Rousseau, the author may have forgotten the contents of the text, but he will still subconsciously possess the remnants of memory which will influence his interpretation.

    I think the fact that the bulk of the essay discusses reading over writing itself is quite apt, since the act of reading is inherent in Sartre’s explanation of why we should write. Writing projects the fundamental groundwork which prompts the “synthesis of perception and creation” (52) that occurs through reading. Therefore, reading exponentially multiplies the potential of the text: “while [the reader] reads and creates, he knows that he can always go further in his reading, can always create more profoundly, and thus the work seems to him as inexhaustible and opaque as things” (54). The original text exists as the embodiment of one subjective; through reading, the text becomes associated with as many subjectives as there are readers. The only way that the author could truly benefit knowledge-wise from his text would be to read vicariously through another’s perspective (i.e. criticism), and this would only give him second-hand insight into his writing—into his subjective self.

    An important point that Sartre makes is to assert the two-way process that occurs between the reader and the text. The text appeals to the reader’s self, allowing him to intertwine with the narrative and impose his own creativity onto the text. Readers reanimate the text—reading (and re-reading) keeps the text alive and, since the text will never be read the same twice, relevant to the present. Just as the writer gave the gift of himself to the reader, “the writer requires . . . the gift of [the reader’s] whole person, with his passions, his prepossessions, his sympathies, his sexual temperment, and his scale of values” (58). In this way, the reader—like the author—necessarily discloses himself in order to create (or, rather, re-create) the text. Rather than simplifying the text through analysis, reading increases the text’s complexity by adding another layer of interpretation and meaning; it is impossible to uncover all of its facets.

    • boearle says:

      really nicely put lauren. it seems to me you answer your own question about why sartre says a writer can’t just write for him-/herself when you note “Writing projects the fundamental groundwork which prompts the “synthesis of perception and creation” (52) that occurs through reading.” The *process* of writing you describe involves an anticipation of or “appeal to” the reader. you seem to affirm the same idea also when you write “The only way that the author could truly benefit knowledge-wise from his text would be to read vicariously through another’s perspective (i.e. criticism),” and “The text appeals to the reader’s self.” So would you agree that, although a writer may write totally for herself, nonetheless at the same time in order to do so she also requires a certain if only hypothetical “gift” as sartre says “of [another reader’s] whole person”?

  2. Lindsay Vermeulen says:

    I haven’t done enough of the readings to post yet, but looking for the Sartre piece online instead of getting up and getting my binder, found something rather nice:

  3. Natassia Orr says:

    To look at the second question on the Calvino reading:

    Books about books, mainly, work towards explicating what is in a book. While a book about a book may tease out themes that are deeply entrenched, good scholarship requires that any claims made have a basis in the book. To say more than the book means going outside the book, and that is not permitted.

    While a book about a book may be longer than the book it is about (think of S/Z, which is significantly longer than its subject, Sarassine), but when it explicates what the book is saying, it explanations are less compact; when it explains how the book says it, it is explaining rather than showing. Effective books are efficient at expressing the things that they are trying to express.

    There is also the question of what exactly a book says. Barthes argues that the books that are considered good books are writerly texts. Since writerly texts involve the reader, different readers will find that a text says different things. A books exists in a plurality of possibility, a plurality of things that are being said. A book about a book, however, offers one, maybe two possible readings of a text. The form of a book about a book, where meaning is made explicit and clear, is a readerly text, meaning that it has less possibilities that comes with different points of view. In this way, a book about a book says less than that book.

    • Vlad Cristache says:

      In “S/Z” Barthes also claims that “[w]e call any readerly text a classic text” (4). If, for Calvino, the classic text should be the only thing read, then how do you connect it to a writerly text? What Barthes meant when he coined the term “writerly text” was the nouveau roman, the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Novels that, to some extent make no sense, and thus require us to interpret them a great deal more than a 19th century novel such as “Crime and Punishment” (which Calvino would regard as a classic) whose conventions we know. In fact, perhaps not even the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet that Barthes was so obsessed with would qualify; as he puts it: “the writerly text is not a thing, we would have a hard time finding it in a bookstore” (5). Can’t we claim, rather, that the status of these classics as canonical, and thus ever sold, makes them “precisely” the kind of books we would find in a bookstore? (On that note, I’d love to count up the number of classics versus the number of “other” books at the UBC Bookstore).

      Now, the question of not reading books about books I think is a false one put forward by Calvino. In some sense, a truly plural text is one that exceeds its own boundaries, the “text” as such is the whole world, not just what we find between Book I and Book XII of “Paradise Lost.” An interpretation, a book written about “Paradise Lost” would necessarily limit “Paradise Lost” unless we had blind faith in the author that “this is what Milton intended, precisely what this critic is saying.” And even in that case, we shouldn’t care about Milton. The beauty of criticism is the plurality of it: the fact that there are thousands of critics who have interpreted “Paradise Lost” differently. If we stick only to our own reading of “Paradise Lost,” and our two or three other re-readings, then we lose the plurality that reading other critics may give us. The stepping out of our own (limited) interpretation. In fact, as Calvino claims at another point, a classic is already read for us; the effect it’s had on our culture is imbedded in it when we read it. But why not be aware of this effect, of the other interpretations that influence our reading? The separation of the book from the criticism that surrounds it is flawed in two ways: textually this can’t be done; and its attempt is lazy academicism pushed to the point of anti-academicism. Perhaps this is the point?

      But it isn’t. The flaw, and perhaps what kept me away from commenting earlier this week, in both Calvino and Kundera’s articles is that they hold on to the ‘cannon,’ and in the case of Kundera to the European ‘cannon.’ Do we need to start another critique of this Eurocentrism? Let me not even mention the fact that as against ideology as Kundera says he is, his anti-communism is absolutely disgusting (and plays into the ideology of his day in the West, and what a dissident was expected to say). The idea that novels cannot be produced in a totalitarian society is completely absurd. Not only because I’m from one of those totalitarian societies, and can confirm that good novels were still produced, but also because, as Zizek has taught us, embracing totalitarianism is perhaps the most subversive thing to do at the moment. The fact that Kundera closes Europe off at the Catholic/Orthodox divide (Europe ends with Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest, he tells us), and his anti-communism, indicates that for him the ‘cannon’ would perhaps only consist of enlightened Catholic/Protestant anti-communists that live in the West. Can anyone spell cultural wars, and, to some extent, racism?

      I nevertheless must give Calvino his due credit for complicating the opposition between the two types of time posited by Benjamin: the nunc stans, and normal everday time. He claims that one (the classic) relies on the other (the contemporary), and through the metaphor of background noise (in [13] and [14]), does a wonderful job of destroying this dichotomy.

      • boearle says:

        but can “a truly plural” text ever be said to be merely about a particular other book? i think it’s such *self-* limitation to merely explication that’s at issue. also, don’t calvino and kundera add a crucial wrinkle to their defense of the canon by doing so in such emphatically paradoxically, and finally *hysterical* terms? doesn’t defending the canon in such terms having the effect, on some level, of marginalizing the canon from within?

  4. Carmel Ohman says:

    Re: Sartre #2 …

    The idea of a piece of literature being “given in language” (52) is a ludicrous one. This would imply a fusion of the work’s components to produce a finite set of meanings, with nothing existing beyond the arranged morphemes on the page. More than that, this idea is absurd because language is a mediator and functions, arguably, in the same way that Sartre’s conception of the literary object does: it requires “two distinct agents” (51) to be meaningful. The arbitrary letters, spellings, word orders, “black marks on paper” (50) have no capacity for meaning in themselves; they hold significance only insofar as they pass through the matrix of human interaction. In spite of this commonality between language and the literary object, the latter can still be interpreted as “a silence and an opponent of the word” (52) because “the word” in this context implies a reducibility that the literary object simply does not possess. If the object exists, as per Sartre’s discussion, as a creation belonging equally to the author and the reader, it is “as inexhaustible and opaque as things” (54) because it lies open to an infinite number of subjective interpretations.

    Reading “posits the essentiality of both the subject and the object” (52) because the process of human interaction would be incomplete without it. More specifically, the process would be incomplete without the human freedom that the reader brings to the equation. The literary object could not act as a mediator for and simultaneous embodiment of human freedom if it were not exposed to the awakenings of the reader. In the same way, the reader would have no channel for his subjective interpretations if he had no literary object with which to interact – if he weren’t exposed to the “revealings” and creative spirit put forth by the original author. It also goes without saying that if the object were removed from the equation, the process of human interaction between author and reader (i.e. second author) would be halted.

