Philosophers muse on the ideal pre-emptive reading for an attempt to climb through clouds to the summits of Hegelian abstraction. Kant is an advocated precursor, Aristotle, Leibniz and Plato as well. This line of thought suggests, though, in a general sense, that chance and design in prior reading provoke encounters with different Hegels, various texts produced by one industrious author.
In this context to attempt to read precisely the text that someone else has read can be taken as an Epic, Herculean, or impossible task, something like the reverse of that undertaken by Borges’ Menard. Menard set out to write a novel syntactically exactly like (parts of) Cervantes’ Don Quixote. At least as difficult: to read a text exactly as a prior reader has done. Or put another way, to read precisely the same text.
Just as work is done by the author in every moment prior to writing so, in every moment of her life, the reader prepares for the eventual apprehension of a text when sitting down to read, electronically or on paper, at, say, age 38. Languages are learned, concepts mastered, experiences had, that inform broad understanding of personal and historical events. In particular there is prior reading: novels and theoretical texts, and essays, reviews and tweets and book-jackets, all absorbed in preparation for the reading of this text before the reader now.
The work that goes into preparing for the reading of a text by Hegel or some other specific author on a specific day is undertaken for the most part tangentially by a human being, going about their lives normally, in a sense effortlessly. While some methods of preparing for a text might be recommended directly, all paths that at least include the acquisition of literacy in a language are sure to provide some comprehension of a text apparently written in it.
But attempt to duplicate the effort of the individual soul to make ready for the moment of apprehension of a novel or theoretical work, and the effortless passage from one preparatory text to another becomes a positive chore. First, the hopeful imitator must forget everything of their own journey towards a literary work, particularly where this differs from the path of the emulated reader. Second, the entire corpus of texts consumed in a person’s life must be ingested in, presumably, far less time than the leisurely decades taken originally. Added difficulties present: some works must be read as though a child, others with an adolescent fury, others with greater maturity. The proper sequence must be observed. Digression from the path, which must be rigorously researched beforehand, is impermissible.
Barthes suggested images can be anchored to particular meanings, rescued from a potentially infinite range of connotations, with the use of words – text – and pivotal symbols. But with what can an author anchor a text already constituted of a sea of words?
Following this line of thought the argument can be made that all texts are many texts, as numerous as the number of interpretations that might be placed upon them. A short step from here to the idea that this number, in the case of a given text, is countably infinite. And if texts are granted the quality of infinite polysemy, the required premises are to hand for drawing the opposite conclusion, too: that all texts are the same text.
This text, for example, may not only be Einstein’s 1905 paper On The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, it is Kafka’s The Castle, Zemach’s Tom Sawyer and the Beige Unicorn, Twain’s To The Person Sitting in Darkness, Swift’s Modest Proposal. It is, as well, countless other works of lesser wit and brilliance. It is sublime and atrocious in style, concise and flowery, Epic and familiar, worldly and parochial, coarse and refined.
Are all texts the same text (or at least those of similar length)? By virtue of the infinite range of interpretations that might be brought to each, their meanings overlap – any of them might mean anything. This situation requires a set of implausible relations (at least, if only a single world is available). There must be at least one binary pair of reader and text for every possible text ‘squared’. Squared because ‘texts’ are first taken as syntactic sets of sentences and then as semantic sets of assertions representing propositional content. If there is room in all Possibilia, for this large set of relations, then it might be difficult, in any given frame of reference, to determine exactly what we’re reading.
The believer in the sort of Profligate Ontology that permits the existence of worlds enough for all permutations of text and interpretation can take heart. She might as well write anything at all (of a particular length), secure in the knowledge that as long as there is a single reader of the text at this world someone somewhere will fully comprehend what was intended.