So, in place of a theory of difficulty, I offer an anatomy of difficulty. Like Burton's long and difficult Anatomy of Melancholy, this essay perpetually delays the difficult question of what difficulty is in favor of a description of some of its manifestations.
The Difficulty of Teaching
"He always used to be convinced that there was something wrong with... his university professors... he felt their presence to be particularly burdensome, disappointing, and meaningless." This is a quote from the text I assigned in my first week as a teacher of English composition, a fragment from the "Notes and Drafts" section of Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno. I had decided that none of the available composition textbooks were difficult enough, so I made my own textbook out of Xeroxes of Adorno, Artaud, Kafka, and Heidegger.
The class was a failure. But this is not going to be a touching story about how my students, by rejecting difficult writing, helped me throw off the chains of difficulty and come to love simplicity in books, teaching, and life. And it couldn't have happened that way, for structural reasons that we will surely come back to.
I knew my students wouldn't like me. I was old (29) and they were young (college freshmen). I knew that my lumpy, pilled sweaters and my poorly cut hair did not say to them "intellectual" so much as "has body image issues." And I thought I could bridge this divide ("sublate this opposition," to put it in the difficult language of my misspent youth) by making the laughable appearance of teachers the object of our study. So I assigned this fragment which, in a difficult, elliptical style, lays out the paradox of individuality under late capitalism: The thing that escapes the ruling system -- individuality -- is also the way the system maims its members. The individuality that saves you from totally succumbing to normalizing pressures when you are young turns you into a crank, a freak, a crackpot -- in short, a difficult person -- when you're old.
The day after I sent them home to read Adorno, the students, those maimed members of the ruling system, came back to class and stared at me with undisguised hatred. This is what they taught me: You can't always surmount difficulty just by getting it out in the open. The teacher remains the enemy of the student, even when he or she makes that enmity an object of discussion.
The Difficulty of Learning
Maybe "enemy" is putting it a little strongly, or maybe "enemy" has to be nuanced with the recognition that difficulty can also be pleasurable. Some students willingly submit to their education, like the ape in Kafka's "Report to an Academy": "And to the credit of my teacher, he was not angry; sometimes indeed he would hold his burning pipe against my fur until it began to smolder... but then he would extinguish it with his own kind, enormous hand; he was not angry with me, he perceived that we were both fighting on the same side...." In a certain sense, every student, even the least loved, is a teacher's pet -- a poor beast, transformed by the difficulty of enduring blows and caresses.
Weirdly, the students liked the Kafka story. Who doesn't like animals, even if the animal is an obsessive auto-torturer? "And so I learned things, gentlemen. Ah, you learn when you have to; you learn when you need a way out; you learn at all costs. You stand over yourself with a whip; you flay yourself at the slightest opposition." (I didn't inspire this masochistic zeal in any of my students, so far as I know.) But the difficulty of learning is only partly demonstrated by Kafka's tortured ape.
The real difficulty is, no matter how enthusiastically you submit to the yoke, you can't know in advance what you are about to learn. Not only can you not choose what to learn, but learning is a difficult, subterranean process. You can't see it happening to yourself. As Werner Hamacher (member of that notoriously difficult school, the deconstructionists) has written, "We learn while sleeping. No one notices while he learns, only later, that he has learned. When it is too late to prevent it. Even when it comes easily, all learning is traumatic."
The difficulty of learning is this: Even when you think learning takes place with your consent, it takes place without your knowledge -- in your sleep, as Hamacher puts it.
The Difficulty of Reading
That same semester that I was tormenting my students, Bill Readings (translator of many difficult books by Lyotard) came to our university and spoke about the difficulty of being a student. The student, he said, is necessarily unhappy because of the difficulty of his/her position; the student is always both too early and too late. Too early, because he or she is too young, too immature, and still too uneducated to master what is asked of him/her. Too late, because he or she will have always arrived after -- after all that has been written, after his or her teachers. The student is caught between being not yet ready and an awareness that, owing to the enormity of all that has come before, he or she can never be ready.
This same difficulty, the difficulty of being both too early and too late, is the difficulty of reading. And nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in David Markson's novel Reader's Block. The main character, known as Reader, is attempting to write a novel. But Reader never gets very far with his novel, because he is caught in the difficulty of reading. On the one hand, it is too late -- Reader can do nothing but recite the overwhelming list of writers who have come before him (Benjamin, Kafka, Borges, and so on). On the other hand, it is too early. Like a student, Reader is perpetually not quite ready: "Has Reader sometimes felt he has spent his entire life as if preparing for doctoral exams?"
The Pleasure of Difficulty
Owing to the difficulty of reading, Reader will always be too early and too late to master what he reads. And this difficulty is what frees Reader -- and all readers -- for the pleasure of reading. It's not that, after much difficulty, you arrive at the reward; there will never be a reward. That you will never be ready, that difficulty will never cease, means there is no reason to delay -- the pleasure of reading can begin at once. To put it in the terms of Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text, this is the difference between Desire, with its laws of delayed gratification, and Bliss, which doesn't wait, but erupts immediately.
Like the difficulty of teaching, the difficulty of reading is insurmountable. Like the student, the reader will never master the text. So there is nothing to wait for, you begin at once, your pleasure begins at once, as soon you start to read: "The bliss of the text is not precarious, it is worse: precocious; it does not come in its own good time, it does not depend on any ripening.... Everything comes about; indeed in every sense everything comes -- at first glance."