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Literature and Identity

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Reading fiction provides a foundation that initiates in us greater awareness of ourselves and of our culture; that helps to liberate us from provincialism;  that provides the potential for personal growth that leads to 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 open-mindedness and a respect for the integrity of systems of thought. Exposure to literature helps alleviate our own moral ambiguity by developing in us a disinclination to accept a relativism which tends to ignore moral issues.

If we learn by example, by repeated exposure, are not literary works the best teachers for us? They are infinitely more patient; they repeat the same words, however often one consults them; their heroes commit the same acts, articulate the same dilemmas, and discover the same truths.

To sift through the vicarious experience literature provides helps us gain sophistication in the use of language to better articulate our own experience and to better comprehend our environment 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. They remain less able to articulate and often turn within themselves in silence. Such people are 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, we gain in awareness as we discover a coherent pattern in experience. If we can learn to imitate Coleridge and suspend our disbelief, we’ll 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 garden and the wasteland that have become cornerstones of literary creation. We’ll discover that literature builds allusively, by reference to itself, and that this allusiveness is significant. We’ll discover that we don’t just read one novel after another but enter into a total universe, as Frye suggests, of which every work of literature forms a part.

Through exposure, we’ll develop a healthy tolerance for the integrity of the completed form, and will sense how the images and metaphors an author uses validate themselves. We’ll discover some of the reasons why literature does not develop: we’ll 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’ll 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[1] has defined human identity as a form of coherence attainable only by osmosis in some sort of universe or environment that is itself coherent. Literature is one of those environments. Individual identity can be fostered, by osmosis if by no other way, through exposure to such an environment, for it will bring order and relationship to human activity, and foster a quality of open-mindedness, and a new sensitivity toward our own values, capacities, and limitations.

[1] Jacques Dufresne, Education and Indifference, Canada Studies Cultural Exchange, Montreal, Quebec, January, 1973.

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Literature and Identity