The Wound of Individuality and the Literary Experience

From The Center for Lit:

I was recently troubled by a conversation that occurred in a book club meeting I attend. We’d read The Five Wounds, a contemporary novel by Kirstin Valdez Quade about a dysfunctional, multi-generational Hispanic family. A participant expressed doubt about his ability to read Quade’s novel with proper understanding and “sensitivity,” because he doesn’t share the author’s heritage or gender.

Before I could stop myself, I’d uttered the startled, single word reply: “Why?” To be honest, I had to bite my tongue so hard it bled to stop myself from launching into a lengthy treatise about the act and purpose of reading, which is, as you know, a bit of a soap box issue for me. But I consider it bad taste to commandeer a book club I’m not leading; so, I held my peace in the moment. Only, I can’t seem to stop thinking about the implications of this conversation regarding the nature and purpose of reading because, if it’s really necessary to share a common gender and heritage with an author, then why even try to discuss works outside of one’s own tribe? And doesn’t this conclusion obviate one of the most fundamental benefits of the reading experience?

Beyond the pure enjoyment of reading, we read to encounter the Other and to enlarge our understanding of what it is to be a human being in this world. In fiction, authors contribute to what Mortimer Adler and his friend Robert Hutchins termed The Great Conversation about what it is to be human. We read to listen in on this conversation about the universal things of human experience.

 I’m reminded particularly of C.S. Lewis’s comment in his treatise on reading, An Experiment in Criticism

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise (sic) the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented… In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. 

When we read, Lewis explains, we entertain absent authors, inviting them to pull up a chair in the living room of our minds and share with us their thoughts regarding the Permanent Things of this world. If we read and listen carefully, we might come to understand the author’s perspective regarding those universals. If we are affected by what they have to say, if we are moved by their art, we might even agree to rearrange our own intellectual furniture – to redecorate, as it were.

 The “guide” my friend from my book club sought — the Hispanic woman who would lead him into a greater sensitivity and understanding of the novel from her unique perspective —was with us all along in the person of our author. By the time he made his comment, in fact, most of us had entertained her for the better part of a month, taking her on as a virtual, long-term house guest in our interior thoughts as we read. We didn’t need additional Hispanic women to interpret her words for us. She wrote in English, and she wrote well. If we pay her the compliment of our serious attention — that is, if we read carefully — we can certainly come to terms with her.

Although I won’t recommend Ms. Quade’s book, due to some graphic sexual imagery and stock characterizations, I’m thankful that it isn’t necessary for me to agree with her or to share her national or biological history in order to understand her. We are certainly influenced by our own experiences in the world, but we can make progress toward understanding the experiences of others by means of literature. When we read, we peer through the eyes of the Other without losing our individuality. Again, Lewis explains: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” I am not, like Quade or her characters, a person of Hispanic descent. I am not a 15-year-old single mom like her character Angel, nor a deadbeat father like her invention Amado. Yet, I can enter imaginatively into the experiences of such by means of the art of fiction. I can learn, perhaps, a little something of their cultural issues, their sorrows, and their sins (at least as the author herself perceives them) by borrowing, as Lewis suggests, Quade’s “spectacles.”

The value in reading seems self-evident. It is at least the discovery that, in spite of gender and cultural divides, human nature remains a common denominator. This commonality likewise betrays the universal experience of suffering and the ubiquitous need for grace. If this isn’t a balm to the sinful racism and social divisions that continue to plague mankind, I don’t know what is.

This is ultimately why the issue is such a big deal to me: the idea that you must be a Hispanic reader to understand a Hispanic author is the kiss of death to the enlarging and communal experience of reading. Do I have to be an 8th c. BC Greek man to read The Odyssey with understanding? Or a Regency-era white woman to understand and enjoy Jane Austen’s satires? Or a Victorian orphan in London to understand Dickens? If so, then the enlarging ability Lewis finds in literature, the vicarious experience and wisdom available through story, is a fiction.

If we allow it to be a fiction, we put ourselves in a precarious position regarding that Great, True Story that is the New Testament. Need I be a first century Jew to understand the Nativity Story, or a Pharisee like Paul to embrace the gospel he preaches? If so, I’m truly alone, imprisoned in the echo-chamber of my own mind. Conversely, does being of common descent with an author promise that I will encounter the author’s story with understanding, never mind sensitivity? The history of the rejection of the gospel by the first century Jews suggests otherwise. Common language and common cultural experiences offer no guarantee of understanding, nor agreement between authors and readers. 

Link to the rest at The Center for Lit

PG stumbled across the OP a long time ago, lost it, but recently recovered it.

He agrees with the author’s premise. Despite all the various ethnic, sexual, national, sub-national groups into which much of society is fracturing, our humanity unites us.

I’ve never met a person who was not a person like myself in more ways than she/he differed from me.

2 thoughts on “The Wound of Individuality and the Literary Experience”

  1. PG,

    This is fantastic! Thank you so much for posting this. It is SO important that we open our minds to other’s experiences. I appreciate that you didn’t say anything about having to agree with the words written, only that it allowed you into the author’s world for a brief time. One of my favorite quotes is by Helen Keller. “Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.”

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