Part 2: Getting into other people’s heads

(This is part two of an occasional series on reading. Part one is here. I’m writing about two kinds of reading: one that acts as a window into other people’s minds and motivations, and one that acts as a mirror for the reader. For those of you keeping track, this is the “window” part of the series. I’m already starting to suspect that three parts won’t quite be enough. And now, on with the show.)

There’s a scene in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse that’s copied into my current reading notebook. Lily Briscoe, looking at Mrs. Ramsay, is thinking about how and whether we can know other people:

Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? …

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs Ramsay’s knee. And yet, she knew knowledge and wisdom were stored up in Mrs Ramsay’s heart. How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people. (To the Lighthouse, Part 1, chapter 11)

It was the “tablets” part in the first of these paragraphs that prompted me to copy the passage out. I was working on my dissertation at the time, and one of the things I was writing about was the ways seventeenth-century poets used inscription as a metaphor for a person’s subjectivity. Here the inscriptions in the chambers of the mind and heart are an emblem of the “sealed” quality of people’s minds to each other. Lily wants to read Mrs. Ramsay’s mind, then to merge with her “like waters poured into one jar.”* But she realizes this is impossible, and that the best we have to go on by way of knowing others are the hints and signs and signals they give: “the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people” — still unknowable, but not utterly.

And in some ways this is part of my model for what fiction does. Poetry as well, but in a different way, which I’ll get to later. There is no literally reading into other people’s minds, not the way Lily Briscoe wants. It’s just as well, because who would really want to live in a world where everyone could do that?** But to read about what a character is thinking and feeling is to know, in some way, what it is to be that character, which is perhaps as close as we get to mind-reading. This fact still startles me even though I’ve been greedily absorbing stories ever since I was old enough to demand them.

When I read Patrick O’Brian, for instance, part of what I’m after is the total immersion in a very different time, place, and idiom. Fellow Aubrey/Maturin fans will know what I’m talking about: the feeling that O’Brian somehow managed to absorb an entire historical period into his consciousness and channel it with perfect and invisible ease. And the characters, who are so temporally distant and yet so wonderfully and at times painfully near, because we’re right there with them. Their thoughts are ours, their speech patterns resonate in our heads, their emotions call up ghost-emotions of our own. We would not ordinarily resonate to the thoughts and words and feelings of an early nineteenth-century naturalist performing surgery belowdecks on a frigate.** But we do, which when you think about it is both expected and astonishing.

In a sense, what I’m talking about is the fantasy that Being John Malkovich explored, that of crawling into someone’s head and seeing what the view is like and then getting dropped back out into the world, though not necessarily onto the New Jersey turnpike. Being Jack Aubrey, or Stephen Maturin, or Emma Woodhouse, or Emma Bovary, or Leopold Bloom, or Clarissa Dalloway (to name the first examples to pop into my head), means temporarily becoming someone unlike you, someone who has been shaped by a different set of experiences. Not as much as an actual other person — I’m not saying fictional characters are the same as real people — but as nearly as one can get.

I mentioned in part 1 that I’d taught students who wanted their reading to reflect them and their own experience, but that’s not the only way they thought of reading; there was also a tendency to see all books, even pleasure reading, as a source of instruction. Or at least that was what they’d say in class from time to time when I asked them what they liked to read and why: “I liked this because it’s about the importance of not judging by appearances” [or whatever abstract concept they’d learned in a previous English class was the “theme” of the work in question]. As you can probably guess, this isn’t my take on the question. I do think that one learns from literature, but not in such a literal way; for me, it’s not a matter of excerpting an edifying lesson from the text, as if every work of literature were some kind of neatly encoded allegory. It isn’t so much about imitating the characters as understanding what it’s like to be them.

