Reading and Thinking: Lisa Robertson’s “Nilling.”
Nilling is a book about books. It is a book about reading and a book about thinking, because for Lisa Robertson the two cannot be so easily teased apart. And it may be a stretch to say this, as it is a book about a great many other things besides, but alongside all those other things there is this thread to do with reading and thinking and reading as thinking running through the book—the kind of thinking at work in the act of reading and the possibility of that way of thinking carrying itself beyond the page.
To put it another way, it is a collection of six very distinct essays that range widely in terms of subject matter. The collection begins with two essays on reading: the first, “Time in the Codex,” is a lyric exploration of the act itself. The second, “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” begins to elaborate the idea of reading as a way of thinking.
For me, this second essay is the heart of the book. It is here that she works out what she understands reading to be. In these pages it becomes a practice of profound openness. It is, first of all, a disciplined putting aside of the self, and the act of reading a way of allowing something else to settle into its place. This is the openness. It is an intimacy, an act of allowing another’s language to settle deep inside you, to mingle with your most delicate parts. It is an encounter with something unfamiliar, something strange, something new to you. And it is a secret. It happens away from the prying gaze of the world and in this there is a freedom. There is no expectation of what it should be, no practical use it is bound to. In the act of reading there is the opening up of a foreign and alien place within which something else is possible, something that can only reveal itself a step away from the world and only if you are willing and able to receive it from the text.
(It is worth mentioning, as an aside, how she works out this understanding of reading. It comes from placing the way that she reads alongside Hannah Arendt’s understanding of thinking, but to say this overlooks something crucial about what she does. For the act of reading that she passes through Arendt’s writing on thinking is specifically a reading of Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Pauline Réage’s Histoire d’O. There is something of Lucretius’s stoicism that inflects Robertson’s reception of Arendt, and then to elaborate what that leads her to she turns to the masochistic fantasy of Réage’s novel and the pleasures that animate it. There is a performative element to this book: it is important that the book does the thinking that goes into it, that we can see something of Robertson’s process happening on the page.)
There is a passivity that is crucial to how Robertson understands reading, a capacity to put aside the will, to let come what comes—in a word, this is the ‘nilling’ of the book’s title, an archaic word that is an antonym of ‘will.’ Paradoxically, this is a willed passivity insofar as reading is a deliberate act. I would say that it is this paradox at the heart of reading that is the question the book revolves around: the question of whether or not it is possible to think of receptivity as an act, and what it then becomes possible to do if receptivity can be rethought as an act.
Robertson writes: “Then, insistently, I cross the page to face the next sentence. Will is one of reading’s motions. And since this is so, and since I also experience reading as a posed receiving, a cognitive stance towards reception, combined with an ideal stillness of the body, I want to ask—what is the relation between passivity and will, within cognition? It is not oppositional, I think, but a fully implicated, mutual relation.” (p.26) There is a sense in which what the book does is elaborate what that relation is and what it is possible to do from within it.
After placing this paradoxically receptive act at the heart of reading, the book changes course slightly. Its scope widens. Over the next three essays—”7.5 Minutes for Eva Hesse,” “Perspectors/Melancholia,” and “Disquiet”—Robertson turns her attention to the question of the receptive act more broadly. She settles into sculpture and the phenomenology of the city in ways reminiscent of how she has thus far settled into books, and there is an essay that uses melancholia to more deeply probe the way of thinking implicit in this understanding of receptivity. There is, of course, more to these three essays than this, and each deserves more attention than these passing remarks. Each deserves to be addressed individually, in its particularity. There is a depth to each of them that I would dearly love to settle into and let play out in these words. For now, I want to speak to them as I have—distantly, as a whole, to understand how each fits into the overarching structure I see running through this book.
(There is something curious to how Robertson narrates this broadening of scope. There is a palpable lack of description—she does not describe Eva Hesse’s sculpture or Eugène Atget’s photographs when she discusses them, at least not with the same loving attention she pays to her copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, the “softening beige 1978 paperback from Harcourt Brace, bought second-hand, and scattering from its pages yellowed Vancouver public transportation receipts.” (p. 24) (I have a similar fondness for the paper ephemera generated by the Vancouver transit system, despite not ever having lived there.) The mention of the physical book itself, the significance she insists upon for its materiality, is a fantastic touch, one that reinforces the performativity I mentioned before. It brings us to the scene she speaks of by reminding us that we are already there—we, too, hold a book in our hands. We are reading.)
In the last, untitled essay of the book Robertson speaks to what is at stake when we speak of poetry, of reading and writing. She imagines a way of speaking to one another that extends the openness she attributes to reading to the social sphere: a way of speaking in which we remain open and receptive to one another and ourselves, in which we make of language what we need it to be to place ourselves where we want to be in the world. It is an image of language that is fluid, responsive, constantly being reinvented to map ever closer to the contours of our lives. I say an image, not a description, because there is something utopic to what she writes about language. She is writing about a way of speaking and a way of being that is waning. It is being replaced with a different understanding and use of language, one that speaks in precisely defined words, whose poetics articulate around principles of limit and control. It is a rigidly categorised mechanism designed to quantify, regulate and subordinate to a specific political ideology. It is, in a word, the poetics of neo-liberalism, which is to say of capital: “Now language and money circulate using the same medium, a grammar which is digital, horizontal and magnetic, and politically determined. Maybe all language will be eventually administered as an institutional money: a contained and centrally monitored instrumental value.” (p. 78)
Facing this reduction of language to the ideology of capital, it is poetry that she finds hope in. It is poetry where there is still the possibility of imagining language differently, and it is by reading that we bring the possibility of that freedom into our lives. The practice of reading she has spent the book developing, sometimes subtly, indirectly and sometimes overtly, finds its reason here. Reading as a receptiveness to the radical otherness of the text now becomes the possibility of hope: it is a way of keeping alive the possibility of imagining another way of understanding the world and being in it. For Lisa Robertson, this is what is at stake in this book—or perhaps I should say in the book and the practices of reading that draw us into them.
Alan Reed is an experimental writer turned novelist. He is the author of a collection of poems, For Love of the City (BuschekBooks, 2006), and a novel, Isobel & Emile (Coach House Books, 2010). He lives in Montreal and is rather tall.