I was going to post thoughts on Worldwise, but I’m going to refer you to my announcement for it, a couple posts down, where there is some great discussion going on. Check out the WorldWise website too as we gear up for our spring event.
As I mentioned in the last post, we are gearing up for “Literature and Identity: Finding the Self and the Other?”
For my seminar with Prof. Cross on Exile and Expatriate writers we had to write a sort of literary autobiography in which we discussed the ways in which our conceptions of ourselves in the world were shaped by literature and how such conceptions in turn shape our literary interests. So, if you want, you can read my thoughts and my response to this assignment. See you all Wednesday!
Reading Into Life: Narratives of Identity and Identity in Narrative
Natalie Prizel, 2007
The syllabus I received this semester begins with a quotation from Gide: “One should recount one’s life not as he has lived it but live it as he will recount it”. As Flannery O’Connor writes, “Everything that rises must converge”, and therefore, I suppose I should not have been surprised when my rabbi delivered a strikingly similar message in his Rosh Hashanah sermon. In discussing the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment, my Rabbi refers to “…‘narrative psychology’, the idea that how you tell your story, affects how you live your life — and vice versa. To change your life for the better…, start by examining the stories you tell yourself” (Dobb).
When I think about the ways in which I want to live my life and the stories I want to tell, I often flounder under the impression that the great story has already been written and that my work is to find a way to write myself into it. This great story is some sort of cultural mythos, master narrative, whose “controlling hands” (Eliot 423) we must at least acknowledge if not obey. It seems that any story I might tell would only be a variation on a theme that is, if not universal, at least culturally dominant. William Faulkner, one of the authors who has most deeply affected my experience of the world and my place in it, explains the idea of the retold story: “And that comes back to the notion that there are so few plots to use that sooner of later any writer is going to use something that has been used. And the Christ story is one of the best stories that man has invented, assuming that he did invent that story, and of course it will recur. Everyone that has had the story of Christ and the Passion as a part of his Christian background will in time draw from that” (Faulkner in the University 117).
Most of my literary encounters have consisted of attempts on my part to write myself into a story that is greater than my comparatively small life. However, I keep hitting a wall, causing me to question how we live our lives if our master narrative either cannot conceive of our existence or refuses to consider it substantively. As I have come to understand my own identity, personally and contextually, as a Jew, a lesbian, and a woman, my relationship with master narratives has become ever more fraught, and yet I am unwilling or unable to steer my life completely outside of defining cultural myths.
Literature has been the primary means of self-discovery in my life, and literature continues to mediate my experience of identity. Most of my peers are spiritual but not religious. I regard myself as religious in that I feel strongly connected to my religious community, heritage, and practice, but not spiritual. I feel God’s absence far more often than God’s presence in my life. However, art in general and literature in particular has served as a spiritual conduit for me: I have had moments of clearest understanding of the universe and my place in it while grappling with works of art. The stakes are high. That said, my spiritual investment in literary art is challenged by the master narrative so often loaded with Christian, male, and heterosexual (and other) assumptions.
If the master narrative does not cohere with lived experience, it seems one has two choices: to abandon it in favor of a narrative more conducive to one’s own identity or to write oneself into it, no matter how syntactically and substantively awkward such a writing might be. Simplistically, this might be the difference between separatism and assimilationism, and I suppose I’ve done both in the course of my readings trying to get to a place of integration. In high school, as I was beginning to understand my own sexual identity, I read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room in a course on tragedy, taught by a man I greatly admired. The protagonist, anAmerican expatriate in Paris named David, is torn between his relationship with his fiancé Hella and his lover Giovanni. I remember my teacher telling us that David’s problem in the book is not his apparent bisexuality but rather his refusal to make a commitment. My teacher said something to the affect of “Make a decision, and if you make the wrong decision make another decision. But there’s nothing worse or more cruel than keeping your options open”. Similarly, Giovanni tells David
“You do not…love anyone! You have never loved anyone, I am sure you never will. You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with you hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver, rubies, maybe diamonds down there between your legs! You will never give it to be anybody, you will never let anybody touch it—man or woman. You want to be clean. …. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you—you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in all my life. Look, look what you have done to me” (141).
