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Marina's paper 3

mfradera's picture
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The Self and Whitman’s Descendants

            There are multitudes of dimensions. We perceive this world in four (height, depth, width and time). To be precise, I should really say, we perceive this world in four dimensions thus far. By “we,” I refer to the general human populous of the globe. Yet, physicists have determined that at least ten special dimensions exist. These dimensions cannot actually be seen, they are made fathomable on paper, in the depths of equations and theory. Who are we to trust? Our eyes or the conjecture of experts? The answer (perhaps as expected) is both; while ten dimensions are necessary for understanding the universe on a grand Spacetime scale, the physicist who needs a new furniture does not measure the room in ten directions. This multiple understanding of the physical word is part of the evolution of understanding, an ever ongoing process, thus my amended above statement, that this is how we perceive this world thus far. This example in science serves well to illustrate the evolution of literary stories that have followed the emergence of Walt Whitman; “I contain multitudes,” Whitman proclaimed. Like a shot at Concord, this statement was a meme of epic proportions, planting seeds of divergence, making fathomable the multitude of selves on paper while simultaneously collapsing genres, genders, spacetime and most of the divisions between the dimensions we perceive... thus far.

            In her novel, The Sorrows of An American, Hustvedt blends together elements of mystery and romance, coming of age with family saga, fiction with fact, and biography with autobiography. Especially curious is the absence of one thing: chapters. Rather than sectioning her story into episodes of manageable portions, she writes as narrative that is near to stream of consciousness without losing coherence. As a reader, the lack of chapters compels one to continue reading, unconsciously waiting for a chapter to appear before one stops reading. We look for the stops and starts because we are accustomed to being given them and are unused to providing them ourselves. In this way, the novel is cleverly captivating, leaving one guessing where the end can be. The end, however, is less of an end and more of a synthesis of self for the main character. Rather, a synthesis of selves. But what is the self? Who is it that asks this very question? Like Whitman, Hustvelt proposes that we each contain multitudes, many known and unknown selves. Many are kept hidden from others on purpose, as is the case with the character Miranda, who saves herself for herself and subtle variety for her daughter, Eggie, though few for anyone else. There are also the hidden selves that are unconsciously kept guarded, as is the case with Lars, Erik and Inga’s father, whose fugue episodes represented an uncontrolled retreat into a self he was not aware of and could not remember. There are also the newly discovered selves we see in others, as was the case with Erik’s discovery of Burton’s Dorothy. These revelations of other selves are a kind of crack in things; it iconoclastic to the idea of a unified self.


            In the month or so following Winter Break, I had to return home twice for funerals. The first time was for my grandfather’s. The second time was for my best friend’s father. The second funeral was run by the family of another friend. Growing up, I had always known this family owned a funeral home but it never seems strange or creepy. It still doesn’t, but I do have an entirely new image of who the Davis’ are. I learned a lot about them that week. Their son (a boy I once called Chicken Chest) had joined the Marines; he’s a sharpshooter and will be posted at Camp David in the coming year. Keith, the father, had recently served three months jail time for drug possession. Their funeral home is the oldest funeral home in Harlem that is still in operation. All these things meant nothing in comparison to watching them fold the lacey cloth over the shoulders of Paul’s father. After cranking the body deeper into the coffin, Keith helped Paul lower the lid to the box then went about screwing the lid shut with Valerie, his wife.

Before this point, I had never seen them at work. I clearly remember thinking in those moments, “This is what they do. This it what their hands do.” It didn’t gross me out that they handle corpses. In fact, it was they who prepared the body of Paul’s father. They became new people to me. They were still all the things I knew them to be, (parents, friends, active community members), they were just this, too. I wasn’t sure what to do with that; I felt unsettled, not by their profession but by the fact I had never realized this about them. What else had I not realized? I also thought this about Paul. As he lowered the lid of his father’s coffin, then again when he received his father’s flag from a saluting Marine, I wondered, When had he become a man? It made me question the other parts of his life I had missed and the multitudes within myself I had yet to meet.

The line of descent from Whitman to me is not as clear as Paul’s from his father. Rather, it is a hopscotch trail of memes, seeds planted and cross pollinated across cannons of literature and philosophy. It is made fathomable in Valarie’s hands as she lowers a casket’s top, in the self I see meeting Paul in eighth grade English, in our mother’s backyards facing each other but never meeting until their children are friends, in the self I see now when I look in the mirror and in the pages I turn to finish a novel or a poem.


Paul Grobstein's picture

cracks in selves

These revelations of other selves are a kind of crack in things ... 

Both in things and in selves, ourselves included.   Nicely illustrated.  What do we do though with this?  The self in the mirror is always multiple/different/surprising?  Where's the "real" self?  The "real" story?  Can we do without them?