“Monastic Reading” — Reading with the Body

“Monastic Reading,” the third chapter in Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, gives us a window into a form of reading that involved the body along with the mind.  Illich is attentive to the physicality of reading and modes of remembering that (figuratively) engrave the text onto the body so that the body and mind work in tandem to remember and recall what has been read and learned.  Very interesting material given my recent fascination with embodied knowledge.

The easiest way to recognize instances of embodied knowledge is to take note of athletes and dancers who “know” how to do a great deal of things that they may have a very hard time putting into words.  Or, if you can type, ask yourself, where is the letter “L” on the keyboard?  How did you think of the answer?  If you are like most people in that situation you moved your fingers around to remember.

I’m most interested in how embodied knowledge — which is also picked up through the habits and rituals, religious and otherwise, that make up our cultural milieu — plays a significant role in shaping our dispositions, attention, inclinations.

Illich, who is drawing on the work of anthropologist Marcel Jousse, gives us some more instances of embodied knowledge, this time in the service of recalling articulated speech.

Previous posts:  Introduction, chapter one, chapter two.

  • Quoting Hugh of Saint Victor:  “Meditation is sustained thought along planned lines . . . . Meditation takes its start from reading, but is bound by none of the rules or precepts of reading.  Meditation delights to range along open ground, where it fixes its free gaze upon the contemplation of truth, drawing together now these, now those causes of things, or now penetrating into profundities, leaving nothing doubtful, nothing obscure.  The beginning of learning thus lies in reading but its consummation lies in meditation.” (52)
  • “Meditative reading can sometimes be difficult, a chore which must be faced with courage, fortitudo.  But the reader, sustained by the ‘zeal to inquire,’ will derive joy from his application.  Eagerness comes with practice.  To foster his zeal, the student needs encouraging example rather than instruction.”  (53)
  • “Hugh’s meditation is an intensive reading activity and not some passive quietist plunge into feelings.  This activity is described by analogy to body movements:  striding from line to line, or flapping one’s wings while surveying the already well-known page.  Reading is experienced by Hugh as a bodily motor activity.
  • In a tradition of one and a half millennia, the sounding pages are echoed by the resonance  of the moving lips and tongue.  The reader’s ears pay attention, and strain to catch what the reader’s mouth gives forth.  In this manner the sequence of letters translates directly into body movements and patterns nerve impulses.  the lines are a sound track picked up by the mouth and voiced by the reader for his own ear.  By reading, the page is literally embodied, incorporated.
  • The modern reader conceives of the page as a plate that inks the mind, and of the mind as a screen onto which the page is projected and from which, at a flip, it can fade.  For the monastic reader, whom Hugh addresses, reading is a much less phantasmagoric and much more carnal activity:  the reader understands the lines by moving to their beat, remembers them by recapturing their rhythm, and thinks of them in terms of putting them into his mouth and chewing.  No wonder that pre-university monasteries are described to us in various sources as the dwelling places of mumblers and munchers.” (54)
  • “For Hugh, who uses Latin, the act of reading with the eyes implies an activity not unlike a search for firewood:  his eyes must pick up the letters of the alphabet and bundle these into syllables.  The eyes are at the service of the lungs, the throat, the tongue, and the lips that do not usually utter single letters but words.”  (58)
  • “. . . for the monk, reading is not one activity but a way of life . . . . Reading impregnates his days and nights.”  (58-59)
  • “The process by which the written text of Scripture becomes part of each monk’s biography is typically Jewish rather than Greek.  Antiquity had no one book that could be swallowed.  Neither Greeks nor Romans were people of a book.  No one book was — or could be — at the center of the classical way of life, as it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  For the first Christian millennium, memorization of this one book was performed by a process which stands in stark contrast to the building of memory palaces.  The book was swallowed and digested through the careful attention paid to the psychomotor nerve impulses which accompany the sentences being learned. Even today, pupils in Koranic and Jewish schools sit on the floor with the book open on their knees.  Each one chants his lines in a singsong, often a dozen pupils simultaneously, each a different line.  While they read, their bodies sway from the hips up or their trunks gently rock back and forth.  The swinging and the recitation continue as if the student is in a trance, even when he closes his eyes or looks down the aisle of the mosque.  The body movements re-evoke those of the speech organs that have been associated with them.  In a ritual manner these students use their whole bodies to embody the lines.
  • Marcel Jousse has studied these psychomotor techniques of fixing a spoken sequence in the flesh.  He has shown that for many people, remembrance means the triggering of a well-established sequence of muscular patterns to which the utterances are tied.  When the child is rocked during a cradle song, when the reapers bow to the rhythm of a harvest song, when the rabbi shakes his head while he prays or searches for the right answer, or when the proverb comes to mind only upon tapping for a while — according to Jousse, these are just a few examples of a widespread linkage of utterance and gesture.  Each culture has given its own form to this bilateral, dissymmetric complementarity by which sayings are graven right and left, forward and backward into trunk and limbs, rather than just into the ear and the eye.  Monastic existence can be viewed as a carefully patterned framework for the practice of such techniques.”  (pages 60-61)
  • “It is, however, not a social technique incorporated in the rule which makes the monk, but rather the attitude with which he approaches the book as the center of his life.  In the short chapter on meditation, Hugh refers to the spirit in which this life of reading ought to be lived.  He uses the word vacare, which says all but just cannot be translated into English . . . . Vacare means ‘to have been set or become free.’  When Christian authors use the term the stress is not on the release a person gets, but on the freedom he takes of his own volition.  The term stresses ‘the desire to be engaged ‘ in a new way of life rather than a release or flight from one’s old habits of bondage and lifestyle.  The verb is also used in classical Latin . . . . With generosity, [Seneca] urges, one should choose what to be free for.  True leisure can be found only by those who give themselves to wisdom (sapientiae vacant).”  (61-62)
  • Lectio is forever a beginning, meditatio a consummatio, and both integral to studium . . . For Hugh, there is only one kind of reading that is worthwhile, lectio divina.  This place him at the end of one thousand years during which lectio and otio vacare had defined each other.”  (63-64)
  • “The new way of reading the newly laid-out page calls for a new setting within the city:  colleges that engender the university, with its academic rather than monastic rituals.  The studium legendi ceases to be a way of life for the great majority of disciplined readers, and is viewed as one particular ascetical practice now called ‘spiritual reading.’  On the other hand, ‘study’ increasingly refers to the acquisition of knowledge.  Lectio divides into prayer and study.”  (64-65)

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