I don’t want to talk about what to read—that anyone can choose for themselves. What I want to talk about is how to read and why to read. Those alone are the pertinent questions to ask. If we know how to read and why we are reading, the what will take care of itself. The purpose of reading alone should be investigated, and the technique that allows us to do it well. I’d like to explore this by talking about one book, Paradise Lost.
Why should anyone read Paradise Lost? Why do we read it? We read it to find out how to regain Paradise. I mean this very literally and directly. I am not a religious man, I do not believe in any God, and so I don’t believe in the religious traditions behind the poem. I most like William Empson’s comment that the poem is barbaric, that it has the glorious splendour of cruelty, since it is one of the ultimate products of a cruel culture. Our culture, the culture we teach our students, is a culture of cruelty. And our work within colleges and universities is an initiation of the young into acts of cruelty.
But we do not perform this initiation in order to make the young cruel. No—our culture is cruel, but we are forced to teach it, because our culture is a part of the world, and the world—reality—must be reckoned with and seen and experienced. We initiate them into adult cruelty, the cruelty of the adult world, in order to help their initiation into love.
Why do we read Paradise Lost, or why do we read Paradise Regained, or why do we read anything at all? We read in order to regain Paradise, in order to learn how to re-fashion the world so that there will be no cruelty, no hunger, no pain, no exploitation of human beings by other human beings, no exploitation by humans of other creatures and no exploitation of the earth itself. This is where we are going—this is the work that all of us are about whenever we are doing genuine work. We read to remake the world. We write to remake the world. But in literary criticism, the greatest power is always with the reader. My poems will not do good only, my poems will also do enormous evil, said Walt Whitman, because he knew that this power to do good or ill resides in the reader. Whitman invokes, celebrates, and unleashes the reader. The reader is his hero, and we, following him, are in the age where the only heroic figure is the reader. The only genuine hero in the present world is the reader. Or genuine heroism—the power to change the world positively, to make a leap of faith, a leap in the dark toward paradise—always begins in a reading, a critical reading of reality if not of a “text” in reality, a reading that alerts the loving reader to the gaps and imperfections in reality, a reading that motivates an act to fill in the gaps, to correct at least one imperfection.
It will take a long time to arrive at Paradise, presumably, but when we get there, we will realize that we have been there all along. Not that we should be there, but that we have been there all along without knowing it. It will take a long time to get there and we are there right now. Paradise is all around us whenever we choose to see it. We enter Paradise for instants whenever we do genuine work.
We do genuine work when work becomes leisure, re-creation and recreation, loisir. And we truly enjoy “leisure” whenever our leisure is animated by love, which means our leisure is animated by the force of work, our leisure does work, for the preservation of self and others. That’s one formula for Paradise, Huck’s formula: Paradise is where comfort is preserved for self and others. Paradise is lazy, easy, and comfortable. It can be a raft on a river.
Paradise can also be the conversation I had with a prostitute on Ontario St. East in Montreal this morning, September 16, 2002. I was walking to work (one hour walk away) on this beautiful, sunny, slightly cool early fall day, wearing black trousers and white long sleeve shirt. A prostitute whom I have seen before passed by as I was not far from home (since I live on a street among the prostitutes and drug addicts and the gays—and don’t worry, I do not at all romanticize the condition of a prostitute or a drug addict). A short light-brown-haired girl, very petite, potentially very pretty or in the past very pretty—why am I such an asshole?—she is very pretty. She was wearing no shoes, short slip of a skirt, a light coat. Her feet were dirty and her legs somewhat dirty, but she had lovely slightly brown skin, a Quebecois girl, I am sure, but lovely brown skin that suggested “somewhere else.” She asked for a little money. I was rushed, though I shouldn’t have been (but the mystic is not infallible), because I was dying to get to school to work and to talk to people, but I knew I had a one hour’s walk before getting there. Anyway, I said my usual cruel thing when not giving money, sorry, but good luck all the same. When I’d gone maybe 10 steps past, I realized that I was being ungenerous. Go back and give her something. I reached into my back pocket and took out a selection of coins, just a handful. It was 3 quarters and maybe a few pennies. I don’t think mysticism demands that we give everything away all at once, just that we give, but I realized as well (since the mystic is not infallible) that I really don’t know how to give, I still have to learn how to give.
And change in hand I went back, but she was walking fast in the other direction, and was about to cross the street. It was a little difficult to catch up, but before she crossed from a little distance away I said, excuse me! She stopped and turned toward me. When she saw that I was giving money she held out her hand simply and let me give her the change. I said that was ungenerous of me before, and sorry. She mumbled something like OK, and then as I said goodbye and turned to carry on my way she came back with me. I said, it’s OK, you can continue on your way, you don’t have to come with me, but she said no, that I’d given her enough to buy whatever it was, I think maybe a croissant or something, from the store nearby. So we walked together as she was heading to the store, me to work. She said, are you going to work? I said yes. And then she said, whenever you want, some other time maybe, I’ll give you a really good deal on a blow job. I was really charmed and said, Aw thanks. Then after a little pause, but I’m gay. She didn’t have a problem with that, her face clearly said, and we continued walking together. Gays think they know how to suck, she said, but I suck better. So I can show you. We’d reached her store and she started in. So I said, well, I guess maybe sometime you’ll have to show me, but I don’t really know how. She went into the store and I carried on.
I made a new friend today, I said as I walked on. I’ve seen her before and I’ll see her again. She’s sweet. I don’t want her to give me a blow job, and I’m not sure whether or not she’s on drugs. I don’t think so, but I realized that, while I’ve nothing against people on drugs, I realize I’m frightened of the thought of being with someone on drugs. Many, many thoughts like this were just happily tripping through my brain. Maybe Michael would like to be sucked by her, and maybe he can tell me what she’s doing, and then I can try and she can teach me. I love giving blow jobs now, and I’d like to give a better blow job. Why shouldn’t I learn how to give a better blow job?
Paradise is not just an intellectual exercise. Paradise is about thoughts and feelings and it’s about things like blow jobs. It’s about our whole passional life. Because our thoughts are just a part of our whole passional life. It’s about teaching and being taught. It’s about knowing who gives a better blow job (of course, at first, I stupidly thought, I give good blow jobs—and then realized, stop being an ass, she’s a sex worker, there’s no way you do it better than her, she’s a priestess of the blow job), and letting yourself be taught—if a better blow job is what you want to learn. You choose (everyone chooses) what they want to learn, and what they want to teach.
We can change our minds and decide anew that we do or don’t want to learn something. We can enter Paradise whenever we’re sensible enough to let someone teach us something.