«CHAPTER 1 HOLISTIC READING We have left the land and embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us- indeed we have gone farther and destroyed the ...»
We have left the land and embarked. We have burned our bridges behind
us- indeed we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now,
little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always
roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of
graciousness. But hours will come when you realize that it is infinite and
that there is nothing more awesome than infinity... Oh, the poor bird that felt free now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom- and there is no longer any ―land.‖
- Nietzsche Each man‘s life represents a road toward himself, an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No man has ever been entirely and completely himself. Yet each one strives to become that- one in an awkward, the other in a more intelligent way, each as best he can. Each man carries the vestiges of his birth- the slime and eggshells of his primeval past-… to the end of his days... Each represents a gamble on the part of nature in creation of the human. We all share the same origin, our mothers; all of us come in at the same door. But each of usexperiments of the depths- strives toward his own destiny. We can understand one another; but each is able to interpret himself alone.
– Herman Hesse In this chapter I suggest a new method of reading, which I call “holistic reading.” Building on the spiritual model of the Self offered by Jiddu Krishnamurti and the psychological model of “self” offered by Dr.
Richard Gillett, I suggest that reading occupy itself with the task of exploring the self, rather than exploring the other. I argue that in reading we often do little more than use the book to confirm our pre-existing beliefs, rather than interacting with what is actually before us. As such, we are not letting ourselves come face to face with a text. Instead we are consuming it and appropriating its voice. In order to create a different space in which to read a book, I offer a different reading practice than the one that most of us presently use. A holistic reading practice might entail reading the same book repeatedly, in order to access the richness and depth that might not be visible in a cursory reading. It also incorporates meditation and mindfulness, for reasons I will explain in chapter 2. At the end of the chapter I give a brief introduction of the self I will be exploring in this text by explaining my own background, and giving the back story of my relationship thus far with Kincaid and her texts.
I am proposing a different way of reading, a different method of what to do with the information that our eyes scan and our minds perceive when we read. This method is interested in the reader, and hopes to articulate a way of reading that might lead the reader on a new journey of self-exploration. The objective is to use the practice of reading as a mirror in which our Self might examine our ―self.‖ This is the philosophical Self—the Agent, the Knower, the Ultimate Locus of personal identity, God—examining the shabby patchwork of beliefs and understandings we have crafted from scraps of culture and experience that we identify as ―self.‖ We don‘t often think of reading as something that has different ways of doing. At first glance, it‘s just words on a printed page that we scan from left to right. Not much to it. And yet, if we think about it, we know that there are different ways of reading. What a 5 year old does with his mind while he reads is very different from what a 16 year old does, which is very different from what a 45 year old does. Reading a steamy novel while on vacation at the beach is different from reading the job manual your new boss just set in front of you, which is different from reading a breakup letter left for you on the kitchen table. Reading serves different purposes at different times or situations in our lives.
I am talking now mostly of the mental processes involved in reading. To quote my mentor, Santiago Colás, who has the same goal, ―I want to share a way of reading; a way of approaching and engaging literature that feeds and is in turn fed by a way of living, a way of approaching and engaging life‖ (Book of Joys). Colás sees reading as holding the potential to lead to joy by reinventing the practice through reconfiguring its components. He underscores ―the capacity to take up the raw materials of the reading process (text and reader and world, affect and intellect, complexity and uncertainty) and find, though [sic] open-ended experimentation, enjoyable ways to rearrange those materials.‖ My method of reading builds on this idea of reconfiguration Colás describes, as well as on the philosophy of reader-response criticism of the 1960s and 1970s, to a certain extent. I am suggesting an ethical pedagogy of the practice of reading by focusing on the reader‘s relationship to the text. This method or way of reading is intended to subtly shift the reader‘s mental focus from the characters or the author to the construction of self. Thus, reading becomes a self-centered exercise, one in which we think about how we think. Books become passports to worlds that exist inside of us. We are able to get to know ourselves, slowly, through adopting a completely different approach to reading.
This implies, perhaps asserts, that there is a ―way of living‖ that might be preferable to another. I will own an ethical standpoint in this work, connected as it is to promoting unity through a better, broader understanding of difference and freedom. I will also cop to a pragmatic belief that if the meaning of a given proposition is found within the practical consequences of accepting it, then we might start at the end, envisioning what we would like the end result to be, and then figuring out what we would
have to believe in order to achieve that end result. In Pragmatism, William James writes:
The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?
– fated or free? –material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic model in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences (28).
I think that the pragmatic method is a useful one for examining our own thought processes. I have employed this method myself to examine which beliefs support my vision of the world and which do not. I have also used the pragmatic model to examine many of our cultural beliefs—the meta-narratives that presently have currency. Some of the characteristics that I find negative and problematic in American culture are: the materialism and the narrow view of success that it inspires; the unmediated and often excessive consumption; the misconception and misrepresentation of love; the narcissistic individualism; the unhealthy relationship to the body; the dichotomous, linear, univocal thinking. These will be explored at length in this text. I am not prescribing blanket happiness, but I am issuing a blanket invitation to self exploration, so that we might know intimately what stands between us and happiness, if happiness happens to be our objective.
Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories are tools and maps for the practice of finding our way in the world. As John Dewey attests, there is no question of theory versus practice. Instead, there is a question of intelligent (or conscious) practice versus stupid (or uninformed) practice. In recent times I have undertaken the project of trying to produce scholarship that has resonance and relevance beyond the academic, into the personal and the lived. William James writes, ―Our beliefs are really rules for action… to develope [sic] a thought‘s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct for us is its sole significance‖ (28-29). My academic project has been to think about what type of conduct I would like to see produced- in the academy, in the United States, in the world, in myself- and what thoughts and ways of thinking might bring about this conduct. If, as James asserts, ―all realities influence our practice, and that influence is their meaning for us‖ (29), I am interested in how realities are constructed and given meaning in light of a given practice.
I call this type of reading holistic because it offers an effective counter-balance to blind subscription to master narratives. Holistic thinking emphasizes the organic or functional relation between parts and the whole. Rather than scrutinizing an object under a microscope, we see it with a wider lens as a part of something bigger. With this lens we are able to see that even our seeing becomes a part of what is seen. Thus, an individual endeavor to understand and master the self has reverberations into our families, our societies, and ultimately the entire world. We cannot change society without changing ourselves.
I see the holistic phenomenon evidenced in the increased popularity of sustainable and ecologically sound living, the augmented awareness of the role of stress and nutrition in health, and even arguably the pull toward community that fuels social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter as indicating that a re-education of sorts has already been taking place. Dissatisfied with the meaninglessness, lovelessness and hopelessness that Cornel West calls nihilism in his book Race Matters, many Americans have sought a restructuring of their beliefs, values, and practices, and they have used holistic means to foster this re-education. Spiritual, self-help, and New Age books frequently become bestsellers, indicating that there is a market out there of people thirsty for a new understanding of themselves, the world, and God. I am interested to see how holistic thinking can be incorporated into academic learning. Of course, I can't set a moral agenda for the nation, nor do I intend to. I am not advocating the enforcement of certain or specific values. I do not see myself as endorsing swapping one fiction for another fiction. Instead, I encourage each of us to cultivate an awareness of one's own values and to bring mindful attention to where they come from, and what they enable and disable for us.
The premise of this work is that oppression is not (only) a complex interweaving of insurmountable institutional policies and practices, it is also a condition of mind. If we are able to decolonize our own minds, as everyone from Ngugi Wa Thiongo to Franz Fanon has implored us to do, then we can begin to navigate the landscape before us on our own terms. In Rock My Soul, bell hooks writes, ―Used politically in a relationship to governments, the term decolonize means to allow to become self-governing or independent. In a personal sense decolonizing the mind means letting go of patterns of thought and behavior that prevent us from being self-determining‖ (69). To do this requires us as individuals to look within and examine our beliefs, and ultimately to abandon those beliefs that are limiting. This is a difficult but very worthwhile practice, in my opinion. To some this may sound like mind control. But I would argue that while we cannot control circumstances, we can exercise control over our reactions to them. We need not be at the mercy of our emotions. Through examining the numerous factors that contribute to our beliefs, such as culture, race, family, gender—to name but a few—I think we are able to observe our own beliefs with less attachment and more objectivity.
In this work, I evoke concepts of identity and self. Identity is an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences and humanities to describe an individual‘s comprehension of herself as a discrete, separate entity. I think of identity as primarily threefold, consisting of a personal identity (or the idiosyncratic things that make a person unique), a social or cultural identity (or the collection of group memberships that may or may not define the individual), and a psychological identity (or a person‘s mental model of him or herself, comprised of self image, self esteem, and individuation). My work draws on the interconnections and fluidity of all three of these ways of looking at one‘s identities, acknowledging the multiply-determined ways we identify with the world around us. Identity is not a fixed thing, but rather floating, adaptable, and contingent.
Identity is not just what we know; it is also how we know. If we call on intuitive powers, rational thought, gut reaction, dreams, if we are able to express ourselves through drawing, through dance, through words, through song, this is also a part of who we are and how we identify. From within our identity, from inside our world view and our complex network of identifications, we function. Our identity serves as the motherboard of our mental computer, the set of processing systems that tell us what to do with the information coming in.
If identity is the series of identifications that mediate how we know, the self is perhaps who or what we are striving to know. I see the self as being a multi-layered entity, and though I will try to give names to different elements of the self that I explore, one must bear in mind that these are fluid and contingent categories that are in no way
hard, fast or definitive. Jiddu Krishnamurti writes his holistic version of the self:
You know what I mean by the self? By that I mean the idea, the memory, the conclusion, the experience, the various forms of nameable and unnamable intentions, the conscious endeavor to be or not to be, the accumulated memory of the unconscious, the racial, the group, the individual, the clan, and the whole of it all, whether it is projected outwardly in action, or projected spiritually as virtue; the striving after all this is the self (126).