In the Moment of These Living Texts Richard Weems Essay

person_pin In the Moment of These Living Texts

by Richard Weems

Published in Issue No. 24 ~ May, 1999
Don’t any of you fucking pricks move,

or I’ll execute every mutherfucking last one of you.

-Hunny-Bunny, Pulp Fiction

Think of your regular, normalized audience, one that assumes what it is viewing as a creation previous to the act of it being viewed. The audience assumes a temporal separation between observer and observed. In literature, the text then exists in the passive voice in reference to the reader’s present tense: it `has been written’ according to the one who `is reading’ it. When one watches a film, one considers the film a complete, inalterable object: written, created and produced all before the movie watcher sits before the large movie screen. From this, one can easily conclude that the normalized audience works under the assumption that what it is viewing will remain static even after the act of viewing is finished.

Consider now John Keats, “This Living Hand”:

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –

I hold it towards you.

And consider the possibility that the reader is the addressee of the poem, the one to whom the poem is directed, the one towards whom the hand is being held. This small technique succeeds in collapsing the temporal separation between reader and text, for the text no longer `has addressed’ the reader, but `is addressing,’ thus yanking the poem out of the relative past tense and into the reader’s present, making “This Living Hand” as immediate as the reading of it. The poem is not merely present tense in the realm of grammar, for that still infers the creation of the poem in the past – the poem, instead, is being written (or writing) in the present tense of the reader. If this idea of temporal separation is thus destroyed, then the idea of there being a pre-formed text that has existed before the reader is also a concept that must be questioned.

The pre-formed, inanimate text becomes a text that addresses the reader immediately, and what exists in front of the reader is a poem as transitory as direct dialogue. The reader can no longer be sure of what is going to be said next, even after reading what is already printed, and the reader can only anticipate this voice as well as he is able to anticipate another human mind. In effect, the poem is creating as the reader is reading it (or perhaps the reader is writing the poem through the act of reading it): the reader is being directed by the voice in front of him (a printed voice, but nonetheless active) towards the “living hand.” In this context, this hand to which the reader is being directed by the voice that is the poem could easily be thought of as the poem itself: a living hand, contemporaneous to its reader, alive and being presented by its own self to the reader as the reader reads it. We could take this a further level if you consider the previous parenthetical that held the reader responsible for the creation of the poem through the act of reading it. The idea of the reader presenting to himself a work he created through the act of reading has its own implications.

This kind of contemporaneousness is generally assumed, it seems, in any good reader anyway. Any reader upon the rereading of a text will more than likely find something of note that was not noticed the previous time around, and thus acknowledge that there is a change to the text being read. This type of change will not be as extreme as the changes that occur in Woody Allen’s “The Kugelmass Episode” – where a New York Jew inserts himself into

Madam Bovary
because he is bored with his marriage – but the wonderful oddness about changes in experiencing a text stems not from the physical text changing, but from an inescapable change in the temporal context.

Whenever we reread something, even if it is to go back a few words to read the same sentence, we do so from a temporal perspective slightly different from where we were initially, as we are not in the same time as when we first (or last) read that text. Because we have entered another realm of text-time (or self-time), our interpretation of it is transformed.

Then again….

I find that, when I’m reading, words sometimes jump out at me from the text ahead. Often they’re simple words – `sex,’ `dog’ and the like – but they suddenly up my interest in continuing as I begin thinking, “Where does sex come into play?” or I’ll try to figure ahead of time the upcoming dog’s purpose in what I’m reading. Even if it is a text I have read before, I’ll start doubting my previous memory of that text.

When I finally do read ahead, though, I find that the word is not there at all. Maybe a letter or two, but not the word I thought I saw.

But did I really not see that word?

In that moment of time when I think I see the word `sex’ out there ahead of me, I am convinced that the word is out there, a few lines down, in that space of words I have not yet reached. In the moment, I have no proof that the word isn’t there – on the contrary, I have all the proof I need that the word is indeed there. (Unless, like now, when I tell myself that I’m just seeing ghostly words again.) In that moment, the word for I have registered it so, and any pre-knowledge of the text is irrelevant to disproving that, for that pre-knowledge again comes from another dimension of text-time and cannot correlate for there is not an equal moment of reference.

But is that proof that texts metamorphose before us, or simply proof of the Freudian id?

The film

Pulp Fiction
provides a damn fine example of how text (per se) can transmogrify when put in a different moment of text-time – a moment I first considered a heavyweight contender in the championship for world’s most famous movie production error, but helpful to the point I’d like to show here.

In the beginning of the movie (as well as the CD soundtrack) before the opening credits, Amanda Plummer screams out as she and Tim Roth begin their stick-up of the coffee shop, “Don’t any of you fucking pricks move, or I’ll execute every mutherfucking last one of you.”

This sequence is cut off, though, and left hanging until the last segment of the movie, when we come back to these two, and the scene we’ve seen before is repeated.

Repeated, but not precisely. The first clause of Amanda Plummer’s stick-up line gets repeated in an identical fashion, but this time her statement ends, “or I’ll execute every one of you mutherfuckers.”

A gross error on the director’s part? Perhaps.

But for my purposes here, a meaningful one. The line of dialogue differs from the beginning of the movie to the later scene because the moment itself is different, and not just because time has passed since we first saw Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth (Ringo and Hunny-Bunny, respectively) stick up the coffee shop. Movies have a fine way of remaining timeless; scenes can be spliced and moved over into different sections of the film without disturbing them. The first clause of Amanda Plummer’s famous statement is case and point of that. The footage up to that point is exactly the same as when we saw it before the opening credits – it is when we suddenly have a shift to a new camera angle later on in the movie that her line changes.

When we first saw Ringo and Hunny-Bunny at the beginning of the film, they were quite isolated in their robbery attempt. There were general noises of other patrons, and there is a brief appearance of a waitress, but the victims of this crime remain an anonymous mass in our first version of the stick-up.

In the second version, though, things have changed.

This time, two of the movie’s primary characters are in that coffee shop. We could have assumed that Ringo and Hunny-Bunny were the primary focus of the coffee shop scene since they were the first characters presented to us in the opening of the movie, but now that I have returned, we find that not only does the scene involve two of the major characters of the movie, shifting the focus off of Ringo and Hunny-Bunny some, but that the whole coffee shop scene itself is not the only focus of the last segment of the movie. We have been taken through a gangster hit, a near miss, an accidental shooting and a professional clean up. The coffee shop scene feels more like an epilogue to the whole segment, so again a certain amount of focus has been taken away from Ringo and Hunny-Bunny. Their brief appearance before the opening credits is the only reason we notice them in the first place.

And later, we also notice them because of what seems like a drastic `mistake’ – this line that changes and breaks the continuity in what Hunny-Bunny says.

So a lot of things are different. How can we then conclude that the stick-up towards the end is the same as the one before the opening credits? The moment is transient, susceptible to the field of influence around it. Hunny-Bunny is no longer holding up anonymous, unseen patrons as in the original stick-up – the context has changed, the focus of the scene pulled away twofold from her as we may have originally assumed, and so her stick-up line can no longer remain consistent. The movie, like Keats’ poem, is alive, present in the moment of its audience, and therefore malleable and no longer predictable. Who knows what Hunny-Bunny will say the next time around?

account_box More About

Richard K. Weems ( is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Award and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and The Need for Character. His short story publications include North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Mississippi Review, Other Voices, Crescent Review, The Florida Review and The Beloit Fiction Journal. He will be teaching once again this MLK weekend at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey.