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Mending walls and reading minds: explicating poetry and finding real human connection with fictional characters

So, as the result of a Facebook conversation that is totally tangential, I just reread and explicated Frost’s “Mending Wall.” I forgot how much I missed poetry. And prose, for that matter, but really just dialogue and subtext and the myriad gaps that are open to interpretation in any scene. It set my mind spinning and I wanted to get some of it down. What I got? Explication, David Foster Wallace, social anxiety, mindblindness, Borat’s cousin, and the flip side of existential loneliness.

Kopaniec Stone Wall

The poem is here if you’re interested. My take on it is that the narrator, while being very sympathetic to the reader, is not terribly empathetic to his neighbor. His dismissal of his neighbor’s motivation in repeating the “Good fences make good neighbors” line—“having thought of it so well”—strikes me as perhaps referring instead to the narrator’s self-satisfaction in the unorthodox approach. It certainly condescends to the neighbor. It may very well be the case that the neighbor repeats the line because the narrator’s soliloquy on wall-destruction reminds the neighbor precisely wherefore the wall: the narrator is nice enough when they’re rebuilding together, but maybe not someone he wants just wandering into his yard.

When I was younger, I’m sure I didn’t see this potential interpretation. Moreover, I’m confident that I thought my own interpretation—the first layer, wherein the narrator’s dismissal of the wall and its justification is read straight—was the correct and only interpretation. I’m a lot less confident about that now. There’s not a lot you can be sure of from just text.

One of the things I miss about reading narrative constantly was how thick the social soup was. Much of my time these days is spent in relative solitude—which I like, to be honest. I love people, and when I’m around them, I’m gregarious and talk too much (I come from kind of a loud family), and I enjoy it. But afterwards, I’m pretty wiped. People set my internal gears spinning and the analytical part of my brain keeps checking  and understanding motivations and interests and back stories. Working by myself means that I can maintain an even keel, which is how I prefer to be. Narrative, which you can pick up and put down at will, is perfect, because it gives you simulations of social exchange—simulations that are not nearly so immersive or stimulating. Which is good.

[That last view of narrative is not mine, by the way; David Foster Wallace wrote about it in the introductory paragraphs of his essay “E Unibus Pluram”, which appeared in Review of Contemporary Fiction 13:2 and then in his excellent collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Even if you don’t particularly like his writing style, I’d recommend the essay, because it contains a lot of excellent ideas, kind of the apotheosis of understanding pre-internet ways of being an atomistic American.]

In any case, I have learned that I have a high need for cognition—that means I like thinking a lot. I think it also means that if and when I ever go crazy, I’ll probably go crazy in the John-Nash-using-yarn-to-sketch-out-conspiracy-theories sort of way and not the torturing-small-rodents or thinking-I’m-King-George-III-and-speaking-to-trees-in-a-bathrobe flavors of madness. It also means that I can waste a lot of time on Wikipedia or useless rabbit holes—or logic puzzles. Analysis of social exchange fills that need very well, if not very productively.

The particular part of the mind it uses is also one I enjoy exercising. As part of my dissertation research I studied strategic interdependence between players in simultaneous games, and I looked into the relevant psychological research. There’s a fascinating branch of research on “mind-reading” in which we take cues from others to try to model their mental state, make predictions about their motivations and future actions…it’s really pretty amazing. If you’re interested, I really enjoyed the book Mindblindness by Simon Baron-Cohen. It’s fascinating to think analytically about what really goes into understanding other people, and just mind-blowing to read what very smart people have come up with when they’ve thought really hard about it.

So yeah, often we read the minds of people who don’t even exist—in poems, in stories, on television. And it’s deeply satisfying. And we can’t actually know what it’s like to be someone else. It’s the source of deep existential loneliness, I suppose, but connecting with people, well, that’s the source of deeply satisfying human experiences.

One of the beautiful things about life is growing up, and learning to see people differently, over and over again. With real people, like our parents or our siblings, the person keeps changing and our memories of them keep changing, and selective recall can help or hinder our understanding of them. And that’s good and interesting.

With the written word, though, we can meet those same exact characters again—both the same letters on the page and the same creatures. We’re different, though, and I’m not sure which perception is due more credit: our first impression or our considered opinion. It’s pretty neat, in any case. So yeah, I guess I’d recommend it to anyone: find something you’ve read and read it again. See how you have changed.


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June 2012
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