A PSYCHOANALYS OF READING
By Michael Roloff
[This is both a section from a self-analytic novel of mine, in progress, as well as of a more extensive investigation of the experience of reading certain texts, especially texts by Peter Handke]
Thinking how and when I started to read, I recalled that it was my mother introduced me to this mystery and that it must have been the same Christmas that I, then four years old, in 1940, was given, sat amidst the ambiguous gift of the toy railroad, two trains manipulated by my father to pass simultaneously in opposite directions through a Papier Mache Alpine tunnel colliding inside, their engines throwing sparks, grinding angrily, in frustration.
My mother gave me an alphabet tablet that Christmas, an event that coincided so nearly with my birthday that these two events merge with each other, a tablet that contained in its four sides a moldable substance covered by a piece of plastic of some kind, cellophane I imagine. If you stroked a finger across the plastic letters of the alphabet, intriguingly, arose out of the substance - and what I recall of that moment was not only the sight of the tablet and what transpired if you stroked your finger across it, letters of the alphabet that she identified, and then words made up of the letters that referred to object to which she could point, but I also recall, as distinctly, the expression on my mother’s face, quizzical as well as expectant; as typical during many of these rare intimate encounters between mother and son!
Through a process of elimination I concluded that I could only have received that wax tables on which I learned the alphabet, the elementaries of reading, the introduction to a reading mind on Christmas of 1940. I reached this conclusion on the basis of the knowledge that I would not see my mother for a number of years and not at Christmas for another six years, rarely in-between. But that as of that year, of leaving on my travels in spring 1941, I knew how to read, I learned very rapidly it appears: because I recall being able to decipher the headlines of newspapers during these first travels, headlines of an expanding Reich, of conquests, of victories.
Yet I don’t associate x-mas with that gift, only the moment with my mother. She herself must have noticed that I was as fascinated by what people were reading as I was by the scent of flowers. I must have seen parents and grandparents and others reading, it was called “lesen” in German, that is what they did and I seem to have been curiosity itself, however no bee so far has arisen out of a text and stung me in the nose, although I have [of course?] been dumbstruck by what I read.
I still have photos of my mother leading a pudgy two to three year old, by his harness, strapped over his upper body, like a young dog or horse, from flower to flower – did a bee ever sting my nose or am I hallucinating the experience? My mother is modishly dressed [in the fashion of the late 30s], squatting modestly, the women are meant to squatt, a sassy Tyrolean hat, a charming expression of a mother in love with the fact that she has a child: she appears nearly to be blushing as she is being photographed: by whom - by my father? Gabriel, chubby, in a toddler’s wool pants, oblivious of the photographer, his attention is entirely engaged by the flower, their scent: nose gay! Roses.
I was not supposed to clamber all over people’s laps while they were reading, which was done sitting on a chair or couch. My grandfather with the touchy toes worried that I might step on his feet. The expression “Don’t disturb, Opa, don’t disturb your father… he is reading!” I must have heard. Perhaps I had even heard the word “auf-lesen” which means to pick up, referring to toys I strewed about, in lieu of leaving the task to my governess. “Lesen” was something that eyes did, they picked something up, a mystery. Mysterious black salad on white paper, could you read the lines on birch bark, too? White! Near invariably. The cheaper the grayer, towards the end of the war wood pulp seemed mixed with all kinds of paper even the toilet rolls if you didn’t use newspapers to wipe your arse. How would eyes ever decipher that black mysterious mess, what might be so fascinating about it, what gems did it hold, or pick out the gems that elicited smiles or curses from readers of newspapers: did the rapt attention, that other-worldly look of someone apparently entranced, in or by a book, keep me from molesting them, how much instinctive deference was I born with, was I born with the kind of manners one of my grandmother’s claimed you were born with, a problematic equation if you doubted that you were. Or not?
Reading words was not only done sitting on a chair, or couch, but in special places, say by the big fire place nook which had two couches and a big round oaken table, lit by candle-shaped bulbs that shed a gentle brownish-yellow, brunette glow through wax mantles, a big round nicely grained oaken table on which people also played cards, Skat. People seemed to read the cards they held. Reading required light, daytimes by the veranda window. My father even had a room reserved entirely for reading, it was called “the reading room,” and was especially bright, it was a corner room on the first floor and had not just windows to the west and south, but glass bricks. It had shelves all around up to the height of the window-sills, behind which I found, aged ten, handfuls of condoms, which I took into the living room, showed to my mother who was having tea with friends, asking what these were for, my mother blushed and lied that they were for smoking, this was the room where my father had his flings with so-called secretaries when my mother had her one and only affair, but this was after the war, and I am shooting about six years ahead of myself here.
