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becoming other people [A&C]

and letting go of ourselves when reading literature

Coming into college, I expected my education to be intellectually demanding, but I was not prepared for it to be, to an equal extent, emotionally stimulating. In my first semester, I took a comparative literature class with Professor Arnold Weinstein. Learning about Freudian complexes and literary traditions, my intellectual boundaries were pushed, but my emotional boundaries were tested just as much. After a lecture on Waiting for Godot, I was moved to despair; after reading Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, an old favorite, I was filled with an almost irrational hope. Most of all, though, I remember being completely overwhelmed and in awe of the depths I was about to spend the next four years diving into. 

At the beginning of this year, Professor Weinstein of the Comparative Literature department published a book called “The Lives of Literature.” In a blog column for the Princeton University Press, he explained that his book attempts to answer the questions of why we study literature and where its value lies in today’s information-driven world. 

These questions did not readily yield answers. “The elemental questions are the hardest ones to answer,” he wrote in the column. 

This should not have been surprising to me, but it was. Having taken Weinstein’s class in my very first semester of college, I developed a confidence in the value of studying literature after only just starting to do so. It felt like I had already received an answer to his questions, albeit not explicitly.

Or perhaps this is a misrepresentation—an unnamed, ambiguous sense of importance seemed to shelter me from the anxiety of having to answer these questions decisively, inspired by Weinstein’s faith in the works he taught. Had I actually been asked for an answer, I would have been wholly incapable of providing one.

Or at least not one as profound as Professor Weinstein’s turned out to be in his column: “The very experience of reading fiction—or, for that matter, poetry or plays—is inevitably an invitation to slough off your skin and become, for a while, someone else.” 

First through his class and then again through these words, he confirmed that my lifelong enamorment with literature was not borne out of childish, romantic stipulations, but a legitimate exercise in the expansion of the human consciousness and our capacity for empathy.  

While Weinstein’s class, pedagogy, and philosophy immediately moved me, I realize that not everybody today views literature in quite the same light—as a way of embodying the “other.” “Inhabiting—for the duration of the reading experience—those characters’ minds and hearts,” as he wrote in a column for the Brown Daily Herald. 

In the same column, Weinstein admits that most of his colleagues and fellow scholars would reject the case he makes for identifying with characters in this way. Criticism today tends to center around how “the critical issues of race, class and gender” inform our experiences, which raises concerns about identifying with characters across these boundaries, instead emphasizing objectivity and distance. 

That these issues of race, class, and gender are crucial is indisputable, and that literature has a lot to teach us about them is equally evident—but when this discourse restricts us from also seeing that which is universal within the pages of what we read, this begins to feel like an unbearable loss. If focusing on objectivity prevents us from accessing the inner consciousness that expands beyond our own, it is too high of a price to pay.

A common criticism of author Sally Rooney, for example, is that, although people claim her books are “relatable,” they ultimately depict privileged white people, attending college and receiving scholarships. But to me, the point is that there is something universal in these books despite the privileged characters they depict. Self-loathing, fear, anxiety, the need for intimacy—these are human experiences that span demographic boundaries. Rooney’s books, and literature in general, allow us to experience a universality in lives that bear little external resemblance to ours. Only while reading can we be at once “other,” “self,” and some universal self that completely breaks down this binary. 

There is to me something inherently beautiful about this conflation of boundaries—as though it offers a secret pathway to overcome the distances between people that are inevitable in “real life.”  

This is also why I have always loved Whitman’s Song of Myself: “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he famously wrote. But I soon realized that the poem was more divisive than I had previously thought, coming into college. 

Song of Myself  is a big, transcendental poem about the universal self and life as cyclical, among many other things. It is an endlessly generous poem in many ways: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles,” Whitman writes at the end of his poem. “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

Through the poem, Whitman identifies with “other” selves, ultimately claiming a cyclical oneness with the others and the universe. But in this process of identification, he claims to embody the “long dumb voices” of those who are not as visible or privileged as he is—including “prisoners” and “slaves.”

While some people think of this sentiment as democratic, some are put off by a white man claiming to identify with historically marginalized groups, which seems at first glance to be indisputably “problematic.”

But Song of Myself, I am convinced, was never meant to be tied down in this way—like the network of leaves of grass, the poem itself spreads through the earth, across dimensions and lifetimes. To read this poem we have to allow ourselves to forego the idea of the self as a separate, individual entity altogether. It is the only way to fathom the possibility that such crucial markers of identity can be overcome. 

And maybe this is why the poem has always enticed me—I am incurably attracted to the idea of deconstructing barriers, separations, and distances. The idea of an inevitable interconnectedness, not as something we have to actively strive for or learn, but as a state of being that cannot be altered, seems like a wonderfully hopeful model for existing. 

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Far from being ignorant, I think this is progressive—Whitman deconstructs the Western individualistic model even as he writes from arguably the most individualistic country in the world. In fact, I discovered years after I first read the poem that Whitman was rumored to have been influenced by Hindu philosophy. This circularity, from the stories and philosophy I grew up consuming to the poetry I now love, felt uncannily appropriate.

The Hindu principles of Yoga, the universal self, rebirth, and the soul that transcends the body are embedded in Whitman’s poems. “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,” Whitman wrote, “and if ever there was it led forward life.”

Ultimately, I am unable to come to terms with the loss of such philosophically rich texts and ideas that often comes with the insertion of identity into the relationship between readers and literature. The conversation so often ends with the word “problematic”—as though once the word has been attached to it, it has been designated as irredeemable. But literature is not that easy to categorize, and if anything, this is where the conversation should begin. 

Weinstein said something similar about Faulkner in an interview: “Once you see past the picturesqueness of Faulkner’s world, or the evils of both racism and sexism, … then you are confronting an extraordinarily rich picture of human maneuvering room: how you live with your inner ghosts, how you try to reach to the other.”

I believe that it is equally worthwhile to do both these things—acknowledging the sexism and racism in the texts, but also reaching a place of seeing past this, instead of dismissing the author or text altogether. Literature is expansive and boundless, and it should not be “cancellable.” Even the racism and sexism in Faulkner expands our understanding of the human condition at his time; after all, there is a dimension of understanding which objective histories and facts cannot deliver, which can only ever come from this exercise of “inhabiting” the consciousness of the “other.” 

Starting my college career with Weinstein’s class altered me as a reader. It equipped me to seek freedom and fluidity within the realm of literature, to resist building walls that I think we sometimes default to. I had always thought of my desire to slip in and out of characters’ lives as a form of escapism, but I think it is really a profound way of accessing a wider range of emotion and experience, of closing distances with unbridled empathy. 

“I do not think one finishes a work of literature as somehow a better person, primed to do more good deeds or to vote properly,” Weinstein wrote in his column for The Princeton University Press. “Rather, I believe the very experience of reading about lives and fates not one’s own stretches and deepens the human imagination. This matters.” 

There is no room left for me to doubt that it does. Just like I felt it while reading Whitman in Weinstein’s class almost two years ago, I feel it while reading George Eliot and Salman Rushdie for class now, and everytime I re-read Wuthering Heights in the winter. I might appear to be sitting still for hours, turning pages, but all the while I feel myself internalize, expand, and dissolve. 



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