    If the process is halted – say, the writer stashes the manuscript in his attic for fear of criticism, or the potential reader doesn’t feel compelled to read the book after all, does the literary object exist in a kind of vacuum? This question recalls another question: “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” It seems to me that the answer to both questions in this context is: it doesn’t matter. I say this because, it seems to me, Sartre is emphasizing human interaction above all else. If there are no human eyes or ears to receive the message, then the message is irrelevant.

    • Arin Vaillancourt says:

      The cry of the tree still exists when no one is around to hear it. Sorrow does not only exist because other people can see it. Your last paragraph really reminded me for some reason of Schroedinger’s cat.

      • Alyzee Lakhani says:

        Arin, I agree with you about how sorrow exists regardless of whether anyone can see it. But I also think that for you and I to say that sorrow exists whether we know about it is a wishful claim, because sorrow is often unacknowledged by the person experiencing it until another person’s response to it gives it gravity by recognizing it. I guess I can’t really speak about this as purely theoretical, since I have often felt that I cannot recognize some sadness that I feel unless I imagine how it would appear to an audience of some kind, whether or not I seek out an actual audience. So I think it is possible for sorrow to exist, but be invisible, barely perceived and ignored even by the person experiencing it, and writing I guess is a way to bring it to light to oneself.

        (By the by, I learned about Schroedinger’s cat today, and for those of you who are interested in learning about it, here is a link to a quick and funny layman’s poem about it:

  5. Madeline Fuchs says:

    In response to question one about the Calvino reading (but also about the reading in general).

    I was slightly confused at Calvino’s conveniently numbered “suggested definitions.” I felt like there were a number of contradictions in his writing. He first suggests that in order to read the classics we must be well read, following that with obviously assuming that people of a young age cannot be well read. I understood this as Calvino suggesting that we need some sort of worldly experience in order to fully comprehend and appreciate the classics – which to be honest, I kind of agree with.

    However, he then complicates things in his definition #4, “Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.” It seems here that he would want us to retain our youthful, uninfluenced ways rather than our affected and over-studied and over-analyzed experience. And then, to top it all off he suggests (in number 8) “a classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before.”

    Perhaps then, this is the answer to question number one, and the reason for his statement; “The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them” (129). Regardless of the experience we bring to reading a classic, we will a) always be awed by the talent and insight and at the same time b) already be aware and comfortable with the subject matter, and therefore can look further? I end that with a question mark because really, I’m not so sure.

    • Madeline Fuchs says:

      So I definitely didn’t mean to include that totally awesome emoticon face.. that was suppose to be a number 8 and then the end parentheses….

      • Arin Vaillancourt says:

        I think the emoticon made it even more awesome. Who cares about the number eight when you have smiley faces with sunglasses?

      • Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

        I think Calvino’s point was possibly that the youthful, inexperienced first exposure to a classic is just as valuable to a later, well-read, well-educated one, but for different reasons. And that coming back to classic one read in one’s youth is valuable on yet another level, because it reveals something new to the one better educated and more experienced, not just because it imparts a wisdom one can understand better in that state, but also because it reveals more about oneself and the journey one took to get to this more educated/experienced understanding of the work.

  6. Mandy Woo says:

    In order “to read the classics” (134), one must “know ‘from where’ you are reading” (132) or the chronological and critical coordinates of both the reader and the text itself. To do otherwise is “not to read the classics” (134). Classic texts are defined as an act of “rereading […] and never […] reading” (125) because by reading the text (at least once), a set of coordinates have already been created by the reader. So Calvino warns that “[i]t does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world [because] the classics [are] a part of that world” (125) in which the reader has not yet experienced, that is, the reader has not yet coordinated their world, instead the world has been configured for them already. In this way, classic texts are immediately dated as soon as one hears of them, and are dated again and again along the “cultural continuum” (131) of reader interpretation as new readers join the culture of Calvino’s reading with coordinates.

