The Danger Of Fixity

One of the aspects of the plot of Sense and Sensibility that has always struck home the most to me is the way that the feelings of Marianne, which she takes such effort to frame in ways that strive for originality of language, are exposed to the scrutiny and abuse of others simply by the fact that she writes to the unworthy Willoughby. The invention of texts–be they letters or anything else–always presented both a promise and a danger. There are a great many things that can be written down and can endure because they escape casual conversation and become texts, but this is not always a blessing. A great deal that might escape judgment and condemnation cannot when it becomes fixed as text, and subject to the misinterpretation of others while missing the context that allowed it to be properly understood in the first place.

In the early days of the English novel, in the middle of the 18th century, the letter was designed to provide a certain and reliable knowledge of the thinking and feeling of the writer of the letter, but it did not take long before such texts became a positive menace to the understanding of characters, since the letters did not pass with a Rosetta Stone to allow for the proper interpretation of the letter. Even during the Roman Empire, for example, Paul found it difficult to convey to the brethren of Corinth how they ought to behave and how he thought and felt towards them through letters, and his letters to the brethren of Thessalonica find him struggling to explain the resurrections to the members there, who seem not to have understood his first comments.

There are numerous dangers in fixity, which point out that while we need texts to understand, we also need interpretive keys to the texts so that we can understand what they mean. The text needs to be explained, needs to be put into a context, so that its opacity can be overcome through explanation of the author’s reasoning and thought processes, which may not be immediately obvious to the reader of any given text. Once we have the idea fixed in our mind that we understand a text completely, the text no longer speaks to us, but we have closed up the book and put it on the shelf, and we can reset secure in a partial or even complete misreading of a text and be none the wiser for it. This is obviously dangerous in that we fail to get insight because we have not come to terms with the text, but it is mute to tell us that it has been misread.

But the fixity of texts can be dangerous even when those texts are understood. Understanding what something means does not stop the bold declaration that a text contains from being potentially lethal to the writer. If a speaker is able to modulate how much of one’s feelings and internal processes to reveal based on the response of a conversation partner, and can refrain from speaking what is not going to be appreciated by someone else, a writer has no such ability, because once something has been written, it is fixed on the text like an unexploded piece of ordinance that can explode at any step along the way of textual transmission–from whoever reads the message in between the sender and recipient, to the intended recipient, to whoever that recipient shows the text to wittingly or unwittingly. At any step along the way the letter can explode with dangerous meaning. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example, found himself spending a tenner in the gulag archipelago as a result of having fixed in the text of a letter some sort of politically incorrect jokes about Uncle Joe Stalin, and abused himself for his stupidity in committing such folly to writing. Such examples could easily be multiplied, and likely will be in our own present evil age.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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