Notes on Identity and Literature
By David Mason, WTP Guest Writer
“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys to the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.”
“When I was a child I saw
a burning bird in a tree.
I see became I am,
I am became I see.”
“I identify as tired.”
The prospect of this essay scares me. These days there is a lot of angry noise about identity and “identity politics.” From some perspectives, it’s a misguided tide of righteousness that has destroyed our ability to see each other as individuals, only as adherents of groups with greater or lesser moral capital. From others, it’s a fundamental cry for justice in a world that has clubbed us with smug assumptions about value and hierarchy far too long. Anything anyone says is bound to be complicated, contradicted, or made irrelevant by rapidly changing events in the news. My epigraphs above quote two great poets and a comedian, and it may well be that the comedian has spoken more eloquently about identity issues in our time than the poets.
In her powerful Netflix special, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby steps boldly into the minefield and exposes it for the complex problem it really is. Anybody and anything can explode at any time. She begins by making fun of the limits of group identity. Already self-identified as gay, she laughs at the criticism she receives from “my people,” for somehow not representing group identity properly. It’s rather like what Jewish writers like Philip Roth experienced when taken to be spokesmen for a people rather than individuals. Gadsby laughs at those who have told her to come out as transgender, when she doesn’t identify that way at all. By the time she says “I identify as tired,” the laughter releases a huge wave of relief from all quarters. It’s something we can share from virtually any point of view. We can identify with her.
But the climax of Gadsby’s remarkable monologue exposes another problem of identity. Identity is not merely the possession of an individual saying, “I identify as….” Identity is also the way others see us. These others might be our family and friends, with whom we sometimes differ, or the institutions where we work and interact with others, but also truly malevolent people, like the man who beat the shit out of Gadsby simply because of the way he identified her. He hated gays. He thought beating the shit out of people he considered different was the way a man should behave. The violence and abuse so many have suffered for so long because of their identity—whether defined by race, gender, sexuality or something else—is what makes any discussion of identity in society, as well as in the arts, particularly fraught.
Aggressions can be subtle. Nearly thirty years ago, I invited an African American novelist to a university where I was teaching, and when I handed him the check for his honorarium he asked me to drive him to a bank where he could deposit it. This was in Minnesota, I should add, a state I once thought enlightened. Too many recent events—shootings, etc.—have caused me to feel there is no state in America that is enlightened. The whole country, like the rest of the world, remains in the grip of ancient, intensely ugly animosities. As I parked the car, my friend prepared to enter the bank, turning to me, his hand on the car door, and said, “Here come the fish-eyes.”
This was an identifying moment. As a white male, I have never in my life had anyone stare at me oddly or with mistrust when I entered a bank. My friend, a prominent writer and professor, much more successful in the profession than I, had known such experiences all his life. His very name identified him as the descendent of slaves. His prominence as a writer was bound up in the problems of identity.
Others identify us, and I don’t imagine many of us are comfortable with that fact. Think of Prufrock:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
And he’s a privileged white guy!
No, most of us like to think we can own our own identity, and that’s one of the problems of the minefield. We can’t own our selves. We don’t really own anything.
Yet some form of autonomy is essential for our very survival, our ability to stand up and walk into a room and function. Some form of individual dignity and respect for the dignity of others remains an essential human value. This value is in terrible jeopardy in our time, when even empathy, the ability to identify with others, is under attack on both the Left and the Right. On the Left we often have writers saying they own their experience and no one else has the right to imagine experiences like theirs. On the Right we find the experience of others denied by a whitewashing of history, a pretense that values we identify with civilization have never been compromised by racism or other primitive ideologies. But the claim that a writer creating a character is somehow appropriating the experience of other people completely misunderstands the nature of imagination and reading. The experience of a character is not your experience or my experience. It is the experience of that character. Literature invites us into a third dimension where we might meet in our effort to understand not just ourselves but others. Really others. As often as not, literature shows us people in conflict with the very notion of identity. If we insist that it conform to any particular code of values or identities, we miss the opportunity to have our experience complicated and enriched.
When I say identity is an illusion, I have to be careful. There are simply too many ways in which I can be misread as somehow denying your reality and autonomy. That, as one of Prufrock’s confronters said, is “not what I meant at all.” I do not mean to deny individuality the way a corporate or state bureaucracy denies individuality in order to subjugate it, regulate it, or rob us of value. I mean instead to augment the idea of self by suggesting it may be permeable and multiple and ultimately unknowable. Respect for the dignity of others comes partly from an acknowledgement that we are equal in the fact of our suffering, no matter what the degree and variety of our suffering may have been.