    When he states that “Now I ought to rewrite the whole article to make it perfectly clear that the classics help us to understand who we are and where we stand […] Then I ought to rewrite it yet again, lest anyone believe that the classics ought to be read because they “serve any purpose” whatever” (133-134), it is a pair of statements that Calvino noticeably wants to “make it perfectly clear” (133) not making it a “level best” (129) that one cannot “claim to know more than the text does” (129). Why should texts be read from a framework that demands that they be instructive to our “understand[ing]” alone (133)? To claim “understand[ing]” (133) means claiming satisfaction and complacency with interpretation, which does not permit the act of “rewrit[ing]” (134) because interpretation has already been written. For Calvino, it is “worth taking so much trouble” (134) to work hard to be dissatisfied. He “quote[s] Cioran (who is not yet a classic but will become one)” (134). The phrase in parenthesis is important because it references future acts so new interpretations can emerge, like Crow ways in Lear’s Radical Hope.

    Acting contrary (“learning a tune on the flute (134)) to the canon (“preparing the hemlock” (134)), Socrates is a vehicle for the question of why does a text have to be evaluated as doing “good” (134)? Maybe a question that Calvino poses is not “Why Read the Classics?” but “Why Read?” with “the Classics” in implied parenthesis.

  7. Arin Vaillancourt says:

    *Be forewarned that I am not actually answering any specific question of Dr. Earle’s when you read this post*

    I will admit that I did not read Satre’s entire article and therefore I could be missing the entire point of the essay, but I will say this, his final question was most likely the most relevant question in his entire essay. I have never really thought about the written word as an art form equal to visual art, probably due to the fact that I find too many faults with the written word and the fact that it can be a place devoid of beauty. But there are exceptions to that statement as well, I will admit that there are great works that inspire awe and are beautiful in their own right, but I still do not consider writers as “artists”. Though I will admit both artist and writer are essentially fundamentally involved in the act of creative production. It goes back to Satre’s example of the novice painter and the master painter, the painter can never truly go back and look at his work and say “whoa, I made that?” so the work is never truly finished, but a novel has an ending. There is a finite conclusion drawn to the written word or otherwise all novels would be a never-ending story. And perhaps this is where my distinction lies, or I could perhaps be giving way to my own innate prejudices about writers calling themselves artists, but that is beside the point. Satre asks us at the very end of the essay “for whom does one write?” Well in our case that is an easy question to answer. I am writing this because if I do not, I will not get points for this assignment and subsequently will not do well in the course. I have to write because if I do not, I will fail. So maybe we are supposed to look at someone who does not have to write? Maybe we have to look at someone who has less selfish motives than myself to truly understand the question? Because obviously in my case I am writing for Bo Earle and for my classmates. I am posting this piece so everyone can stand there and judge me for these words that I am writing, and in the end I will be given an arbitrary percentage that tells me how well I expressed my thoughts. So perhaps I am not the best example? I can view this question more favorably though in terms of art. I do not draw, paint, or sketch for anyone else but myself. In fact, I hate letting other people see my art because I am terrified of what they will say or how they will judge me based on my competence and skill. The question still stands, but I will rephrase it, “for whom does one create?” and my answer may differ entirely from anyone who reads this post. I produce works of a creative nature for myself, for my own world and for my own pleasure. It is entirely personal, subjective, and selfish. I am curious to know how everyone else viewed this question when they read it? I know in the honors program there are lots of people who dabble in more creative aspects of writing than essay writing, so I want to know why do you write?

    P.S. I should also tell you guys I wanted to somehow work in “ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” somewhere in my essay but it never worked out. I was totally bummed out about that, but I’m putting it here because I wanted to.

    • boearle says:

      it seems like donne’s point in ‘for whom the bell tolls’ relates to the question of whether unrecognized sorrow exists any more than the unheard sound of a falling tree. but if, as donne insists, every man is a part of me, doesn’t this mean that everyone’s sorry matters to each of us on some level? isn’t sartre’s notion that “There is no art except for and by others” likewise positing such a radical and irreducible interconnectedness? art awakens us precisely to the tolling ‘appeal’ of this interconnection.

  8. Alyzee Lakhani says:

    Arin I’m intrigued by some of your questions and am going to try and answer some of them, (though at this point I don’t know what I’m going to say).

