T.S. Eliot argued, in his 1929 essay on Dante’s poetry, that “all poetry communicates before it is understood”. One way of interpreting this is to see that there is an instant emotive, perhaps even visceral, response to reading a text that precedes the more considered analytical, cerebral one that gives it deeper significance. Eliot’s quotation is useful because, whether they are reading literary or non-literary texts, we want our learners to be able to appreciate, on an emotional level, what the writer is doing, the feelings they are trying to convey, and the themes and ‘big ideas’ which they incorporate into the text. In other words, what is happening to them as a reader when they read the text? In fiction texts, for example, do you as a reader empathise with the characters? Does the text excite you? In non-fiction texts, do you understand the writer’s argument? Does it chime with your own feelings about the subject? Once candidates can formulate some sort of response to these questions (the ‘communicative’ qualities of a text), they can then look at HOW the writer creates these impressions through their linguistic choices (the ‘understanding’).
As an analogy, think about your own response to a sequence from a film. Imagine a scene where a character is being followed home alone at night. They walk through the shadows, across lonely streets; they keep looking nervously behind them but there is no-one there – unless that rustle in the trees indicates the presence of an unseen pursuer. They continue walking, all the time their steps becoming more urgent. Then suddenly, we hear a second set of footsteps which seem to echo those of the character. There is no doubt: they are definitely being followed and they are clearly in danger. How do we feel when watching this? We might empathise with the characters (we can do so having perhaps also been in a similar position); we might be fearful for their fate. We might, depending on our own emotional state, find ourselves identifying with the characters a little too much and resorting to turning on the lights, or being reluctant to go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea without feeling that we too are being observed. We can say then that the film text has successfully communicated an emotion.
But do we understand why and how the text has achieved this effect?
Implicitly, we internalise some of these feelings because we perhaps have a prior schema (we know what it’s like to be alone in a deserted street); or we have a generic understanding of such narratives (we’ve watched films like this before and we infer that the character must be in peril). Furthermore, we will have followed the narrative and might recognise this moment in the film as being structurally significant: a pivotal moment which might affect the destiny of the character. We live in a cinematic world; we are raised on the diet of film, TV drama, and our world (for many) is a visual phenomenon, and so of course we respond to visual stimuli more instantly. A picture, as they say, paints a thousand words – and not too many tier 2 ones at that.
But do we understand, on a micro level, HOW the film makes us feel this? We may be familiar with the grammar of film (when a character looks behind them, we will most often be shown what they look at), but can we articulate this in an analytical way? Unless we are students of film, we might not be able to discuss the use of shots, the effect of sound, the movements and rhythms of the editing. Once we do know this – and we have the language to articulate our observations – we can arrive at a more complete understanding: not only do we feel the effects of the text, but we know how it creates this effect and we can also locate these effects within or alongside a generic or thematic schema.
What the cinematic analogy does (apart from reinforce the substantial links between visual and written communication) is to provide a way to think about reading the written word as a process which develops from an initial feeling, to understanding, to analysing, and then to being able to articulate and to write a considered response. However, whilst the analogy is useful in describing the process, it is also problematic: to respond effectively, and with some degree of confidence, ‘readers’ need to understand. For the written word, writers rely on more than a reader’s ability to draw on an existing experiential or generic schema: they also need their readers to decode the written word and make inferences that are dependent upon understanding. And any text that fails to communicate an idea either because of its opaque impenetrability or because a candidate cannot access the text at a fundamental level cannot be ‘felt’.
I know this is a ‘Pass me the Immodium, Sherlock‘ observation, but more than ever I think we need to continue the reading for enjoyment push that flourishes in our schools. The more books, poems, plays and articles that our children read, the more of a schema they will have when faced with unfamiliar texts. It is also a warning to those of us who still tear apart the text before it is understood. The practice of reading a text and then ‘deep-diving’ into its techniques has not gone away – the technique spotters are still out there and believe that dissection in this way is the precursor to understanding. That’s not to say I don’t love techniques more than the next pedant, it’s just we shouldn’t frighten children away from reading and make them feel igorant because they can’t tell their epistrophe from their apostrophe.