It was at age four, Christmas, my mother gave me a wax tablet, wooden borders encased cellophane covered a glistening dark grey wavy reflecting substance, a moldable mass, and showed me that if you stroked your hand or a finger over that smooth soft surface letters words, might arise out of the wax, wondrous! All kinds of similar, snazzier writing tablets still exist, and writing tablets go back to the invention of writing in Mesopotamia.
As she made her explanation her head cocked at the angle from which she watched what my reactions would be, an angle that my famous peripheral vision gleaned even at that early age. - I was hooked! A B C … Certain letters in combination could be pronounced, referred to objects and beings that I knew: Mutter, Vater, Omi for grandmother, Lite [short for Elizabeth] for the governess, Hund [hound] for the wire hair Terrier who had the odd given name “Poetter”. Something funny occurred inside your head when you had a name for an object, and the object appeared to become less mysterious once it had a name and it was even stranger when that word might arise from as mysterious a substance, as now, a computer screen.
According to Ms. Jessica Love : “In a second experiment, the researchers tested whether children could learn the more difficult relationship between the syllable strings that made up the words in the miniature language and those that spanned word boundaries (but were still possible utterances, e.g., pitudo, which spans lapitu and donegi). Again, the infants showed discrimination. All of this is especially impressive, given the amount of exposure they had to the artificial language. A day? An hour? Try two minutes. http://theamericanscholar.org/parse-this/#comment-318677595
which means that I, who already made his father proud, his only pride in me, that I had cottoned to Mozart, my unconscious automatism had learned to discriminate, to understand words, and, evidently, I was obeying the inbuilt predisposition to create grammatical structures, hooks all, but as different as those for catching different size fish, also musically. If you strung words together in a certain way… verbs especially did something. Do, can, be! Don’t!
First came vowels: O as when you pursed your mouth in a circle, A was circulars as well, but not as precisely defined, you didn’t need to mimic the shape of the sound, the sound was produced in the back of the throat; so was its “Ä” umlauted version; ditto for U, you needed to alter the set of your throat; “Ü” seemed very musical, as did Ö. Consonants were an entirely different matter, pursing your lips together to form an M was an action you seemed to have been performing all your [short!, was I aware of its shortness then?] life, “mmm” mother, teeth tongue lips gums the back of the throat came into play with consonants; some were really difficult – all those different sibilants, the K, the CH, the TS, the Z, ZET in German – and Q what a bitch the Q was!: K + W plus a tad of “u” inbetween, which was why the first most memorable word in my vocabulary was German for guppies: Kaulquappen – there these frogs-to-be swam like black sperm wiggling teensy tails in our pond, the duck soup opened gaps where you spotted them, guppies to be were long gelatinous strings that frogs had strung here there everywhere, strings with small white dots in them that turned into Kaulquappen, that sounded like something that could bite, that turned into more frogs: the entire pond quaked with frogs leaping about – what a musical pond - onto the shore and from the shore back into the pond – plop, plop, plop it went all day and night, when do frogs sleep?, especially when you approached the edge of the pond, dove around the green delicate duck soup vegetation that so resembled the Japanese paper flowers as these were called that my mother dipped into water where the paper blossoms came alive, unfolding nearly like words as words became comprehensible on my magic writing pad and inside the evidently growing mass inside my head, words unfolding in your brain. Comprehension, can you take it for granted? Kaulquappen: What a big word for such tiny, animated beings. So many consonants and an “au”, as in “ouch”, oh how often you say “au” in German as a toddler who falls and runs into objects that gradually acquire names. - Ever since I heard of the bushman’s “click” language I have regretted that the “click” has, had expired, perhaps even prior to reaching the Indo-European lineage. If you combined vowels and consonants in a certain way… there was meaning; another way might assure amusing nonsense, children’s DaDa. Initially, a baby’s vocalizations contain the full range, which then acquire constraints. Those rules become really interesting. What a lot of picking up and translating the eyes and mouth had to do… masses of detailed information… and all at the same time… a la, la, it made your head whirr just thinking of those simultaneities. At first it went very slowly: Ooo… Mmm… Eee! Omi! [Grandma!] There, I could read it, look at Omi in her severe dark dress, and she smiled at me out of her beautifully shaped oval face! Not every word smiled back that easily. Later in life you encounter other alphabets, Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic and many another, and until you learn them they remain as mysterious as the first.
