All roads lead to Damascus

On changing one’s mind about literature

I used to eat meat: now I don’t and will not ever again.  I wasn’t always a pacifist.  I used to talk much of being an existentialist, until I realized my commitment to nonviolence (toward humans and animals) was a commitment to absolute moral principle that could hardly make me an existentialist.  Sometimes I’ve had conversion moments; sometimes I’ve gradually evolved my thinking.  I find myself rather embarrassed by my strong defense of some philosophical principles in the past, so much so that I now avoid strong stances in the knowledge that I’ll likely find myself proven wrong (an obvious exception is vegetarianism: I am convinced and committed).

Several years ago, as a pretentious young man I read Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and complained about the lack of an objective correlative.  Here was a book about people incapable of dealing with loss, yet the losses they suffered were not outrageously atypical of the human experience.  But as I’ve had children (and worried and feared for them), and as I’ve witnessed and experienced more of life, I’ve come to see that the losses typical to human experience are terrible enough to suffer.  It requires nothing exceptional: the deaths and other losses we suffer, that all people suffer, cause enough pain and anguish.  So that when I read Roth’s Patrimony, a memoir about a father and a son experiencing the father’s declining health and looming death, the suffering in this nearly universal experience was enough.

Parenthood has also changed the way I experience reading generational conflicts.  In a story about parent-child conflict, I find it much easier to sympathize with the parent than I think I used to.  This is not always the case, of course, as literature is often filled with pretty terrible, awful parents.  But when reading Lahiri’s The Namesake or even Miller’s Death of a Salesman, I find myself seeing the parents’ experience moreso than I think I might once have (King Lear, I’m not sure: I still so much see Lear as my grandpa, that awesome love and pride, that I’m not sure I can see Lear as me).

Literature–how one reads it and how one responds to particular works–can be a touchstone throughout one’s life, revealing to oneself one’s changing perspective and evolving self.  I turn again to Rainer Maria Rilke in “The Archaic Torso of Apollo:”

“For here there is no place that does not see you.”

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