Resonance, Revelation, and Reenforcement

Over the weekend I started reading Roxane Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist. * As of today, I’m about halfway into it–only because you can’t quite plow through essays the way you do fiction. I love it. It’s a wonderful book. Multiple people gave it to me for Christmas . . . which illustrates pretty well how awesome my friends and family are.

One of Gay’s great successes in her nonfiction is her voice. It feels like you’re having a lively discussion with a good friend, who’s full of anecdotes and ideas and books she’s read and who wants to challenge your thinking but also support you when you disagree with her.** These essays, not unlike such a lively conversation with a friend, are a balm on the souls of all bad feminists.

It’s not because they make the pains or difficulties of the world go away. It’s not even because I agree with Gay on every point–which is good, because we have discourse for a reason–or because I feel like the book “solves feminism.” It’s more than on multiple occasions, she puts words to things that have bothered me or I have worried about regarding feminism and how it tends to be regarded in the world. In other words, Bad Feminist resonated with me.

I think resonance is one of the main reasons we read, be it essays, poetry, or fiction. We read to feel less alone. There’s a moment when an author tells you something, be it about herself or her character, and you recognize it as a thing you’ve felt or experienced. Humanity calls to humanity. It’s so common I don’t believe we’re even particularly conscious of it most of the time. We inherently understand heartache or joy or the anxiety of the unknown. It’s like strings vibrating next to each other.

This recognition is sometimes so incredible to us that it feels like we’re coming into new knowledge (“Other people think that too?”). And sometimes, in fact, we are. If you’ve ever read anything that kicked your legs out from under you, that made you really reconsider how you see the world, you’ve gone beyond resonance to what I think of as revelation. Generally speaking, not in the religious sense, but I imagine they’re somewhat similar. Something profound has happened at any rate, be it how you consider art or the physical world or the metaphysical world. We probably most often experience this in school, although I think it hardly needs to be the purview of the young alone–as long as you’re open to changing your mind, I imagine revelation is always a possibility. I should note that I don’t feel that way about Bad Feminist, at least not yet, but I’m also in familiar territory, which means it’s harder to shock me.

But what I’m not looking for in this book–or indeed any I read–is mere reenforcement of my ideas. I’d consider this at the other end of the spectrum from revelation (resonance sitting between them). When we come to the page, we see only what we want to see and we feel even more confident in our beliefs or ideas for having read it. As I’ve been reading, I’ve wanted to distinguish resonance from this other experience of reenforcement, because I’ve never once pointed to a page in Bad Feminist and wanted to say, “AHA! Yes, I am right.” The way Roxane Gay writes almost certainly has something to do with this–she’s no preacher and we’re no choir. As I said, the essays feel like conversations and I would argue there is no conversation in reenforcement. Moreover, reenforcement seems much more rooted in the particular, whereas resonance lives much more in universals (as I say, humanity).

It’s an issue I’ve seen with relative frequency in the higher education system. Instead of wanting to be moved or challenged, some students–even at the graduate level–simply want their ideas about the world to be confirmed. And not to put too fine a point on it, but when you’re a Western white male reading other Western white males, it’s really all too easy for that to be the case. Not to say that you can’t find resonance or revelation in the Greek philosophers or Hemingway–you can and you should. But when there’s no room for critical discourse or doubt, I think we’ve gone beyond that, which seems a shame. And that is true for everyone, whatever your identity, philosophy, or nationality.

To put it very briefly, books should make us think and feel and wonder. But if you walk away from a book unmoved or unchallenged, it has failed in some sense.

Happily, Bad Feminist succeeds.

*The lady author reading streak continues!

**This is, by the way, what friendship among women should be like, an issue she revisits in more than one essay.

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