By the time I entered a one-room school in Vornbach-am-Inn Fall 1942 or Spring 1943 words had become magic that could be written down and that arose ex nihilo out of WACHS. The wax could be molded, sort of, all you needed do was stroke a finger across it. Thence children’s books, Struwelpeter, Max + Moritz, Wilhelm Busch and his village sadists, and of course the newspapers, war war war, headlines big fat headlines: Blitzkrieg, Kesselschlachten [siege battles, like Sebastopol or Stalingrad] Luftangriffe, air attacks, the expanding Reich and then the contracting Reich with which you were meant to identify since you were a German boy. And did. When your parents called at Christmas from Istanbul you sang to them the first song you had learned by heart, the grim anthem of the German Navy: “We lay at anchor near Madagascar and had the Plague on board”, who – in the resistance to Hitler since the mid-thirties - later told you how you had horrified them. What if I had sung, off key, too, the Horst Wessel Lied: “S.A. marchiert mit festem forschen Tritt!”?
School at age five in a Volks Schule in Vornbach-am-Inn… a slate board on which chalk screeched, the slate stylus you held for writing on your own small slate board, that had wooden edges just like the wax board… the lettering Gothic! You could write… could retreat into reading or try to spend as much time outside, say in the woods, away from my overseer policewoman. Vornbach-am-Inn, just up-river from Passau, a very Stifterian region as I would discover many years later on reading Wittikov, a book I read to see what Peter Handke meant when he told Zeit interviewer Ulrich Greiner that his CROSSING THE SIERRA DEL GREDOS was his Wittikov:
“At the upper reaches of the Danube you come on the town of Passau. The stream has just now left Bavaria and grazes this town at one of its noon gates to the Bavarian and Bohemian forests. This gate is a strong and steep cliff. The bishops of Passau have built a mighty fortress on it, the main building, so as to defy, occasionally stubbornly defend themselves against their vassals below. Towards the morning of the main house, on a different stony ridge, there stands a smallish house that used to belong to the nuns and that is therefore called the “nun’s estatelet.” Between the two mountains ridges there runs a gorge with a water spurting out of it which, regarded from above, is as black as ink. That is the Ils, a river that comes from the Bavarian-Bohemian forests, which sends its brown and black waters Danubewards and here joins the Danube whose midnight-like shores it etches with dark bands. The main building and the Nun’s Estatelet look down at Passau toward midday, Passau which resides on a broad earthen back on the other side of the Danube. Further back of the town is yet another water that flows in from the distant noonday high mountains. That is the Inn which, too, flows into the Danube at this spot, but also clasps it at its noon-side but is of a gentle green. The thus augmented Danube now continues in the direction between Morning and Midday and has at its shores, especially at its midnight ones, strong heavily forested mountains which are extreme outliers of the Bohemian forest that reach the water here…
my reading experience of CROSSING THE SIERRA DEL GREDOS being one of the several major reading events towards which this essay is ambling its way, flowing, also in spurts, hop-scotching.
The first major emotional impressions that books made, starting at age seven I would say – There! Only a few years ago you were barely able to decipher words and now a bucket full of them is having a major impact! - I was back at home base, the Fichtenhof [Fir Place] with its veranda and fireplace nook and a room of my own, bombers rarely bombed the outskirts, the Reich had begun to shrink, not that I noticed or that it mattered yet, Fridjof Nansen’s, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fridtjof_Nansen
I believe two volumes, Voyage of the Fram [Farthest North], with photographs, not as you might think because Voyage is a lark of an adventure story, its descriptions of the good wooden expeditionary ship – the Fram - locked in ice, crushed, impacted aspects of a traumatic memory that I would not start to unravel for another forty years, traumas and their memories do not vanish with time, they are inscribed in body memories: for the opposite of such extreme cold was extreme heat, fire and ice. Iceland with its volcanoes. It appeared that early on in life I had been burning. These extremes had their bodily memory and were elicited by reading an account of an arctic expedition; thus, that book was one of several that made a big and memorable etch in the wax memory board inside my head. I read oodles of sagas and books from my father’s collection of the world’s fairy tales and learned to turn the world into dreams of that kind. Yes, to be surrounded by a library from early on in life. The saga and fairy tale collections turned the world into a fairy tale – all explanations, all attempt to make sense then are fairy tales?: when what turned out to be an injured B-17 approached our house with a high-pitched screech and nearly crashed into it, swooping just above the roof, ah what a huge whoosh even now, I first imagined it as the Vogel Gryx, a huge mythical bird a bird whose claws would certainly pluck you out of your thatched roof nest and devour you or feed you to its young, oral anxieties it appears were managed in that fairy tale, and the wish to fly and all that implied, a huge shadow rushed over the ground in back of the house towards the orchards and the fields and woods behind the fields – ah! a plane, not a bird as it crashed into the woods beyond the orchard and the fields behind the orchard, and burst into flames, leaving not feathers but machine gun belts, ammunition, metal entrails in its wake.
