I was out to dinner with colleagues recently and someone made an all-too-common quip about literature: Graduate work, she said, has ruined books for her. I have heard this before, both in and out of academia. Common parlance assumes that those who study cannot love at the same time. Why is this? Is it a symptom of the postmodern condition? Nothing means anything, or it only means something else; taste, feeling, and beauty are all suspect.
Is there something wrong with me that I am stricken dumb over the beauty of literature, of its painful understanding and innumerable unanswered questions?
Today we discussed Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha”, a novella included in Stein’s early Three Lives. In this text, Stein rewrites autobiographical material from her novel of a lesbian love triangle (Q.E.D.) to tell the story of Melanctha, a mulatto woman who desires, repeatedly, nothing more than suicide. Of constant critical concern is Stein’s usage of racist stereotypes; for instance, she repeatedly refers to “the wide abandoned laughter that gives the broad glow to negro sunshine.” Such “negro sunshine” resurfaces several times in the text–so often that I found it funny. And I said as much in class. To me, Stein’s usage of racist language is subversive: in repeating the images she shows their absurdity. Other students saw it differently. Borrowing from Sonia Saldivar-Hall’s essay “Racism in Melantha”, they were not interested in Stein’s attempts at subversions. What they saw was the racism inherent in a decision to use such stereotypes at all. Intent does not matter, the argument goes, when one is repeatedly proliferating the terms and stereotypes that undergird essentialist prejudice.
While I do not agree with Saldivar-Hall’s ultimate assessment that “Melanctha” unveils “Stein’s own prejudices”, I only now understand how much background informs reading. My ability to read “negro sunshine” as funny, as absurd and subversive, owes much to my privileged existence as a white woman who has never viscerally felt the impact of such terms.
For these same reasons, I have recently decided to abstain from identifying as “queer.” After all, as a cisexual woman married to a cisexual man, I can pass most easily for straight in polite company. The discrimination and othering that defines queer life is something that I can willfully ignore in the checkout line at our local grocery store. Such is not the case for many of my friends.
But this is beside the point. The point is that literature made me think of this. And this was not just a theoretical text, but a very engaging (albiet Steinian) tale of love and identity. I read, I think, and I change. My views are altered, my privilege called into question, and I am in a constant state of identity-flux. Just like the 11-year-old I once was, when I read, I am pulled into an alternate world. I hope that I never lose this.
To my credit, reading has only become more engaging the more I study it. I still open a novel with the same juvenile glee that I once opened Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Where will it take me? What does it have to tell me? This is why I would like to write a dissertation on what literature does, on what it teaches us. And as an Other (I’ll not go into that here), I am particularly interested in views of the Other. Not in the symptomatic reading sort of way, but in the way that literature can help us understand what it means to be marginalized. I think that literature can be a sort of life raft thrown out into the darkness, never knowing who needs it, where it may be useful, or how it will resonate with each subsequent reading. Through reading we understand what it means to be us, what it means to see us, and the people we may potentially be.