At the time I had no idea what “the stink of love” meant, and it was grossly incongruous with my previous notions of love, all of which were derived from literature. Love could be painful, even tragic, but it should not stink. Stink was too banal, too real. I would soon find out the difficult realities of love and the struggle to maintain commitment, but at that point my vision of love was drawn from “Dover Beach”, studied two years prior with the same teacher who introduced me to Baldwin. What could possibly be a more tragic and glorious expression of romantic love than Matthew Arnold’s last stanza?:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And here we are as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night (29-37).
In Arnold’s poem love serves as a refuge from the stink of world but is not a reeking source.
“Dover Beach” comes back to haunt me every now and again as a vestige of being sixteen and never in love and thinking all the answers could be wrapped up in an eight-line stanza. It retains its power for me today despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that all my lived experiences to this point run counter to it (and much more closely resemble the love Giovanni describes). I read Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a novel in which “Dover Beach” serves as a moral catalyst at the climax of the novel. I went to talk to one of my professors about it, and he remarked on how ridiculous it was to think that a poem, and one as ubiquitous at this point as “Dover Beach” could possibly prevent violence. Intellectually, I agree with this assessment but emotionally, I still cling to the idea of romantic love as a fortress against a cruel world that Arnold offers. I do not think the gap between love as refuge and love as reeking can be solely attributed to the fact that Arnold is presumably referring to heterosexual love, perhaps even religiously sanctified heterosexual love, and that Baldwin is channeling love between men. However, I do think that these divergent depictions of romantic love do reflect their authors’ relationships to a master narrative. A gay, African-American writer such as Baldwin is unlikely to be able to neatly align his lived experiences with the grand narrative he inherits through western literary culture. Furthermore, by the time Giovanni’s Room was published, nearly a hundred years after Arnold, the master narrative had lost at least some of its potency. Baldwin rejects such a narrative by countering it with a vision of love that is marked by gritty realism. However, I do not believe rejection is the only possible response of those excluded from cultural mythos.
In contrast to Baldwin, Adrienne Rich writes a homoerotic version of “Dover Beach”, allowing a larger population to take part in a tradition of romantic love. In poem XIX of Twenty-One Love Poems, Rich recognizes the complexity of erotic love outside the purview of a master narrative: “two women together is a work/ nothing in civilization has made simple” (12-13). Through her poetry, however, Rich does make the love between women a little simpler and the path a little clearer. In poem XIV Rich writes:
I put my hand on your thigh
to comfort both of us, your hand came over mine,
we stayed that way, suffering together
in our bodies, as if all suffering
were physical, we touched so in the presence
of strangers who knew nothing and cared less
vomiting their private pain
as if all suffering were physical (10-17).
Love here, as in “Dover Beach” serves as a private refuge in a world of suffering. A significant difference is that while love is configured as intensely personal in both poems, Rich emphasizes the presence of “strangers” perhaps to illustrate the elicit nature of homoerotic love and its (perhaps necessary) invisibility and its improbability in our collective cultural imagination. Professor Cross questioned in class if it is possible to conceive of enduring love without a pattern against which to measure it or sanctification to sustain it. This is the question that not only plagues gay writers but also I think all gay lovers who are invested in the romantic tradition that our cultural mythos celebrates. While neither Arnold nor Rich explicitly invokes the sanctification of love relationships one can assume that such sanctification is a possibility for Arnold’s lovers in a way that it is not for Rich’s speaker. That said, Rich at least offers a way into romantic love for me as one who lives outside the heterosexual paradigm that Arnold assumes. As I said before, for me literature is a spiritual endeavor and it is through narrative and lyrical art that I experience my life and love in a way that allows a certain level of transcendence. While religion also mediates my experience of life and love communally, it is through reading that I personally experience such spirituality. Therefore, the space Rich has created poetically is significant to me by virtue of its inhabitability.