That’s the ideal, anyway. It is not always possible to respect others as one would wish. Dictators and white supremacists come to mind. The late V. S. Naipaul had, like Joseph Conrad, a sort of jaundiced fascination with and revulsion to some truly horrible figures. Naipaul’s occasional misanthropy has, since his death last year, been the subject of renewed debate and controversy. But one doesn’t have to agree with his vision in order to read his novels.
This is where the poets I quote in my epigraphs come in handy. Literature involves us in the mystery of identity because it is made by individuals who often find identity problematic. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel-laureate, had felt the pressures of war and dictatorship, and reminds us of the many unlocked doors, like miraculously opened prison cells, in the imagination. It is indeed hard “to remain just one person”—and why would one want to? Perhaps he thought of the Roman playwright Terence, who said, “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” Or perhaps he recalled Keats, whose letter to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818) remains one of the great statements of poetics:
As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet…. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse and are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.
Maybe I love this letter because I feel “camelion” myself. (I’m also a terrible speller.) Keats pits the free imagination against a sort of puritanical virtue. Writers wishing to be socially or politically virtuous can lose their interest in artful ambiguity, becoming absolutist in their judgments. In his letter Keats toys with our attachment to identity. He concludes as follows:
But even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself: but from some character in whose soul I now live. I am sure however that this next sentence is from myself. I feel your anxiety, good opinion and friendliness in the highest degree, and am
Yours most sincerely,
He signs his name—not “Nobody,” not “Nemo.” Does one write poetry to have a name, an identity, fame? Or does one write and read to have more life—including more diversity of life, more identities? Surely both motives can be true.
My second epigraph, from Australian poet Judith Wright, makes poetic being and poetic seeing understandable in human terms. Writers have no special dispensation for anything in this world, but our lives are smaller, our vision more pedestrian without the words they offer us. They make contingent meanings beautiful. Judith Wright’s poetry is full of superb observations of nature, particularly of birds—the best poets often have a bit of the scientist in them. Wright gives me more diversity of life by writing as accurately as she does. I don’t come to literature for affirmation of my own experience, but to be awakened and involved more fully in life, including the lives of others.
I am most intrigued by writing that eludes easy definition of the sort a journalist contrives to pitch a story to an editor. Imagine pitching Hamlet or Ulysses or Their Eyes Were Watching God to an impresario who needs it nailed in two sentences. “Middle-aged Jewish cuckold wanders Dublin trying to place an ad. Meets young, insufferable and soused writer and takes him home for creaturely cocoa.” It doesn’t work. But Ulysses does. How would Zora Neale Hurston’s novel be pitched? “A light-skinned black woman, descended from two generations of rape, tells of her growing up and three marriages, one of which ends in murder.” The pitch conveys nothing of Hurston’s gorgeous prose or the way she complicates both race and gender.
The writing I love eludes paraphrase, exhausts criticism, and complicates experience—as true of Mother Goose as of James Joyce. It rewards re-reading, outflanks marketing categories, and sometimes even transcends our assertions that writers should represent a gender or race or class. I acknowledge my privilege as a straight white male. Sometimes I even apologize for it. But I have also been young, old, foreign, married, divorced, unemployed, and deaf. I have been a fisherman and cannery worker, gardener, teacher, and a state laureate. I’ve never had the privilege of living as if identity didn’t matter. I argue that identity, for an artist, is not one thing—and I suspect this is true for most individuals, despite our human tendency to judge by appearances. For an artist, one ennobling ambition is to empathize with multiple identities. At times I have played a middle-aged woman, or a gay shopkeeper, or a part Cherokee dealer in artifacts, or a Greek immigrant, or a girl whose parents were Mexican and Welsh—all characters I have explored in verse. Doing so did not appropriate anyone else’s experience, but created another experience altogether. There is a realm of make-believe where identity cannot be entirely fixed, and we enlarge experience there. Literature asks us to open ourselves to more fluid states of being that actually reflect our reality. It honors doubt and ambiguity and multiple points of view.
It’s not that I believe in one standard thing you can call “literary.” I couldn’t begin to pitch my definition, except to say that literature is the kind of writing it is hard to kill or to forget, and even that is obviously insufficient. I read to be changed. To be moved. But I do believe an author’s biographical identity is an insufficient marker for experience—even impossible to pin down with any accuracy—and the same holds true for a reader’s. This is the beginning of compassion for others. We are all so much more, and so much less, than our social and psychic identity. Even biology—our interconnected DNA—demonstrates both individuality and interrelatedness.