So “empathy” is the word I’m looking for, but not exactly, because empathy is something we usually feel for people rather than for figments of someone’s imagination. And yet I think attentive reading is a kind of training ground for empathy, and the more unfamiliar fictional sets of eyes you get used to looking through, the more practice you get at empathizing with non-fictional people. If you are the sort of person who draws firm lines between your group and scary outsiders whose thoughts you have no interest in knowing (and don’t all of us do this, at least some of the time?), this can be a disconcerting and upsetting experience, but it’s also why imaginative literature matters. One of the reasons, anyway. At maybe an even more basic level, there’s the need to get away from oneself from time to time, to not be in one’s ordinary headspace, to be somewhere and someone else instead.

And, poetry. The more I think about it, the more I think it deserves a separate post. But before I get to it, the next part of the series will address the “mirror” view of reading, consider the value of identification, and perhaps take back some of what I said earlier. But I make no promises.

Also, I think there will be further footnotes to this, eventually. Counter-examples and discussions welcome. Have at it!

* There’s something interesting going on there with intimacy as a kind of precondition for knowledge, and boundaries between people and the lack thereof; also with the larger context of the chapter this passage is from. No time to think through it right now, though.

** Science-fiction-literate readers of this blog will be better prepared than I am to address what’s been done with “what if we lived in a world where mind-reading was possible?” as a premise. The only example I can think of is the “mindspeech” in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (well, and an assortment of Star Trek episodes), but I admit to a lack of literacy in the genre.

Can you tell who’s my favorite O’Brian character?

4 Responses to “Part 2: Getting into other people’s heads”

  1. michelle says:

    Wasn’t that part of Lily’s major disappointment in Mrs. Ramsey? The heroic image shattered? God, I wrote one of my comp questions on this novel, and am considering teaching it in Intro to Fiction. better read it again!

  2. dale says:

    This has always been the chief pleasure of reading, for me. Travelling. Going to other times, other places, other people’s heads.
    I remember being astonished, when I was in grad school, by reading Harold Bloom somewhere talking about reading as *consolation*. It wasn’t that I’d never heard of that before — just that I’d never paid attention and believed it before. For the first time I realized that what I treasured about reading wasn’t necessarily what other people, even people much more literate and sensitive than I, treasure most.
    For me, the supreme pleasure of literature is voyaging. & a Good Book is one that takes me somewhere I’ve never been before, be that place good, bad, or indifferent.
    With poetry, I guess the “places” are more often the characteristic moves of person’s mind through the universe of language, than external places or even external “personalities,” but I think it’s the same thing.
    So I’ve always been enthralled by things like Beowulf or the Kumilupo or Gilgamesh — the farther away and longer ago, the better.

  3. Amanda says:

    Dale, exactly — the “characteristic moves of a person’s mind” point is how I often think of poetry. I kind of want to hook this up with the Russian formalist “defamiliarization” or “estrangement” concept but suspect that’s something of a stretch.
    And I think it’s time to reread To the Lighthouse for me, too!

  4. Chris says:

    I guess I’m coming to this discussion somewhat after the fact, but I wanted to post nonetheless. I think I must be quite warped or deformed by my experience in academe because I’ve never felt this “pleasure” that others are speaking of in regard to reading. The “voyage out,” to be overly cute, is not something I’ve ever *really* felt — though I’ve paid my share of lip service to it when called upon to do so in one or another academic setting. And I cannot truthfully say that I have ever identified or even empathized with a literary character in the manner that seems to be implied above — although I admit to a certain empathy toward some of Kafka’s bemused but intrepid wanderers in the sometimes roiling, sometimes stock still waters of self-knowledge. But I digress. At most, when I read a literary text I feel a certain opening into the historical “episteme” of the time period. It’s a complex shaping of the historical episteme, to be sure, in that one of the features of this entry is the possibility of insights into the ways human beings regarded, imagined, conceived, and though of other human beings. But this is always framed for me in historical terms. The “magic,” if that’s the right term, is simply lost on me, and for the most always has been.
    Now I’m not sure if this is sad, or just the way it is — or both. However, one thing I am getting from Amanda’s post is an insight into why my former students (I quit, or was unceremoneously dumped from academe) resisted so much of what I had to say, and often disliked me so. Hmm. Makes me wonder, yet again, what the ‘f’ is wrong with me.
    In any case, thank you for such a thoughtful entry.