My personal and academic interest in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) studies have deeply complicated my relationship with the cultural mythology that tempts me while eluding me. My attraction to LGBT studies came from a need to contextualize my own experience within a cultural and historical tradition. Finding narrative coherence in the LGBT community and cultural traditions is difficult. We lack the traditional generational mode of cultural transmission from parent to child; this is why, I believe, the arts have particular significance for me in understanding my sexual identity (more than my ethnic or gender identity). A further obstacle is the fact that LGBT Studies within the academy (although less on this campus than others) are increasingly focused on the celebration of incoherence in the form of queer theory. I am ambivalent about queer theory, partially, I suppose because its project simply does not work for me. I crave coherency and relevant patterns against which to measure my life. I look to literature for that coherency, and where I cannot find it or make it personally relevant, I look to literature for recognition of such exclusion. Because it has been so difficult for me to find a model in the master narrative that applies to me, I have become engrossed in literature that explicitly explores the gaps in master narrative and the people who fall into those gaps.
I have long been in love with the literature of the modern American south, in large part because it concerns itself explicitly with those who cannot conform to the roles that govern post-bellum southern life. Because the cultural mythos of the south is so deeply prescriptive and so intensely nostalgic, southern soils are fertile for writers who want to explore fragmented and displaced persons. Whether or not explicitly drawn from the southern gothic traditions, most southern writing relies heavy on a sort of regressive and decadent nostalgia that is compellingly conveyed through the figure of the ghost, whether literal or the ghost of the imagination. The most significant ghosts in southern literature are the haunting presences of characters who are unable or unwilling to live in accordance with the limited roles envisioned in a master southern narrative. I am currently working on an honor’s thesis focusing on the narrator’s relationship to such characters in William Faulkner’s Light in August, whose protagonists are characters who cannot choose between assimilation and separatism precisely because they fall between narrow identity categories. Lena Grove, Joanna Burden, Gail Hightower, and most of all Joe Christmas straddle fences of race, sex, gender, sexuality, region, and time. To the extent that these characters live between the elect and non-elect, and between the grand narrative and all counter narratives, they occupy a brutal no-man’s land. And while I do not share the fragmentation that goes along with being racially mixed or sexually ambivalent in the south, I have come to think that the sort of fragmentation and displacement these persons experience is the same sort of fragmentation I struggle with in trying to tell a story I can live by. There are precious few I think who can truly claim the dominant narrative as a perfectly coherent story for our lives. The best I can do is to pick the parts that are relevant and remain as “fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot 431).
Beth Ann Fennelly, a young poet teaching in Faulkner’s home town of Oxford, MS, writes in “Madame L. Describes the Siege of Paris”:
I think we keep ourselves
So tight wound we never see our spools.
We saw them, clear as skeletons, that time.
Most of us live with little awareness of the master narrative that guides us until those moments when we roughly brush up against its impermeable wall. The struggle for me, and perhaps for everyone, is to keep the thread from unraveling even when it slips from the smooth wood of the spool.
Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach”. Poetry in English: An Anthology. Ed. M.L. Rosenthal.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. 707-708.
Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1956.
Dobb, Fred Scherlinder. “Midrash and Meaning: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5768 (Sept. 13 2007)”.
9 October 2007 <http://www.adatshalom.net/>.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. 1922. Collected Poems 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt Brace and
Company, 1963. 51-76.
Faulkner, William. Faulkner in the University. Eds. Joseph Blotner and Frederick Gwynn.
Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1977.
—. Light in August. 1931. Novels 1930-1935. Eds. Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk. New York:
The Library of America, 1985. 399-774.
Fennelly, Beth Ann. “Madame L. Describes the Siege of Paris”. Open House. Lincoln: Zoo Press
Inc., 2000. 27-30.
McEwan, Ian. Saturday. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2005.
Rich, Adrienne. Twenty-One Love Poems. 1977. The Dream of a Common Language. New
York: Norton, 1978. 23-36.
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