    Why do you think that creative writing is not an art? I think that although a novel has an ending, its ending or any other plot point can always be changed. Even if the entire plot of the novel were to remain the same, adding or removing a scene, or changing the some of the words used could produce a very different effect – if we were both given a plot and told to write a novel, the two novels would probably be very different aesthetic experiences for whoever read them. This means that novels are much more than their plots, and have many manipulable elements, just like sketches and paintings. Don’t you think the uncountable ways you can render a novel or any piece of writing make it art, because the writer has to make choices about composition?

    I’ve written stories before and made paintings for classes, and I never felt that they were ever really finished, even though I thought that if I worked any more at them then they would become overworked and less pleasing to me. I guess that’s what Satre means when he writes “even if it appears finished to others, …we can always change this line, that shade, that word” (49). In the classes where a piece of writing is an assignment that is due in class, and I find writing for those classes is difficult because its harder to forget that I have to write something OR ELSE…I guess I can’t really feel free enough to write unless I forget that it is required of me. There are selfish motivations for my writing all this here too, apart from being noted as having participated in eng491 this week. When I write here, I have the opportunity to appeal to others’ receptivity, and even if only a few of my classmates read what I’ve written, I console myself with the notion that my thoughts have resounded in others, and this makes me feel less alone and like I exist a little bit more than I did before I was seen and heard.

    Writing here is scary because others are free to scoff or roll their eyes at my work (which is probably why I am not writing pour-your-heart-out poetry and will not ever admit to doing so :P), but I think that what Satre means by “the work of art is a value because it is an appeal” (56) is that what is valuable about writing and putting it out there is the brave little leap of faith that it must involve.

    Do you think that’s what Satre means about a value? He says that the written work presents “a task to be discharged …at the level of the categorical imperative” (56). I’m not way familiar with Kant, but I guess this means that the book asks to be read, and if you do read it, your reading must be that act of “disclosing in creating, of creating by disclosing” (52). So a reader must *value* the appeal of the book in deciding to read it, since it is a free decision, meaning one not motivated by necessity or passion?

  9. Raquel Baldwinson says:

    What is the connection between these two claims Sartre makes:

    1. A literary work is an “appeal” and
    2. the appearance of every such work is “a new event which cannot be explained by anterior data” (54).

    Before Sartre goes on to make these two claims, he says, “Creation can find its fulfillment only in reading” (54).

    It is essential to grasp this statement in order to grasp his following assertions.

    He is making the assertion that to read is to realize a creation—to facilitate it, to collaborate in it. This is different from how we usually talk about a book: how the book unfolds a story before our eyes, how the story takes you on a journey, and how you can get sucked into a book. These figures of speech kind of misidentify the mechanism of reading.

    A more suitable figure of speech might be to say, the reader’s imagination brings the story to life, or breathes life into the story. To read is to collaborate in the creation of an objective reality. The reader lends her confidence, her belief, her mind, her emotions. She constitutes the creation that otherwise would not occur; unread words create nothing. Thus reading is not a revelation, exposition or elucidation. Instead, it is directed imagination and inspired creation: “The imagination of the spectator has not only a regulating function, but a constitutive one. It does not play; it is called upon to recompose the beautiful object beyond the traces left by the artist” (55).

    So, when Sartre makes the claim, “the appearance of the work of art is not an event that can be explained by anterior data”, he is challenging the idea that a piece of art is constituted by its own parts. The art is not constituted by its parts. Rather, it is constituted by the reader. Thus it is necessarily an appeal; it is an appeal “to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (54).

  10. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    Oh Arin! You are a girl after my own heart! Though I’m somewhat perplexed as to why on earth you would subject yourself to Honours English if you find the literary world a place devoid of beauty. Good God! But I completely relate. For a start most of my creative work (and there are volumes of it) was initially for ME– or I thought it was at the time that I wrote it (I am rubbish with visual art incidentally, and have no patience for it, so i might say the same thing you about visual art– that I find it so often devoid of beauty).

    It strikes me as though you would prefer, instead of talking about art, to just create it. And I completely sympathise with that sentiment. Writing for a professor of literature has a particular aim of which you are aware– you want a good grade. Creative writing is something you do largely for yourself– as you put it– because you really don’t know who you are writing for. If it is not for your professor or your friend or your lover or your children–then who is it for? The question is an interesting one and I think it was fitting that Sartre ended his essay with it.

