In a recent post, “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art (Musical and Visual),” and in the comments section attached to that post, I argued that the experience of literature is different in some ways from that of visual art or music. I’d like here to explore and clarify this distinction a bit further.
The experience of visual art or music involves looking or listening, each of which entails direct sensory perception of external phenomena that can impinge themselves upon us without our choosing – we experience something simply by being in the presence of the visual or auditory object. To experience something that is not superficial of a sculpture, painting, photograph or piece of music, of course requires more than this – active looking or listening involving concentration, contemplation, and conceptualization.
Reading literature (or anything else) is always operating already at the sort of second order level we see with active looking and listening. Reading involves and is built upon looking, but looking alone isn’t reading. The sensory experience of a book or computer screen and the visual qualities of letters and words aren’t text (i.e. the page isn’t the text). Text is always something created internally by contemplation and conception (e.g. seeing that “A,” “a,” “a,” or “A,” look different is direct sensory experience of visual phenomena – recognizing any or all of them as “the letter A” involves internal conception and interpretation), albeit prompted by and in relation to the concrete visual qualities of the page (“the letter A” can only be recognized in relation to a limited range of visual phenomena) much in the same way that active listening or looking involve inner contemplation in relation to distinctly external phenomena.