I was dreamy, I had time to dream. Looking out the dormer window in the loft of the house that breathed through its thatched roof, into the infinite drizzle of Gods fine nasal spray, at the fine filigree of the tall bare pear trees and their oddly gnarled branches, absent parents voices appeared in conversation inside my head. How interesting! How memorable! And for these reasons Walter Benjamin’s essay on Lesskov how fairy tales are formed, form themselves, with its quote “A long whiling [Lange Weile] is the dreambird that hatches the egg of experience" became important to me many years later. Yes, one strong metaphor can summon and summarize, hit the nail on the head! Become a platitude. Benjamin with his two big lobster claws of a mind and his antennae, a cast of mind that could understand minds.
The next book to make a major impression was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That was a year later, by which time there had been the day that I thought I had killed my 60 some year old governess because she was trying to spoon feed 7 year old me as I was ill in bed. I had kicked her in the stomach, and she had fallen and moaned so that I thought she was dying. Perhaps there had been other murderous impulses; for sure! Anyhow, my sense of guilt was developed. I had a conscience by that time. Was I Raskolnikov – the grandmother with the beautiful oval-shaped face didn’t think so. The other grandmother, very delicate, from whose window I had seen the fairy tale monster bird turn into a monstrous bomber, read, heard her daughter, my mother’s name, Lexi, in every call that the cuckoos made; we played solitaire for two, she ate like a small bird, which meant that she was starving herself to death.
Another year or so and there was a paperback called “Die Kleine Brise” – one of the original Penguin books, from the late 30s - the “little breeze” that the title referred to was a sailboat, a small sailboat, a sail boat for two, and as I read the description of a man kissing a girl on board I noticed an erection! My first pornographic experience while reading, for the pornographicible, whom the hardest hard core meanwhile leaves cold.
It was not my first erection, that had occurred while playing solitaire for two on the terrace of a bunker hospital in Bremen with an incredibly beautiful young woman, voluptuous, luscious, the wife of an ME-265 pilot, the first fighter jet, which had mystified me – not the erection!, that seemed pleasurable and somehow natural, as though I had been waiting for it; that sound in the sky mystified, emitted from an invisible bird, mystified more than anything so far - and our foreman as we trundled in our wagon to go haying, a bird, a plane screeched overhead in the pitch-blue sky like chalk across slate, Lisa, the horse, reared up: “Wat war denn det?” Klinner and I looked at each other because looking up we had not been able to discern anything. The perfectly blue sky was pristine. The screech left no trace whence it seemed to have come. No scratch on that slate board. The incredibly beautiful voluptuous young dark-haired woman was dying of a heart ailment, I was recuperating from the removal of my tonsils; more likely than not I had discovered the pleasures of masturbating with whatever fantasies, which would become ever more lurid. Goethe it appears only gave one, that famous “just one kiss,” to the girl that elicited the suicidal Werther! . Yet the heart ache is the same.
My father had spent early businessman days in England and had become an Anglophile. Those close to him did not call him Wilhelm, his given name, but William. I riffled through stacks of red and blue Tatlers with their Beefeater Gin ads trying to decipher that language salad, the occasional word such as mother, father, brother were reminiscent of the local dialect, Plattdeutsch, the German spoken in the Platt, the flat low-lands, fadder, brudder, mudder. That was intriguing, those similarities.
About the time that I had my one and only “blood brother” [you etched each other with a knife and sucked up a drop of each other’s blood!] a near endless succession of Karl May books in dark green-gray binding and gothic lettering entered the lives of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou who became premier scouts at deciphering animal tracks, looked at each broken twig for a sign – but of what - as we took possession of the forest. If the gift of a stamp collection with stamps from all over the world does not suffice to make you curious about geography, Karl May’s adventure stories, set in the South West of the United States, in Baluchistan, the Arabian peninsula, and central America certainly will. I was only a few years away from having my ear pulled for my nonchalant use of commas as the German teacher made me read my fairy tale how a hill named “Duevelsberg” [Devil’s Hill] had acquired its name [at Winter Solstice some kids had run wheels wrapped in straw and set the straw afire and rolled the wheels down hill, terrifying the village below, a common practice at Winter Solstice for sun-worshipping northern heathens who live on heaths with only a rare hillock]. Was I ever surprised what had come out of me in the mere hour, suggestible me had produced, effortlessly but for the energy required to hold a pencil and write on paper, a tale we had been given to compose, a class assignment! “Here are a bunch of names, spin your fantasy!” And if I had stayed in those environs and the environs had remained comparatively homogenous and advantageous to the representation of experience by means of the exchange of fairy tales and if I had been rewarded, say, with a nubile and delicious maiden for every tale and showered with the equivalence of the awe my classmates bestowed on me that day, who knows whether I might not just have written fairy tales all life long.
