Literature and Identity
Exposure to reading fiction provides a foundation that initiates in us greater awareness of ourselves and of our culture; that helps to liberate us from provincialism; and that provides the potential for the kind of personal growth that leads to mature identity.
We learn through familiarity, through repeated exposure, and it’s important to expose ourselves to the best that has been thought and said. Such exposure fosters a quality of open-mindedness, a respect for the integrity of systems of thought, and through analogous application, alleviates our own moral ambiguity by developing in us a disinclination to too readily accept a pervasive utilitarian relativism which tends to ignore moral issues.
If we learn by example, by repeated exposure, is not the literary work under consideration then the best teacher for us? It is infinitely more patient; it repeats the same words, however often one consults it; its hero commits the same acts, articulates the same dilemmas, and discovers in the same manner the nature of his world, the limitations to which he is subject as a man, and the wisdom to which he can aspire.
To sift and file and sort through the vicarious experience literature provides, for example, helps us gain sophistication in the use of language in order to articulate our experience, to convert it, to use it to better comprehend the environment in which we find ourselves and our place in it.
Those who never have that exposure often have difficulty forming a meaningful relationship between themselves and the world around them. Many are rendered inarticulate and can only turn within themselves in silence. Such people remain unable to judge the morality of Dostoevsky’s inquisitor because they are unable to judge the morality or immorality of their own acts. They see Dostoevsky’s Jesus simply as a man who smiles within his cell, and the Christian archetypal figure simply as a man who died in a particularly nasty way.
In the literary universe, providing our exposure is long enough, we can gain in awareness as we discover a coherent pattern in experience. If we can learn to imitate Coleridge and suspend our disbelief, we will discover that a work of literature is a total body of verbal creation, that it has a shape, that there are elements of formal design like the circle and the cross that have become cornerstones of literary creation. We will discover that literature builds allusively, by reference to itself, and that this allusiveness is significant because it proves that we don’t just read one novel after another, but that we enter into a total universe, as Frye suggests, of which every work of literature forms a part.
We will, through exposure, develop a healthy tolerance for the integrity of the completed form, and will sense that judgement depends on how well the images and metaphors an author uses to build up his meaning validate themselves. We will discover in our investigations some of the reasons why literature does not develop; we will discover that nature never really changes much, that the human mind tends to react in a uniform manner when faced with a problem of design. We will discover that the material the writer uses is essentially simple and visual, that in visual terms, at least, both we and the writer continue to live on a flat earth where the sun rises and sets, and where there are four seasons that continually repeat themselves.
A French-Canadian philosopher has defined human identity as a form of coherence attainable only by osmosis in some sort of universe or environment that is itself coherent. Individual identity can be fostered, by osmosis if by no other way, through a study of such a universe, for it brings order and relationship to human activity and engenders in us a quality of open-mindedness, an attitude that recognizes the integrity of systems and patterns, and a new sensitivity toward our own values, capacities, and limitations.
 Jacques Dufresne, Education and Indifference, Canada Studies Cultural Exchange, Montreal, Quebec, January, 1973.