A stack of 3 closed books, next to an open notebook on which rests a ballpoint pen. Text: Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature

Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature

When Consciousness Itself is the Protagonist: A Reading List

I’ll let River Halen themselves describe the origin of this list of “books that bend reality and the self”:

As I was writing my book Dream Rooms, a book about the years that led up to my coming out as trans, I found myself fascinated by the relationship of the self to the environment: the fact that what I knew about myself was apparently constrained by the facts and details that existed in my immediate context, and how shifts in my self-understanding necessarily coincided with shifts in my environment—who I was surrounded with, where I was living, what words I had available to me, et cetera.

Here’s a fascinating look at books that deal with how our sense of self is formed by the our interactions with the world we live in.

Scientists Are Finally Taking Altered States of Consciousness Seriously

“If we want to understand our consciousness, we must not be afraid to break new ground.”

Here’s another look at consciousness, an excerpt from Altered States of Consciousness by Marc Wittmann, research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany.

Through greater or lesser variations in consciousness we can learn a lot about the processes that underpin the self-conscious mind. However, for a long time extraordinary consciousness experiences have either been ignored by the mainstream natural sciences or have been explicitly denigrated as nonexistent — as the fantasies of cranks.

But, writes Wittmann, times are changing, and “in the past few decades the theme of consciousness itself has become a central topic for psychologists and neuroscientists.” Here he describes some aspects of current research into the nature of consciousness.

I prefer the term alternate states of consciousness. The word altered suggests that some sort of external intervention (such as a drug) is at work. While that certainly may be the case, several alternate states of consciousness, different from what we consider our usual awake consciousness, occur naturally (e.g., dreaming, day dreaming, transitions between waking and sleeping at both ends of the sleep cycle, sleep itself, meditation, mystical or religious experiences).

Research such as Wittmann discusses here is vital to the human sense of self and self-identity, the central aspect of life story psychology.

Seattle’s ‘unspoken’ rules: No umbrellas, no honking and more

This article from the Seattle Times illustrates the “you know you’re from [fill in your locality here] if. . .” trend. Pieces like this are meant mainly to entertain and to poke gentle, but appreciative, fun at local residents and their quirks.

But underlying such pieces is the psychological and sociological truth that people both influence and are influenced by society. From early childhood we unconsciously learn speech and behavioral patterns, and particular values and attitudes from the people around us. These lessons are passed from generation to generation.

This generational process builds a social fabric that helps hold society together. But it’s important to understand that most of these ways of thinking and acting are social constructs, which means that they are constructed and maintained by a particular community. 

Coming of age involves learning which social constructs you can accept and which you don’t agree with. This is why coming-of-age novels are so prevalent, because growing up is a process we all go through—and one that continues throughout our lives.

The Rise of “Mom-Noir”

Journalist and novelist Katherine Faulkner discusses “the latest new wave of crime fiction” by “female, feminist crime writers exploring the darker realities of motherhood—and interrogating our expectations of it.” Faulkner explains that part of the impetus of this new subgenre may be social media that project images of the perfect joys of motherhood. “Perhaps crime fiction—existing at one remove to our real lives—gives us a safe space to explore feelings we’d rather not admit we all have.”

In Praise of Reading: How Literature Enables Us to Inhabit New Worlds

“Arnold Weinstein Considers the Role of Reading in the Construction of the Human Spirit”

Learning to read constitutes our life-changing entry into both adulthood and society. We acquire this skill in our earliest years, and we use it as our source of knowledge and communication until we die. There is enormous energy and firepower and outright agency here, and it will not do to think of reading as some kind of quiet, solitary, passive experience. On the contrary, it is explosive, it constitutes—well beyond any 2nd Amendment rights—the arms we bear.

In this comprehensive book Arnold Weinstein condenses the lessons he has both taught and learned during his 50-year university teaching career. It may not interest other people as much as it did me, since I came from an academic background. But, for anyone interested in taking literature to heart, I recomment Chapter 4, Literature and the Cost of Knowing, his close reading of what he considers some of literature’s most powerful texts: Oedipus the King, Sophocles; King Lear, Shakespeare; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, The Metamorphosis, Kafka; The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner; Beloved, Morrison.

Weinstein’s message throughout the book is this: “Literature enables us to live other: elsewhere, elsewhen, vicariously, neurally, sentiently, not subject to any law: free. No amount of real-time travel or tourism or even drugs can come close to this.”

 Memories Aren’t Enough: Why Sometimes Only Fiction Can Solve the Mysteries of Life

“Emily Schultz on the Importance of Slanted Truths in Storytelling”

Novelist Emily Schultz explains how, sometimes, writing fiction can help a writer deal with painful memories: “In moments of chaos or violence, many of us become immobilized. But in writing fiction we’re in total control.”

“Like a movie, I’ve always remembered what happened in pieces—images and sounds, slightly out of logical sequence,” she writes. “Even at our most vulnerable, we are fighting to understand.”

Horror, Then Healing: Kyle Dillon Hertz on the Power of Facing Trauma in Writing

Like Emily Schultz (article above), Kyle Dillon Hertz writes about facing trauma through literature. He opens with a discussion he and classmates had during a grad school course in which they read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which Goodreads describes as “an epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion.” The discussion became “an infuriating debate on the nature of violence in fiction,” Hertz writes; the “overwhelming majority didn’t like explicit depictions, but some argued that this was historical violence, and its unrelenting brutality happened.”

Hertz writes that he had been trafficked as a teenager, and that his recovery included reading about similar experiences in fiction. He later found help through the Child Victims Act and the Crime Victims Treatment Center. Eventually he wrote a novel about his experiences, The Lookback Window

I considered the novel a roadmap to healing, creating the graphic depictions of abuse and recovery as a necessary aesthetic and emotional condition. I wanted readers to know the physical and emotional effects of this kind of abuse, and I wanted anyone who recognized their own trauma in the novel to see the methods that I had learned for living with this history. . . .  I hoped that a depiction of life as I knew it, even a fictional one, could help liberate others.

Literature inspired my medical career: Why the humanities are needed in health care

One of the biggest crises currently facing higher education is the cost of continuing to support the humanities in a world that demands more emphasis on scientific and technical courses that lead directly to employment.

Irène Mathieu, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia, is “a published poet and scholar of the health humanities and ethics.”

Literature has had a large role in helping me define the kind of physician I strive to be – one who is not only empathetic and a good listener but also a fierce advocate for changing the sociopolitical forces that affect my patients’ lives. I think literature can do this for other health care providers, too.

Here Mathieu discusses narrative medicine, “the practice of close reading and reflective writing to build narrative competence. Physician and narrative medicine scholar Rita Charon describes narrative competence as ‘the ability to acknowledge, absorb, interpret and act on the stories and plights of others.’” 

“I believe that physicians must find ways to practice their humanity – perhaps using the humanities – if they wish to be effective healers,” Mathieu writes.

The End of the Multiverse

“Audiences are falling out of love with dizzying multiverse sagas. Can the concept still be a useful lens on the psychology of regret, or is it dead on arrival?”

“In recent years, tales of adjacent realms and alternate timelines have become more and more pervasive in popular culture,” writes Jonathan Russell Clark. I’ve read several popular novels (my favorite is Dark Matter by Blake Crouch) over the last several years that feature the multiverse concept because it’s a premise that sets up all kinds of exploration into Life Stories in Literature.

Relying heavily on Paul Halpern’s recent book The Allure of the Multiverse: Extra Dimensions, Other Worlds, and Parallel Universes, Clark here looks at the history of the concept of the multiverse and its use in popular culture. 

© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown

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