Saint-Exupery’s Wind Sand and Storm left a big impression! More dreams of flying!
Dr. Breyer was also the Latin teacher, learning another language, with different, more difficult hooks than Platt, which has none at all. Latin ceased abruptly in West Orange Junior High one year later – the ancient, via Vassar, seemed draped like a Roman statue all right, in dark purple to be precise, nearly as stiff as marble, but had lost the language, moribund, did not make its poets interesting so that you would go through the effort. In English to my truly great surprise I received a B after just half a year. Between 1945 and my arrival at West Orange Junior high in 1950 I had been the pet of the Bremen OSS and wanted nothing more than become an American. I had a crew cut, some school mates called me “Ami”, and that was not the French word for friend in this case. All those ads with nubile American automobiles! With just a single course in English, I was apparently sufficiently adequate to read the hilarious Cheaper by the Dozen during the transatlantic trip on the “USS General Maurice Rose,” the first title I read entirely in American that left an impression – I was familiar with the kinds of American magazines that G.I.s stationed in Germany read in the late 1940s, Look, Life, Time, was Americanizing myself well before I set out on my journey – was during my trip as a 12 year old on the U.S.S. Maurice Rose, from Bremerhaven to the Brooklyn Port of Em-and-Disembarkation, was Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth’s Cheaper by the Dozen, where the authors’ names are far out-weighed by that of their comedic masterpiece, and if I’d been smart I’d not have gotten off the boat but sailed right back to Bremerhaven, and sought refuge from the murderous country I was leaving, less impulsively, to an elsewhere. Behold the American family in action and avert your gaze, shutter your ears! Then, in quick order, Hersey’s A Bell for Adano [which was perceived as most informative on the war that I seemed to have been part of as a child], The Brave Bulls [that linked the American Southwest with Karl May induced fantasies of it] lots of Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage made a big impressions. My first American flue became memorable for reading and laughing myself well with the entirety, really, I mean all of P.G. Wodehouse, mother-plied from the West Orange public library. How did she or my stepfather know? Ever since I have been unable to read Wodehouse without falling ill; which is sort of like being unable to go to Vienna where I had a cyst, in fact an infected vestigial gill, removed at age 5, a trauma I feared to revisit. A bit hysterical, somewhat homeopathic? West Orange became yet another retreat into voracious reading. Did I read the Newark Star Ledger for whom I worked as an early morning paper boy? I certainly read the New York Times, my parents subscribed: without Auntie as my teacher it is unlikely that after just four years I would have scored in the 99th percentile on the College Boards for American history – a score that gave me an inkling how little the rest of the country knew of its history. It helped that among other quirks my stepfather was a Shakespeare nut, who would recite the great monologues while he and I careened in his 2nd car Crosby, a Frigidaire-size automobile, through the development where he had pitched our tent. Since Dick also bought recordings of the plays, these afforded the opportunity of an overlay, or a nice moss bed to absorb my German accent. Dylan Thomas, too! There were stretches I could read at length in the outdoors at Camp Pocono which I attended for three straight summers. I could, would read anywhere. Oakwood School, a darling Quaker School in Poughkeepsie which I attended as of my Junior year, had, first, another nut case, for an English teacher, Terry Matern, who suffered bravely from Coral fever contracted as a Navy Diver during WW II in the Pacific but whose love of Whitman introduced me to those long lines. Really really lucky I got Senior year with Yoshira Sonbanmatsu, a Nisei who taught the kind of course that the Haverford introductory humanities could barely equal: Samuel Butler, Gide, Ibsen, the Greek Tragedies, the other various Russians, Joyce – by the time I graduated I could recite Anna Livia Plurabella, a confirmed Joycean for many years, although the full oomph of Finnegan’s Wake did not hit me until I did an analysis in my 40s. Oh how those puns speak when repression has been lifted! How repression stupefies! No need for trots!
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