Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Art of Rereading

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about aesthetics.  He proposed that after you have seen or heard or read a piece, you can never appreciate it and have as strong a reaction to it again.  From that moment on, the art's effect on you will change and diminish.  You may always like it, but you can never regain your first experience with it.

As I thought about this concept, I related it to literature, for that is the art with which I most identify.  In particular, I thought about my experience with the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.  This is one of my favorite books because of the way it has affected me.  The first time I read it, I was in high school, in the middle of an identity crisis I had been processing for about five months.  I connected very strongly with the main character's lost identity.  This loss is so strong, Ellison doesn't even give us this character's name.  All I remember from that first reading is following the character's journey from one group of people to another, seeking various ways in which he could form an identity.  At the end, he closes himself off in a large underground room with over 1,000 light bulbs.  When I finished the book, I fell into heavy contemplation about my own life.  I sat outside on the porch swing and analyzed the all the groups and activities in which I was involved that I had been using as my identity markers.  I tossed them aside one by one and searched for something unique about me apart from all these exterior things.  I grabbed a journal and wrote down everything I could understand about the individual qualities, quirks, needs, habits, and feelings that made me different from everyone else.  It was the first time I had been constructive with my identity crisis, moving forward to gain a sense of self rather than despairing over the discovery of my lack of self.  Because I connected so strongly with Ellison's character, I could see myself sharing in some degree of his ending if I didn't work through my struggles.  It was a powerful book for me, and very instrumental for that period of my life.

However, when I reread the book about three years later, I had an entirely different experience of it.  This time, I read it in an academic setting, and I was able to grasp the underlying political and social messages in the novel that I had completely missed in my first reading.  I analyzed the significance of little symbols Ellison drops in the story, symbols that I hadn't before noticed.  I still thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I didn't feel a strong emotional connection to it this time.  I appreciated the craft of the novel and the significance it had in its time period.  I researched quite a lot of academic papers discussing the book and saw it in a whole new way.

The Invisible Man is not the only book I've reread, of course, but it certainly gave me the strongest difference in reaction with a second reading.  When considering this, I began to wonder if my friend's theory about aesthetics is correct.  My first experience with the book can never be recreated, and I doubt I will ever respond so strongly to it again.  If I continue to reread it, will that diminish my connection with the book?  I am inclined to disagree, asserting that an appreciation for art can only grow stronger over time.  But this is more about the initial reaction than an intelligent appreciation.  Will the strength of the connection lose force?

First of all, when you reread a book, you will not experience the mystery of how the story will unfold because you've already uncovered it.  You know exactly what will happen and how it will end, so that driving force to discover these things will not be behind your reading the second time.  You also will not experience the surprise of shocking twists that may be in the plot.  Second, you have already formed opinions about the characters, so you may not be questioning them and empathizing with them as strongly.  Is something then lost in rereading?  Should you leave your book untouched after the first reading in order to hold on to your first connection with it?

I have come to the conclusion that the answer is NO.  There are always new things to be learned in great literature.  When I read a book multiple times, I am struck by something different every single time.  Granted, I may never have the same emotional attachment or curiosity with it, but I nevertheless find more that I love about it.  I don't think that the experience of my first reading of The Invisible Man will ever be lost, no matter how many times I read the book again.  I can always hold on to that.  Great writers put a lot of thought and care into their work, and I don't think we can ever grasp it all the first time we read it.  The emotions and the exciting turns of the plot can actually distract us from some of the implicit messages and symbols.  Thus, when those things are less affecting, we catch these underlying pieces of the novel.  I fully support and encourage everyone to reread their favorite books over and over.  I know I will.


Brian Bither said...

I hope you don't mind me going off on a tangent and exploring a peripheral aspect of your post. I am interested in the concept of identity, and I would love to hear more about how this concept unfolds in "the Invisible Man" (sorry - can't underline or italicize here). But first, let me share some of my own thoughts on identity.

