There’s a gesture people make when handling a photo of their beloved or someone who’s passed away: a finger — always the index — touches the surface of the image to stroke the face or hair, as if the person believed they were making physical contact with the one pictured in the print. A naïve action, maybe, though it speaks eloquently of the immediacy of touch and the frustrations of vision. That gesture seems to be on the wane. No-one strokes a photo on a screen except to manipulate it: scroll, select, crop, zoom in, share, flip to next picture. Likewise, hands manipulating e-readers may touch the page as much as ever, but not to feel the text; the act of turning the page often looks more like an impatient flicking or swatting away.
Roland Barthes’ study of photography, Camera Lucida, is animated by a willful naïveté similar to that of a person who caresses a picture. The book makes the obstinate claim that what you see in a photograph is not merely a representation but a referent; the photo is a “medium” that connects the viewer with reality itself. To be touched or “pricked” by an image is therefore to feel it; the picture, however sleek or glossy, paradoxically has a grit, a grain and a texture. Speaking, for instance, of André Kertész’s photo of a blind violinist walking a dirt road, the critic says of the road’s surface, “its texture [le grain] gives me the certainty of being in Central Europe” [….] “I recognize, with my whole body, the straggling villages I passed through on my long-ago travels” (45, 48). To be touched by a photo is to be “chafed by reality” (115). Accordingly, Barthes makes a firm distinction between (merely) pornographic and (more interestingly) erotic photos; he finds graphic photos boring, but when Mapplethorpe photographs underwear at close range, the critic’s attention is piqued: he becomes “interested in the texture of the material” (42).
Elsewhere, always pursuing an erotics of knowledge, Barthes speaks passionately about the “Grain of the Voice,” “The Pleasure of the Text” and “The Reality-Effect.” But what about the grain of the text? Could the texture of paper be a similar “medium” of contact with the physical reality referred to on the page?
One would probably have to be mad to stroke a book in the places where it affects you the most, say the page in Flaubert’s “Un coeur simple” where an exhausted Félicité is knocked off the road by a passing carriage, then picks up the body of her dead parrot, relieved to find that it hasn’t been damaged; or the scene in Nerval’s Sylvie where Gérard and his girlfriend put on the fancy clothes of Sylvie’s grandparents for an innocent childhood “wedding” in the country. To add to our doubts, at least one eminent critic has specifically rejected the premise of tactile reading.* And yet our earliest feelings when learning to read and write are bound up with a wide range of sensations, including the tactile experiences of scratching, rubbing, crumpling and tearing. Children still learn to read with wooden blocks, and the bodily memory of the texture and relief of block letters is no doubt awakened when one handles pages on which letters are deeply embossed. This must be why Proust’s “inner book” of the mind is insistently rendered in images of carved and deeply imprinted physical symbols.
As for the inner book of unknown symbols (symbols carved in relief they might have been, which my attention, as it explored my unconscious, groped for and stumbled against and followed the contours of, like a diver exploring the ocean-bed), if I tried to read them, no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us [….] This book, more laborious to decipher than any other, is also the only one which has been dictated to us by reality, the only one of which the ‘impression’ has been printed in us by reality itself (Time Regained, 1981, pp. 913-14).**
In Proust’s extended metaphor (but is it a metaphor?) reality stamps the mind with “unknown symbols,” composing a mental book of printed “impressions” the author must try with great effort to decipher. There’s a strange equivocation, though, in Proust’s use of “impression,” a word he singles out with quotes as though to separate it, as mere figure of speech, from the physical nature of the very real thing he hopes to capture with his musing and evocative description. “Impression” is just a metaphor, Proust seems to be saying, hence the quotes; don’t take the word too literally. On the other hand, the quotes around “impression” may serve to emphasize the word’s multiple meanings: an impression, Proust would be saying, is both the stamped imprint and the sensations registered by the mind. In other words, when we say we have an impression, that we register some feeling, we should keep in mind, Proust says, that this is literally the case: we are printed matter, the unconscious textual support of the world’s writing machine.
Such seems to be the lesson taught to Marcel by the famous episode of the madeleine: an overwhelming impression of the past is reawakened when he sips the tea in which he dipped a piece of the cake. Crucially, the memory can only be recaptured by means of involuntary recollection — “mechanically,” Proust pointedly says. Moreover, the object that triggers the author’s entire vast project of anamnesis is something formed in the mold of a metal sheet, mass-produced and “printed” as if by an inverted letter press. Here is the first mention of the madeleine (in Lydia Davis’ marvelously limpid, uncluttered new translation of the first volume of In Search of Lost Time):
She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though they have been moulded in the grooved valve of a scallop-shell. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a sad future, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a piece of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside of me (Swann’s Way, 2003, 45).
Proust’s description of the memory-provoking cake shows us both the object and its hollow mould in order to insist on the figure of “impression” — a motif subtly reinforced by the image of the (metal) spoon with its softened contents. The cake may be readily dissolved and eaten, but its impression remains, both in the form of the bakery mould and in the mind that bears the trace of its mental imprint, a victory of memory over time’s destructiveness.
Proust’s commentators generally emphasize the role played by the senses of taste and smell in the author’s quasi-magical recapturing of the past.*** However, taken together with the above quote describing Proust’s “inner book,” the passage introducing the madeleine can be read as containing in germ a theory of haptic reading. This theory would hold that just as the objects of the world leave a lasting imprint, so the writer’s ideas exist both in his mind and in the physical world. The text, with its literal imprints of the writer’s thoughts, is the palpable medium in and through which we touch the mind of the author. To fully read the author’s “inner book,” then, our fingers have to caress the hollows and ridges of the words’ graphic impressions on the printed page.
Needless to say, haptic reading is no longer possible with the majority of texts produced today. Offset, lithograph, laser and digital printing, computer tablets and e-reading devices all deliver their texts on smooth screens and surfaces, preventing any contact with the deeper content of authors’ written works. A whole generation is being raised as spectators to the written page. It seems only the blind still know how to handle a text. The future of reading lies in the faithful archives of older documents and a revival of the Chinese technology of movable type.
* “The kind of paper a novel is printed on, or the texture of its binding, may have very little influence on how we experience a narrative,” says H. Porter Abbott. To his credit, however, the critic allows that one can still find “exceptions.” See H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 27.
** Cited in Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007). An image similar to Proust’s diver appears at the beginning of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which explores how the internet is affecting traditional habits of slow, meditative reading. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” says Carr. “Now I zip along the surface…”. See The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2011), p.7.
** The notable exception being, of course, Howard Loomis’ Legends of Memory: Mapping Proust and Others (Los Angeles: Purgatory, 2009).