Close Reading as a Civic Virtue

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Freshmen read Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” in Philosophy and the Ethical Life. Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

As a senior with my graduation fast approaching, I find myself thinking more and more about the significance of my time at UD. There is the future of my employment to consider, and there are my readings to attempt, yet I find myself wondering about the whats and wherefores of my education.

“When I leave,” I think at such moments, “what will I leave with? After the comps, after the theses, after all the presentations, what will have meant more than a passing grade? When my friends and family ask, ‘So what exactly did you learn way out in Texas that was worth so many thousands of dollars?’ What will I say? ‘Did you know that because I think, I am?’ or ‘Did you know that a sonnet has fourteen lines, with a volta somewhere in between?’ And shall I wonder what they will say?” I do not wonder, because the majority of people regard as Oscar Wilde did: “All art,” he said, “is perfectly useless.”

And yet I have found, thanks in no small part to the education I have so fortunately received, that precisely the opposite is true. Great art confronts us with the inescapability of interpretation. When we go to write an essay on Homer or Dante or Milton, and supposing we give ourselves over to our analysis, to saying what we see, we inevitably reveal more about ourselves than we reveal about the art. Even if we do say something true, something that does justice to the text, the light we have shown has shown through us and is stained, however faintly, with the color of our cast of thought.

To (mis)quote Wallace Stevens, changing his singular to our plural: “We are the world in which we walk, and what we see or hear or feel comes not but from ourselves; and there we find ourselves more truly and more strange.” The eye adds more than it receives.

When I can endure to look back on myself as a freshman, I find the distance between him and myself is due mainly to arrogance. I do not mean to imply that I am arrogant and he is not. No, I am arrogant still, only I am more aware of my arrogance than he, and when for whatever reason my awareness slackens, when I become him once again, I am shocked back into myself once more by the strength of my pronouncements, these sounding more with the force of a peculiar perspective than with the force of impersonal truth. We are most ourselves when most enamored of our own impersonality.

If nothing else, art should seduce us to humility, to the knowledge that our perspective is one among many, that whatever piece of the truth we may have, the whole will always be beyond our reach, that we are each of us as mysterious to ourselves and to each other as any of the books we read.

It is when we forget that we are mysteries, when we claim to see another in the cold, impartial light of reality, that tragedy occurs. When Jeronimo Yanez shot Philando Castile, when George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, when James Alex Fields Jr. smashed into a crowd of protesters, these were not only moral wrongs but failures of interpretation. Racism itself is, among other things, the casual misinterpretation of another. We take the dust-jacket and dismiss the text, and we are shocked when the person we dismissed is treated as inhuman.

So here’s my advice: Don’t be a know-it-all, because you’re not. Don’t let the familiarity of your local objects betray you into knowingness. If assumption really is the essence of all our thinking, try to assume the best of others. Try to know others with the rigor and dedication with which you try to know your books. Maybe they’ll do the same. And besides, people are so much more interesting when you don’t pretend to know them.

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