Towards...("How do you want to be read, KB?")

"There are all sorts of tricks lurking in that one." (A Grammar of Motives, p. 83)

I am more than halfway through this seminar, having read more Burke than I ever imagined, and the question of how does Burke want me to read him just hit me.

To answer it, I turned towards his novel, Towards a Better Life, which is perhaps one of the best titles for a memoir-novel I've heard to date. Burke's voice, full and impish, lingers in my mind: "I had to write my way out of that book." He had to "spy" on his own novel, which is to say he had to "spy" on his own mind.

When I peruse the table of contents in Towards, Chapter One smacks me between the eyes with its hunger: "My converse became a monologue."


When I read Burke, I see a man attempting to untangle his mind-web, while simultaneously spinning more complexities.

No wonder he refers to himself in the plural.

The trick then, for me, to read Burke as he wants to be read is to "spy" on these monologues. To observe his winks, his self-deprecatory guffaws, his puzzling over the human-animal, and his theories and theories of theories.

But mostly, I remember his preposition, directing his longing towards hope.


Shogun Marcus's picture

I really like your perspective on reading Burke as he reads himself - that is as a spy. it seems to me that Burke begs to be read from an insider/outsider (or outsider/insider) point of view. What I mean by that is that Burke wants to be seen simultaneously from inside his work and from a critical distance. Your opening quote works nicely with this idea..."There are all sorts of tricks lurking in that one".

I'm glad you bring up Towards a Better Life at this point in the semester. KB's feelings on his first piece of writing have fascinated me since the beginning of the semester. Your emphasis on "towards" also resonates because (in the process of writing towards a dissertation) it feels that all writing is a moving towards and never arriving, putting us always in a position of motion and always prior to an arrival. KB's work feels less like this some of the time (when he is asserting things), but he tends to playfully undermine himself, and I enjoy that.

Burke is so puzzling . . . the introduction of Grammar of Motives sort of maps out how to create ambiguity; he claims everything while standing by nothing (maybe this statement is too absolute), which, as a reader is difficult to follow. In this way, his work is frustrating, which is a good thing because he's able to affect his readers. You resolve this with the idea of spying...he seems to want us to spy on his monologues just as he spies on others, which is not so easy to do!

mjosborn's picture

I love this post. In pushing up against the limits of critical discourse—and turning critical discourse against itself—definitely necessitates a "different" kind of reading, one that definitely goes "out" of the traditional notion of books. I think Mike is definitely onto something with regard to outsider insiders, although I too don't know exactly where I land . . . . But "impish" seems like a great place to start!

ahappymedium's picture

you captured my discombobulation over Burke so well. i suppose i've been trying to read him linearly, and so i struggle with his words and his thoughts. i forget that to even approach Burke one has to invoke a mood towards play. it's like jumping in a whirlpool (not that i've ever jumped into one) but that's how it feels when i try to straighten burke out; the text resists. glad i read your post. i feel better about simply jumping in and splashing about.