Last week, for the first time in several years, I went to church. It was not my parish, or even my denomination, but it was Easter, and the churchgoers were so numerous that the pews resembled sardine tins. The women wore their hats, decked with flowers, in the style of Churchill Downs. They leaned toward their husbands, careful not to disturb their headwear. Children stood on their seats in their Sunday best.
I listened to the readings, pleased to remember them. Bible stories were some of the first I heard as a child. It was at church that I learned of familial love — the love Abraham bore to Isaac, Isaac to Esau, Mary to Jesus. It was there, listening to the readings, beside my mother, that I became aware of the love I had for her.
The Bible said less about the other kinds of love. Romance, for the most part, is expressed in one sentence, or less: “Isaac took Rebekah, and she became his wife,” or “Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve seven years for her.” It did not explain how Eve fell in love with Adam, the one man on earth, the giver of a rib.
So I turned to novels. Balzac wrote that “grand passions are as rare as masterpieces,” and literature reminds us that grand passions are, in fact, masterpieces. I learned to recognize them in life, because I first encountered love in books. “You have to fall in love with the person on the page,” the poet Dan Beachy Quick once said, “before you can fall in love with the person not on the page.”
My first love was José Arcadio in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” who ate 16 raw eggs upon his return to Macondo, after years at sea, his appetite as intact as his “radiant good humor.” Then there was Peter Lake, the robber-hero in Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale.” His “entire being was one light perfect laugh”— even as he fled the Short Tail Gang, a bullet in the thigh, or as he cut the locks of Central Park brownstones (to steal silverware, or perhaps, a chandelier). I loved him immediately, although he fell in love with another woman. Her name was Beverly. She was the consumptive daughter of Isaac Penn, a newspaper magnate whose house Peter robbed one night, armed with a grappling hook and a drill. She was playing the piano, and her “bare shoulders alone might have absorbed his attention for many weeks.” They fell in love immediately. I might have exchanged my health for shoulders like hers.
My love for these characters is imagined, but it is no less important for its imaginariness. By falling in love, we consider how we might act, if a man came to the window, grappling hook in hand; we then compare our actions to those on the page. And, although these affairs are not like those in real life, they give us the words to express love, even if it does not come in the form of Peter Lake.
So too with friendship and hatred, joy and grief. Reading influences our lives, but to Kant, at least, life should not influence our reading. The search for knowledge, says Kant, is a fair-minded hunt. Personal confessions, then, have no place in academic writing – or, for that matter, the News.
But Kant seems to be missing something. As Emily Collette Wilkinson, an instructor at Stanford University wrote, “there is always a personal context, emotional and physical, in which a certain book or literature was read and found essential.” I, for instance, am a stubborn and unreasonable person, interested in others’ business more than my own, and so it comes as no surprise that I wrote a senior essay on stubborn and unreasonable bureaucrats, who imposed irrational procedures on the American public.
But we might be missing something too. Too often we devote ourselves to our studies, forgetting the words of Oscar Wilde: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” We focus on other subjects. As a friend told me, at breakfast Sunday morning, her ex-boyfriend examined surveys and theories but never himself. “I hope his books keep him warm at night,” she said.
I did not tell her about José Arcadio or Peter Lake, nor did I explain how books can press us to examine ourselves, because it is true that they can sustain us only so long, that they must be left behind — to find someone not on the page, who will give up a rib for you, who will work seven years for your heart.
Alice Baumgartner is a senior in Berkeley College.