SEEING BOOKS

Yes, more about Wuthering Heights.

I’ve been reading with my students today, among others, the scene when Nelly Dean tries to persuade an upset, teenage Heathcliff that he has nothing to envy his rival in love, blond, blue-eyed Edgar Linton. “Come to the glass,” she says, “and I’ll let you see what you should wish”: a good-natured temper that would give his handsome face an attractive expression. An unusually nice Nelly tries, besides, to build the boy’s self-confidence by telling him that “You’re fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen…?”

As she administers this ad-hoc therapy Nelly is actually engaged in washing up Heathcliff’s very dirty face and combing his unkempt hair so that his paramour Cathy, just transformed into a refined, pert young lady, will no longer make fun of him. One of the students, a girl trained as an actress at the Institut del Teatre, later told me (typically in the corridor) that she found this scene quite enticing as, precisely, a scene in the dramatic sense of the word. She marvelled at the good dramaturgy of this novel. I do, too.

I also marvel at how we miss this aspect of reading novels, caught up as we are in considering character, narrative technique, plot construction and a myriad other factors. It is plain that novels –even Ulysses– are a collection of scenes yet we very rarely consider the dramatic talent of novelists, perhaps except when we pay attention to adaptations as they force us to consider what can be transferred onto the screen (the scenes) and what cannot (the rest).

Maybe because I am indeed interested in adaptations I find it increasingly difficult to read without mulling over the visuals of what I am reading. I have already written an essay on what Heathcliff looks like based on a comparative analysis of diverse film versions of Brontë’s novel but I am not talking now about this kind of visualisation. I mean: what exactly happens in our brains as we read? How do we imagine? In our media-saturated world, reading seems more and more unsatisfactory: scenes, even when they are as good in their dramaturgy as the mirror scene I have described, are strangely hazy, diffuse, vague… particularly those set in a foreign past we know so little about.

I wonder what we’d see if we could take the mental images that Brontë’s excellent mirror scene (wow, doesn’t this sound Lacanian?) generated in each of my students, in each of the million readers of the book. Have they grown dimmer as the years go by? Do we imagine Brontë’s world in 2010 in a radically different way from 1847? Surely, but still the question remains: how do we do it?

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