Identity is an amorphous concept, but one that seems to be pretty important in our culture particularly. Several people claim to undergo an "identity crisis" as they try to figure out "who they really are." And while people seem to come to peace with their identity, I don't think I've ever heard anyone answer the question, "Who are you, really?" in an ultimately satisfying way. At first glance, it appears to be a metaphysical question: it recalls Plato's Theory of Forms and gets one thinking about the "transcendent soul" - which determines what we really are. Of course, in Greek metaphysics being itself is distinct from all of its attributes, so any attempt to describe or "predicate" who we really are from a transcendent soul leads nowhere. Then, capitalism offers us another way of defining ourselves: what career do you want to seek? If I can find out what I want to be, i.e. a doctor, lawyer, musician, janitor, then that will define who I am. Of course, one then has to distinguish oneself from all of the other doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc. because it seems fairly important to us that we have an identity that is "unique". (I suppose I could also mention that popular religions try to capitalize on this ambiguous category by saying "You are a child of God" or something along those lines. But I usually find that to be empty rhetoric; it applies general anthropological statements to an individualized quest and leaves genuine seekers unsatisfied, unless they are asking a different question than what I understand to be the "identity" question.)

Anyway, I have become fairly convinced that "identity" is a social concept, mainly, "In what way do I uniquely relate to and contribute to the rest of society?" I'm not sure that I'm entirely satisfied with that question, but I am fairly committed to identities as social constructs. I only read the first two chapters of the Invisible Man (I would love to read the rest sometime), but it was very interesting because it seemed to suggest that the distinguishing characteristics he wanted to identify with were impeded by the social identification he couldn't shake. Everyone the color of his skin, but he wanted them to see "who he really was". But, what would that be? What would have satisfied him? As the valedictorian of his class who gave an incredible speech? The man who lived in a room surrounded by lights? Is he ultimately seeking a social identification, and if so, what kind of "identity" wouldn't be inhibiting?

aebither said...

I think that the brilliance of this novel is that he processes through identity in a number of different social constructs and dismisses them one by one.

First, he is the intellect among his people, striving to gain affirmation and significance by standing out, delivering a speech, holding a briefcase, and embodying all other symbols of the white bourgeois. But this is dramatically stolen from him as he is treated like an animal, grabbing pennies from a boxing ring that are lit up to electrocute him for the entertainment of some white men. All of the honor he was hoping to build from them and incorporate in his sense of self was stripped from him, leaving him vulnerable and exposed before their eyes. He fought against this a bit longer, trying to hold on to his status as the intellectual by going to college. However, he once again lost this position because of the incident with Norton and his following expulsion.

Second, he tries to become a worker and achieve economic success and position through his job at the plant. Arguably, this embodies Booker T. Washington's perspective of "pulling up by one's bootstraps." Unfortunately, this endeavor literally blows up in his face when the boiler explodes and he loses his job.

There's a break after this experience and Ellison subtly brings in a bit of an existential moment. The narrator is taken to the hospital after the explosion and they proceed to give him electric shock therapy. When he wakes up, the doctors hold a card up for him that reads, "What is your name?" In the moment, the narrator cannot come up with any answer other than the Brer Rabbit. Ellison is showing us explicitly that the narrator has no sense of identity (whatever that may mean) at this time.

Third, after giving a rousing speech to a black community in protest of an eviction, the narrator joins a private organization that claims to work for people's rights. This is arguably representative of the Communist party, and it is his next attempt at social identification. Before he is allowed to join, they tell him he must change his name and leave his past, and they give him his "new identity" on a small scrap of paper. Yet when the narrator begins to incorporate his own thoughts in his speeches, the Brotherhood reacts negatively to his inconformity. With a violent crowd at his heels, the narrator eventually escapes the Brotherhood and disappears in the underground.

In the end, he realized that his identity had always been shaped by the people with whom he associated. Their affirmation and encouragement gave him feelings of security, but they were quickly stripped away, leaving him exposed and confused. So he decides to avoid society altogether to keep himself from getting entangled in its forceful grasp. You see, I think Ellison is telling us that "social identification" is no identification at all. You must retreat to understand yourself, get a sense of who you are without people's feedback, expectations, encouragements, or critiques. We must understand ourselves. Yet at the very end, the narrator acknowledges that it is time to leave the underground and come up for air. There is a strong implication of social responsibility - first you must straighten out your own person, then you must interact with society. When you allow other individuals or groups to define you, then you are lost and cannot offer anything to society anyway. But once you have a grasp of yourself, you have an obligation to help others reach the same point.

Brian Bither said...

That's interesting. Your explanation has led me to conclude, unfortunately, that I would fundamentally disagree with the way Ellison understands identity, (which is unfortunate, because it takes away one of navigators on the tricky concept of race). If what you're saying is true, then this seems reminiscent of the transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson, though framed in a radically different construct. (An underground, highly electronic room versus the beautiful outdoors.) Do you detect any influence of these writers or common values they may have with Ellison, or is it just me?