Literature allows us to see this as an opportunity for getting through or beyond the single ego. I have always argued for the legitimacy of any literary technique—the viability of so-called free verse, for example, as well as rhyme and meter. But I continually meet people, including poets, who misunderstand the freedom of the verbal arts, assuming that constraints such as rhyme prevent us from saying what we “really mean.” Yes, I answer, and thank God they do. What we mean, what we intend, locks us into an egocentric room; it’s a poor substitute for the multiple windows offered by language itself, or other surprising sources of inspiration. The late Geoffrey Hill put it this way in a Paris Review interview:
A great deal of the work of the last forty years seems to me to spring from inadequate knowledge and self-knowledge, a naïve trust in the unchallengeable authority of the authentic self…. There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest examples of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It is probably true of the very greatest writers. I think it’s true of Dante and Milton, and I think it’s true of Wordsworth…. The rest of us, even the very best of us, possess it to a lesser and differing degree, but I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life.
The “sensuous intelligence” cannot be given a simple name. I have never felt I had a single voice. Call it a limitation—call it unmarketable—but it’s what I really feel. Sometimes it’s religion showing up where least expected—a sort of Buddhist realization that the self is an illusion. Mostly it’s just awareness of the psyche’s permeability and a strange joy in not dragging a leaden Dave around all day. I read and write for dilation, which is its own pleasure.
In literature, meaning is rarely one thing, but a field of possibilities. I’m not saying a poem means anything you want it to, but if it’s a good poem the meanings multiply, the readings like half-hidden animal tracks in the woods. Poetry has the heart of an anarchist. It celebrates prestidigitation and has something in common with the clown and the stand-up comedian. The imagination is free.
And freedom can be scary. In 1942, a time of acute pressure on all things earthly, with real minefields proliferating nearly everywhere, the psychologist Erich Fromm published The Fear of Freedom. His preface posits “the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.” Fromm’s definition must have seemed particularly urgent in a time of vast armies, global disaster. Many of those who felt “a horror of aloneness” sought to relinquish freedom to the will of an authoritarian leader of one kind or another. The fight against totalitarian systems required a belief in the free and independent individual. But Fromm also understood that political freedom does not free us. In order to live in open societies, we must understand our own fragility and that of others. We must be willing to risk the perhaps meaningless silence underlying our existence.
To the creative spirit, some ability to live with uncertainty is a prerequisite. Writing to his brothers in December 1817, Keats said it in these now famous words:
I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason….
His idea is worth considering for the experience it makes available to us. That “irritable reaching after fact and reason” is not Keats’s rejection of Apollonian thinking, but his awareness of its blockages, its borders. Our best writers do seem to cultivate this “negative capability.” Think of novelists like Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather who wrote equally well about both men and women, peace and war. When Keats in a later letter called the world “a vale of soul-making” he expressed the defiant faith of an artist, a maker.
Miguel de Unamuno had something like this in mind when he wrote about the limits of identity in The Tragic Sense of Life: “…nothing is the same for two successive moments of its being. My idea of God is different each time I conceive it. Identity, which is death, is precisely what the intellect seeks. The mind seeks what is dead, for the living escapes it. It seeks to congeal the flowing stream into blocks of ice. It seeks to arrest the flow.” I don’t mean to disparage the intellect here, only to suggest that our certainties are often not worth holding.
Yet there are certainly circumstances when one’s nationality and other forms of identity become undeniable. The world can very cruelly make it so. Someone may shoot you for the color of your skin or enclose you in barbed wire. Bullies and brutes may beat you for whatever they think you are. People may be derided or ignored unjustly. These things are only too real, and we must resist them in any way we can. Literature is part of that resistance not by teaching us some monolithic virtue, but by helping us navigate the complex and contradictory realities of life, helping us feel the realities of others. Ultimately, literature declares its liberty even when it sings in its chains like the sea. Writers know they are all leading posthumous existences, communing with the dead in their separate, solitary ways, and that nothing, not even language, saves any of us. Except when it does.
Photo by Chrissy Mason
A native of Washington State, David Mason was Poet Laureate of Colorado from 2010 to 2014. His books include Ludlow: A Verse Novel, The Country I Remember, Arrivals, News from the Village, The Scarlet Libretto, Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014, and Davey McGravy: Tales to be Read Aloud to Children and Adult Children. In 2018 he published a new collection of essays, Voices, Places, and The Sound: New and Selected Poems. He is also the librettist for Lori Laitman’s opera of The Scarlet Letter, Tom Cipullo’s After Life, and other works. Mason divides his time between Colorado and Tasmania.