    I have to say, much of Sartre’s essay rang true for me in the sense that I very much believe that creative efforts of any kind are an attempt to express a desire for something we often cannot identify. Sarte’s description of the sort of pact between the author and the reader made a lot of sense to me, because it really is a description of what I believe people do through imaginative creativity–which is attempt to make a connection.

    When you write a love poem, you have a definite idea of the object of your affections– most of the time. But sometimes creative efforts are really your attempt to FIND someone who speaks a similar dialect. In fact, I suppose you could say that all creative efforts are that attempt– it’s just that when you have an object in mind for whom you write, you have already assumed that kinship of language.

    So I suppose while I appreciated much of Sartre’s essay i feel a little as though he is describing the best case scenario of writers and readers. An idealistic world in which people are open to each other’s peculiar modes of communication and love to attempt to speak in a foreign tongue– as it were.

    I have been to too many coffee house open mic nights to think that most writers write for simply for the freedom of the creative process it affords writers and readers. Most writers write because they are looking for a connection with people who can understand them. They are not there for strangers to interpret (or misinterpret) them– they are there to find a kindred spirit. I wonder if Sartre would consider this bad writing? If he did I’m not sure I would agree.

    If I may venture a personal anecdote, I recall reading some of my poetry at an open mic night in South Van some years ago (dear God it was like 8 years at least) and feeling immediately uncomfortable after I had finished my reading because I suddenly realised I had just given half the people in the room the impression that I was a lesbian.

    This was disturbing not because I was homophobic, mind you, but because I was seriously afraid that no one in the room understood me at all– that I was, quite literally, alone. Everything I had said, in my shoddy attempt to make a connection, meant people would attempt to interact with me based on certain assumptions that were completely false. I had exposed myself, creatively speaking, to a room full of people who were now bent on looking at me in a particular way. Sort of like a native women who goes about bare-breasted and wonders why the white people keep staring at her chest. They were completely looking at me the wrong way and quite obviously illustrating my character according to their own particular prejudices and getting me all wrong.

    I don’t blame them for this– the poem in question was quite erotic and not at all written for a man. But it was not written for a women either and I realised that I had equally misjudged my audience as much as they had misjudged me. I had not anticipated that my audience would assume a particularly secular interpretation of my poem– that they had no idea where I was coming from and that I really could not have expected them to.

    Anyway– the point is that I think most writers do write for themselves in that the creative dialogue set up between a writer and a reader is really an effort to make a connection with like-minded people so that we can affirm our own particular views to some degree, and enrich them with slight variation. If I read a book that I detest I will never engage that writer again because we clearly do not see eye to eye. I recall feeling that way about “The Mill on the Floss”– as far as I’m concerned nothing but a failing grade will entice me to read any more Georgie Eliot because she rubbed me completely the wrong way. No part of the book enriched me whatsoever. It wasn’t simply that it wasn’t my taste or that it offered a different ideal than my own, but that it made no sense to me whatsoever. She may as well have been speaking Martian her view of the world and of life was so completely alien.

    Is this narrow-minded? Well probably. But I agree with Calvino that to read the classics is better than not to read them. I think, however, he hit the nail on the head when he mentioned that you must have your own personal classic and that you do not learn from a classic anything that you did not already know before— the classic–your personal classic– defines you as a person– or it is the book you wish to define yourself by perhaps. I suppose they are two sides of the same coin really. I’d be interested in what everyone else’s self-defining pieces of literature are for the very reason that talking about literature can all be a way of forging those connections that we attempt through writing (or creating) our own works of art.

    • boearle says:

      you must read middlemarch–one of the richest and most beautiful books ever

      • Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

        Yes I’ve heard that– or been lectured about it extensively actually. Really, “The Mill on the Floss” was a beautiful story beautifully written. It was the way the narrator lectured the reader about the opinions they ought to be forming of the characters that drove me crazy and ruined the effect of the rest of the narrative for me. (She was ding-bat crazy wasn’t she, that George Eliot?) Anyway– I am conscious of the fact that reading “Middlemarch”– for example– would be better than not reading it. Nevertheless, it’s definitely at the bottom of my to read list because I don’t trust the author to allow me the freedom to form my own opinions about her book.

      • Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

        Is Middlemarch YOUR personal classic then?

      • boearle says:

        it’s definitely one of them!

      • Arin Vaillancourt says:

        Goodness. That book nearly gave me an aneurysm when I read it. @

        @Rhiannon, I’ve got three books that are my classics: The 13 1/2 lives of captain blue bear by Walter Moer, Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris, and The King of Pizza by Sylvester Sanzari. You can ask me about them in person if you like. 😉

        I will also tell you a story since you were kind enough to tell me a story and I love stories. In my first year of university (which was two years ago) I decided to try my hand at a visual art course. Mind you, I have only ever taken traditional drafting (architecture) and photography in high school, so I knew coming into the course I would be at a severe disadvantage since I was never taught how to “draw”. True, my father is a civil and mechanical engineer, and is a very talented artist in his own right and has taught me how to replicate things I see into drawings. He has taught me how to shade and how to create the illusion of 3D with the thickness of lines. He has been teaching me small things all along the way. But nevertheless, I have never been formally taught how to draw. So I venture into this art course and every single week is complete misery. I pour my heart into every single drawing and I failed half of the assignments. I spent over 5 hours doing a perspective drawing in my friend’s room and I recieved a 50%. I was crushed. I never wanted to pick up a pencil again. I hated myself and I thought I could never do anything artistic again because I was such a failure. It was awful. I actually went and spoke to my TA about it, and he told me how they grade the drawings. They spreaded everyone’s work out on the floor and established parameters based on who had a good drawing and who did not. But that was what got under my skin. “Good” art versus “Bad” art. Yeah? So freaking what you have a doctorate in art? Who are you to judge me so callously and cruelly? Who are you to give me a 50% on something I poured my very soul into? But sadly, it is the way of the world. And I will add that they TAUGHT US NOTHING in that course. It was demonstration and execution, very little guiding and teaching as well. To this day I have never taken another art course at UBC.

        @alyzee It’s very simple. Writers call themselves “writers” not “artists”. Would you call yourself an artist? I think the farthest you could go would be wordsmith. It may not make sense, but that’s how I feel. You can also talk to me in person if you want to get more of a feel of my opinion on this topic.

  11. Tina says:


    The anecdote at the end is pure genius. Cioran will become a classic because the reader, after having read of him (presumably for the first time) will feel compelled to dig up more information on him! If not, she’d recognize this little anecdote every time she sees his name. Why do we choose to read what we read? We say things like, life’s too short to be spent on reading a bad book – before flinging the twilight book out the window. But classics are different. According to Calvino “to have read it is better than not to read it at all” because “it helps up to understand who we are and where we stand.” (133) Get rid of our notions that the Classics is a universal list – Calvino says that its clearly an individual experience.

    The classic reconciles the radically personal with the absolutely universal because we can always relate to the universal values of the world – what gives you happiness, what gives you sadness etc. After all, he calls reading a classic a “re-reading.” You’re reading and adding your own unique thoughts and interpretation to the discussion. As students of literature I’m sure we’re seeing this everyday – it’s a never ending discussion that we’re contributing to in our own way.

    I’m currently taking this awesome class on a literary masterpiece from ancient China and it amazes me how much I don’t know about my own culture, and also just how completely westernized and diluted my culture has become. I’m unable to appreciate the little nuances in the book, as well as the Confucian ideals. But it’s a classic, I relate to it in many personal levels, and the discussion generated from this is still a contemporary and relevant as ever.

  12. Lindsay Vermeulen says:

    re: Calvino #2

    A book about a book does not say more than the book in question because it is about one book and cannot possibly explicate every single structure in the entire book, so it simply inflates certain passages of the book it is based on. Also, it assumes readership of the original book and thus transplants the other author’s thoughts etc.

    Maybe a useful analogy is a batch of cookies. A single cookie can not contain more than the dough it came from; it is just a part of the original dough expanded and risen in the oven. If well-made, it can be more palatable than the dense original. If poorly made (burnt etc), it can retroactively decrease one’s enjoyment of the untarnished dough. Of course, this implies that the original “dough” is one step short of being complete, which wasn’t what I wanted to imply.. I think the rest of the analogy works though.

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