This morning, I had the privilege of speaking to the entire student body and faculty of Portsmouth Abbey School on the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay, nine or ten miles north of Newport, Rhode Island. My topic was “why literature matters,” but my emphasis was on the way that identity politics ruins both literature and the possibility of political unity. To make the point, I argued that basing our identities on how we’re victimized (and insisting that people outside our own groups can’t really understand us) wrecks one of the great blessings of literature.
These days, if some writer imaginatively crosses an identity boundary by presenting a character in a different group, there can be an immediate backlash. Even anticipating negative publicity, publishers voluntarily withdraw books that someone might accuse of being politically incorrect. The heart shrinks to think of it. Just last year, the novelist Lionel Shriver objected that, “preventing writers from conjuring lives different from their own would spell the end of fiction,” because, “if we have the right to draw on only our own experience, all that’s left is memoir.” Exactly. As I said to the community at Portsmouth Abbey, what troubles me is the attempt to restrict the poetic imagination within the limits of these narrow understandings of identity. The great poet like Shakespeare enters identities across the whole range of human possibility.
I’ll publish the whole talk in an upcoming edition of Integritas, but I want to share one insight that came to me as I was thinking about what we do at Wyoming Catholic College. In the horsemanship course that our students take for one semester, they learn to ride by coming to understand the particular identity of the horse they are given—Storm, for example, or Star or Zeke. Riding requires adapting himself or herself to that particular animal, and some students might sit there for a long time—at least at first—unable to get the horse to move. Usually, the problem is that they can’t get past some inner block that keeps them from being able to understand and communicate with the animal.
For the great horseman, by contrast, there is instead a sympathetic mastery that does not show off the rider’s overpowering will, but rather his or her effortless understanding of the horse, so that there’s a sympathetic unity between horse and rider. George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant were great horsemen; both of them were famous for their mastery of horses long before their great accomplishments with men—and again, it’s not a mastery of imposition, but of unity with another identity.
There’s an analogy in this regard between the great rider and the true poet. For Shakespeare, this block between the self and the other vanishes. Ego in the usual sense disappears in observation, and the fruit of his extraordinary protean imagination is our immensely greater understanding of each other. Understanding each other instead of exacerbating our differences might actually help heal us. There’s a great divide between the current cry for “diversity” as a supposedly self-evident good, and the more abiding call of our national motto, E pluribus unum—out of many, one.
Many thanks to Chris Fisher, who invited me, for the invitation, and congratulations to the Portsmouth Institute for Faith and Culture, of which he’s the executive director, for its powerful work in restoring Christian culture.
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The featured image is “Lord Annaly, Master of the Pytchley Hunt” (1914) by Lynwood Palmer (1868-1941), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.