Friday, February 04, 2011

Soul Sharing Redux

I just finished reading Willa Cather's novel My Ántonia. I've been a fan of her writing since Jack pseudo-randomly gave me a copy of her Death Comes for the Archbishop for our birthday several years ago and since then I've been slowly reading my way through her better known novels, maybe one about every two years. One of my ill-defined, never formalized resolutions for the new year was to spend three or six months or something reading only books by women -- I spent a lot of the end of last year reading popular nonfiction by men, and wanted to wash out some of the accumulated male-male authorial voice from my inner ear; plus I've been feeding like a baleen whale on NFL coverage for the Steelers' entire postseason run, which does not encourage mental gender balance -- and I figured one of the early ones should be more Cather. My Ántonia is a lovely book, more romantic in tone than the later books of hers that I've read (it was written in 1918, one of her earlier works), about unrequited early love, the strong-spirited women of the early Nebraska prairie settlements, and the bonds of shared experience and memory that bind people after decades of separation. Near the end, the story's narrator, Jim Burden, expresses his feelings for the titular friend of his childhood in terms that remind me of Douglas Hofstadter's concept of soul sharing:

Do you know, Ántonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister -- anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.

I don't have much to add to that sense of ideas connecting, other than that it happens from time to time (I observed it with Michelangelo and Shostakovich; Pete, earlier, had seen it in the work of Jacques Roubaud) and to reinforce that in its basic outline it's an old concept. It still seems a philosophically (and some-day-cognitive-scientifically) viable concept to me, too, some years removed from reading I Am a Strange Loop. I increasingly suspect that Hofstadter believes self identity is too deeply coherent within the mind, too pure an emergence from whatever loopy mechanism produces conscious experience, but the ultimate result, that our minds can be others to some of the extent that they can be ourselves, still rings true.


Blogger Jack said...

That's a wonderful little passage. I should read some Cather -- aside from giving you that one gift, I haven't actually picked up any of her books yet.

In terms of soul-sharing, I guess the distinction would be between whether it's "the idea of you" or "you" that's in Jim Burden's mind -- note that he phrases it both ways. I feel like the former is the simpler, better account of it, and "soul-sharing" is probably too strong a word for it.

2/06/2011 8:25 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home