Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life

  • 2016-03-02
  • The New York TImes

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.