chapter
13 Pages

Introduction: dé-lire: the unconscious factors in reading

As early as 1930,2 the psychoanalyst James Strachey, reader and translator of Freud, raised the question of the importance of reading and writing in the psychic economy. It is true, Strachey explained, that even today these skills remain the prerogative of a limited number of individuals, not only worldwide but also in the West; at the same time, writing has been practiced by all highly organized societies and a given civilization may be judged by its percentage of illiterates. He then concludes that reading must indeed play a “considerable part in the deeper mental life of mankind” (p. 322). Is it not true that for both a child and an adult, reading always comes before writing? While speech is acquired in an “instinc­ tual fashion”, reading is the first intellectual activity that must be “systematically taught”. On both the anthropological and phylogenetic levels, there is thus a time before and after reading. The flow of Strachey’s text is somewhat disorganized, but the scope of his remarks open a way towards a psychoanalytic anthropology of reading. The subject (of both science and psychoanalysis) is the product of an alphabetic culture, a subject to the letter. Let us add another hypothesis: if we approach “illiteracy”, the pathologies of reading, as a symptom – as a problem of sublimation – can the question of nonreading children (a term we will favour over “dyslexics”, its much-used medicalized version) shed light on the metapsychol­ ogy of the pleasures involved in reading and writing?