In a letter written in 1871, the Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud uttered a phrase that announces the modern age: “‘Je’ est un autre” (“‘I’ is someone else”). Some 69 years later I entered the world as an identical twin, and Rimbaud’s claim has an uncanny truth for me, since I grew up being one of a pair. Even though our friends and family could easily tell us apart, most people could not, and I began life with a blurrier, more fluid sense of my contours than most other folks.
My brother and I live in different cities, but I have never lost my conviction that one’s outward form — the shape of people, but also of surfaces and things — may not be what it seems.
That personal intuition is of a piece with my career as a professor of literature, since I am convinced that great works of art tell us about shape-shifting, about both the world and ourselves as more mobile, more misperceived, more dimensional beings, than science or our senses would have us believe.
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