Daniel Wright: Unhistorical Reading and Mutual Playing

Der Leser by Honoré Daumier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by Daniel Wright

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

In what follows, I aim to read Nietzsche’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” unhistorically—that is, I want to avoid falling into the trap that catches Nietzsche himself, as he laments that he rails against an excessive attachment to history only by writing the history of that attachment. What would it mean, Nietzsche wonders, to take loving as an alternative to knowing? To take, in other words, the messy incoherence and the ineffable singularity of love as an alternative to the knowledge that promises ordered lines and networks and shared, shareable vocabularies? Most specifically, Nietzsche sets us a difficult task when it comes to love: to love the historical and the unhistorical equally. History, for Nietzsche, appears as the law-giving Father “who preserves and reveres” (Nietzsche 1997: 72), whose job is “imposing limits” (64); but just as we must offer that father loving obedience, we also must love the unhistorical aspect of our existence, figured as the succoring Mother who is an “envelope,” a fecund “atmosphere” (64), but also the “animal … contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left over” (61). This animal mother, the warm-blooded unhistorical embrace that holds the body together so that those awkward fractions can’t break off and fall away, is of course a difficult mother to love, because so vaguely omnipresent: an environment in which I move rather than a discrete object. History, on the other hand, is similarly difficult to love. We only really know the historical past, Nietzsche argues, as a melancholic introjection of something forever lost but nonetheless achingly loved—imagined as those “indigestible stones of knowledge” that we carry in our guts, “rumbling about inside” as ill-formed and indigestible content, or as “a snake that has swallowed rabbits whole and now lies in the sun and avoids all necessary movement” (78).

History, in other words, appears to protect the shape of our collective existence by ingesting the knowledge of the past and holding it safe, preserving it inside, but in the end this historical impulse “no longer conserves life but mummifies it” (75). Nietzsche figures historical knowing in this essay as a threat to love, because the imperative to take in and hold fast to the facts of history would also require us “to take everything objectively, to grow angry at nothing, to love nothing, to understand everything” (105); it would “cut off the strongest instincts of youth, its fire, its defiance, unselfishness and love” (115). Nietzsche asks us to love (or to defy, or to misunderstand, or understand too narrowly, or set fire to) rather than only to know, to play with history and to use it for life only within the warming, protecting, fertilizing atmosphere of the unhistorical. What kind of reading of the past can Nietzsche’s theory of the unhistorical model for us literary critics, whose practices of close reading always precariously balance the knowledge of history with the playful love of the unhistorical?

When I read a novel or a poem or a philosophical treatise, pen in hand, it gives me something—many things: it instigates, it sets boundaries, it prompts, it moves me in predictable and then unpredictable ways. The marks I make with that pen do not, ideally, impose a shape upon the text or simply trace and make visible shapes and lines of demarcation that exist there already as a limited set of ghostly potentialities. Those marks do not really mark the text, in other words, but rather interact with it, enjoining it to play. In those moments when reading scintillates and when the pen seems to move freely—circling, underlining, starring, annotating—the text also makes marks in me. We move each other in turns, according to an improvised system of rules. We observe, most of the time, a propriety in our mutual contact, except when the energy of the game overtakes us and we play, for a moment, rough-and-tumble, or we provoke too pointedly, so that tears fall or laughter (sometimes pained and sometimes giddy) provides relief.

D. W. Winnicott, for example, explaining his commitment to the use of play in the psychoanalysis of children, insists that the power of play lies in its refusal of traditional, unilateral structures of interpretation. Instead of the analyst who responds to the free associations of a patient by transforming that formless mess into a coherent interpretation, we have the analyst whose interpretations are careful, cooperative, and provisional. Winnicott believes that this is the only way to allow the patient the freedom of honesty and spontaneity, rather than the feeling that she is simply complying with the interpretive narrative of an analyst who seems already to have her figured out:

Interpretation outside the ripeness of the material is indoctrination and produces compliance. … A corollary is that resistance arises out of interpretation given outside of the area of overlap of the patient’s and the analyst’s playing together. Interpretation when the patient has no capacity to play is simply not useful, or causes confusion. When there is mutual playing, then interpretation … can carry the therapeutic work forward. This playing has to be spontaneous, and not compliant or acquiescent, if psychotherapy is to be done. (Winnicott 2005: 68, original emphasis) [1]

I am committed to a bold and unapologetic application of Nietzsche’s model of unhistorical love, and Winnicott’s theory (related, I think) of “mutual playing” to the practice of close reading that we as literary critics engage in almost every day. A novel or poem cannot be made compliant; it is capable of responding to me spontaneously; its shape changes as my shape changes; the rules of the game are self-sustaining and yet flexible, designed to allow for free-wheeling, interactive movement. My own impulse to retheorize our uses of history, to remain skeptical of historical knowledge and its potential to calcify, speaks to a deeper desire to perform close reading differently, to take it personally but at the same time to develop robust methods by which taking it personally can also take it public—by which my play with the text, my love of history and unhistory, can conserve rather than mummify the details of my own idiosyncratic absorption in the Victorian past.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. In Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale, 57-124. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge, 2005.


[1] D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Routledge, 2005), 68, original emphasis.


Daniel Wright is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He recently completed a book manuscript, Bad Logic: Reasoning about Desire in the Victorian Novel.