In Defense of the Mystery of Literature

THE PLEASURES OF READING IN AN IDEOLOGICAL AGE, by Robert Alter. New York: Simon & Schuster. 250 pp. $18.95. WHAT do you do after you see ``Dead Poets Society,'' in which Robin Williams brilliantly captures the mad sincerity of everybody's favorite English teacher? Perhaps you muse awhile and recall your own teacher or how the thought of Milton or Shakespeare always conjures up the tones and facial expressions of a long-forgotten teacher.

More to the point, you pick up Robert Alter's little book, ``The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age,'' which is the perfect follow-up to the movie, a way of getting back that old feeling of the illuminating chaos of real literature.

As in the movie, so in life: ``Literature'' is not an elitist pursuit, but a necessary one. As Alter says, ``the experience of reading'' is a ``privileged pleasure'' in the sense that the reader ``collaborates'' with the writer. The writer's tools are character, style, allusion, structure, and perspective - Alter devotes a chapter to each; and the reader, recognizing this, uses them to smoke out the bees of art to get at the honey of meaning.

Or rather meanings, plural. For all his strength as an analyzer, Alter never succumbs to the fatigue of the scientist; he never believes he has solved a literary problem for all time. To use Gabriel Marcel's distinction, the big problems - the big meanings - of literature are mysteries and will remain mysteries.

The good reader recognizes this, inviting the mystery into his life. The distinction of this aggressive, well-organized, frequently eloquent little defense of the mystery of literature is hinted at by Alter's credentials. He is professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. That could be off-putting.

As it is, Alter's Hebrew allows him to include illuminating analyses of Old Testament stories, and his mastery of the modern novel allows him to range far and wide - historically and among modern European languages - for his examples. He wears his learning lightly, using it to gain entry into the secret chambers of texts as old as the Bible and as recent as Vladimir Nabokov and Tom Wolfe.

Eschewing the headier heights of lit crit, Alter sticks to the experience of reading. But he defines it as ``high fun.'' The high comes from the sense of leisure that accompanies reading, however unspecialized; the fun comes from Alter's alertness to the way literature always seems to exhaust the mind, rather than be consumed by the reader as nonliterary language is.

Alter's own prose, distinguished for its plainness and lucidity, sometimes takes on the coloring of the text. When he analyzes the sequences of views or perspectives on Anna Karenina that Tolstoy gives his reader as Anna makes her entrance to a 19th-century ballroom, Alter writes about ``the delicate, beautifully flexible dance of perspective,'' drawing us into the ``dance'' of the words.

Thus we become aware of why he believes that ``the joining of structure and fluidity is a defining feature of novelistic narration.'' In general, Alter's concept of literature springs from his awareness of the seemingly paradoxical relationship between rigid categories and subtle, evanescent insight.

Believing as he does that ``literature is always its own best teacher,'' Alter sets himself against the ideologues of the title. While he has read much specialized, pseudoscientific literary criticism, and has learned from it, he remains true to what he thinks of as the essence of literature. He may sound old-fashioned the way he uses literature as a value-laden term - yes, he defends literature against his fellow critics, who equate it with journalism, or those who feel that one day Shakespeare's words will be thought of as graffiti - and sometimes he has to resort to metaphor to communicate.

In his fine chapter on the subject, Alter writes that style is ``the medium in which we swim as we read.'' He doesn't fill out the metaphor, but his own buoyant, muscular style makes ``The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age'' perfect for the poolside as well as for the cool study this summer.

Highly recommended.

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