the room and the Heart in literature

An Essay By Ben // 3/6/2003

From my bed in the corner of the room I watched the sky turn from purple to midnight-blue to black, the square of window-light glowing softer and softer 'til the room was left in darkness. And still I lay listening to a low narrator's voice roll through speakers by my bed. Rolling, rolling, rolling, his voice curled the white surf waves on the beach of black Africa, filled the darkness in my room, and rocked me to sleep. Dimly conscious, I stopped the audio tape and set my alarm. Then, I dreamt of Marlow and Kurtz and the helmsman in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

It was a foggy day here on campus. The pine trees seemed to enter into their own, azure-lit world, and the Catholic students entered the chapel for Ash Wednesday mass, reappearing with ash crosses thumbed across their foreheads. "To dust you shall return," said the priest. And the heart of darkness lurked nearby somewhere – maybe in the pine tree woods "lovely, dark, and deep" (Robert Frost).

There is a constant struggle going on for me here as a student of literature. It is an unseen struggle, maybe a struggle that other people don't have. It is the struggle to stand up to poetry, to accept the written and spoken word. It is allowing the characters in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (which we are reading in a class called Love and the City) to exist as complex and passionate characters who may invade one's private space. It is experiencing and understanding Gerard Manley Hopkins' anguish when he writes: "I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me" (poem 45). There is something infinite residing in all good literature, something that calls the reader to internalize it. The heart of darkness lurks in my reading, as does the heart of many other realities, including the heart of light.

One of the literature majors at school has been reading Dostoyevsky novels in preparation for her senior thesis. She made a very astute comment to me about the despairing characters in Dostoyevsky's novels the other day – characters like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. These characters spend a lot of time in their rooms. If you think about a room enough you realize several things. A room is a square – an easy shape to comprehend and measure. What is more, I know everything about my room. Over there are my books, and there is my violin. The room can become my mini-cosmos, a one-sided place of Ben-ness. For Raskolnikov, his room becomes a sort of hell because he made it that for himself. He will not, or cannot, enter into the world with a mind free of the thoughts of his room.

A room can be a private world in which you are god. Boxing off Cleopatra, Hopkins or Kurtz can literally mean putting those people and characters outside your room or shrinking them to fit within the walls of your cosmos. There are scholars of literature who perform this awful act of pride. However, the room does not have to be a symbol of the shrunken cosmos. As a monk in another Dostoyevsky novel says, the room can also be a place of humility and strength. In a room you are alone with yourself, alone with the characters in books, alone with the reality of the world outside. There is little to distract you. The very silence can become unbearable.

In part – I think – the role of the student is in the symbolic room of humility. Most changes that studying have on a person occur internally there. The doctor examining Marlow in Heart of Darkness comments that he cannot examine the changes in the men that go to Africa because the changes occur inside them. So, the struggle and the change are internal for me as a student: the struggle to take in what literature really says and the change when I internalize it. The heart in Heart of Darkness is both a place (the center of Africa) and a person (the heart of Kurtz). For the student of literature the heart is in the reading, but the same heart resides also in the student's own self.


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