Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On the act of unfinished reading

Reading – comprehensive reading – is something we learn along the way, step by step. A learning process – a never finished process. We learn the alphabet and how to form intelligible words and sentences. We learn how words are used. Meaning is established in use. We learn how to use words by example of parents, siblings, teachers, friends, etc. – in sum: our peer groups. Within a group of significant others meaning – and its normativity – is established through interaction, reflexively. And the other is not necessary proximate. Meaning is thus not a characteristic of the individual mind. Subjectivism cannot generate normativity. Interpretation is needed but bounded by rules – otherwise: anything goes and a total regression leaves us without meaning. This, however, does not rule out indeterminacy for hard cases. Poetry – some poetry – for example. How to read a poem? How to understand it? Rival understandings are possible, these refer to rival peer groups of readers. Here an example:

The Arrival

a goni a piece. strung by
graven hands on
prison floors. astride the wind.
clung by the ocean. caught
in the kindness of
krinyu, the local doctors
pale as green. witness
to a lost birthplace glimpsed
at a jaundiced dawn.
the sky leaks like the amber
from your eyes. come
closer and smell the country

Laksmi Pamuntjak, the Anagram, section “From the Buru Notebook,” p64

At p77, “The Poet’s Notes,” she writes: “Krinyu is a native plant found widespread on the island of Buru.” And Buru is where Suharto’s New Order concentration camp was located. The most famous of prisoners was renowned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer. However, what to make of above poem? It feels airtight – where to enter to start comprehending these words? What does, for example, goni mean? The name of a guitarist, a town or a president? Google does not help here. Style matters. Style is not mere decoration of a content. The what is conveyed through a how. What does a hermetic style convey? Perhaps I am too impatient of a reader. I browse – so now and then my eyes are glued to a phrase.

I also started a few times in her The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art, which is also originally written in English. And again, I do not enter. (Her Jakarta Food Guide, on the other hand, is very accessible, of course, she had a different audience in mind.) She also translated work of Goenawan Mohamad (On God and Other Unfinished Things and a collection of his poems).

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