Chioma Uzoigwe wrote this article.
“The page comes alive in the life of the mind where it is given a unique private context coupled against a universally shared public concern for the condition of human suffering.” This quote symbolizes the process through which we battle back and forth between what we know vs. what is imparted to us through literature, or the private experience vs. the public good. This paper examines public health crises reflected in poetry, essays, fiction and dramatic literature and purports that the battle of the private experience vs. the public good is won when the private experience becomes the experience of the public good.
The private experience refers to that of the reader. Before reading a work of literature each individual holds within himself his own knowledge, opinions, and life experiences which an author can shape and alter. The author holds within his power the ability to make the reader see what he sees to influence a universal, public perception of his point of view. When the author is able to make the reader’s experience that of the universal experience, he succeeds in turning the reader’s private experience into that of the public good’s. To do this, the author must evoke one simple aspect of human feeling–sympathy. Sympathy is a powerful emotion; it capacitates us to understand the feelings of another. Valentine (1997) states, “Our proper sympathies are themselves rooted in standards of virtue that everyone can understand. This is how we are able to sympathize appropriately when another has been wronged, and check our sympathy for another who has done wrong.” Because everyone can understand the virtue, it is a universal way to effect change. Helen Keller put it best in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, “…our enjoyment of the great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than upon our understanding.”
The first work of literature through which we can examine this phenomenon is the poem “The Chimney Sweeper,” by William Blake. Upon reading the six stanzas the reader takes away that the poem is about young boys that sweep chimneys, perhaps an odd job that gives the young boys some spending money. There is a tone of lightheartedness and innocence where Blake writes “Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare/You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.” This image is of a young boy comforting his friend and turning a negative situation into a positive one. Other positives are indicated in the fourth stanza, “And by came an Angel with a bright key,/And he opened the coffins and set them all free;/Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,/And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.” The innocence and gaiety of childhood is pictured in this stanza. Also contributing to the innocence in the poem is its rhythm and rhyme; the poem is reminiscent of a sing-song tone. Therein lies the private experience; the poem is about the innocence of young boys. However, the experience of the pubic good indicates otherwise.
Amidst such gentle words as “Angel,” ‘lamb,” “leaping,” and “laughing” are “cry,” “coffin,” “black,” “dark,” and “cold.” The contexts in which these words appear lend further insight to the poem’s message. In the first stanza, Blake writes “And my father sold me while yet my tongue/Could scarcely cry “‘weep!’weep!’weep!’weep!”/So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.” The author shows that a child was sold for the purposes of labor before the child could even speak for himself. Therefore, there is the image of an uncaring father selling his innocent and unsuspecting child for profit. In the second stanza, little Tom cries when his head is shaved, indicating that whoever is his master recognizes that having a full head of hair impedes the task of chimney sweeping. This image shows further evidence of child labor. In the third and fourth stanzas Tom dreams of other little boys, like himself sweeping chimneys and Blake writes that they are “locked up in coffins of black.” The coffins serve as a metaphor for the chimneys which cover the boys in black soot. An Angel in Tom’s dream sets the boys free from their “coffins.” The reader sees that Tom dreams of liberation. In the fifth stanza, the Angel says to Tom that if he is a good boy he would “have God for his father, and never want joy.” The message to Tom is that religion is his savior from oppression. Finally, Tom awakens in the sixth stanza only to return to work, “…Tom was happy and warm;/So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” The “duty” Blake refers to is that of sweeping the chimneys; the boys will escape punishment as long as they do what they are told.
Certainly the image of a child being sold for the purposes of labor and sleeping in soot warrants sympathy from the reader. It is wrong to use children as labor slaves. The fact that Tom would have dreams of liberation indicates unhappiness in his current disposition; the boys in the poem are unhappy. When one reads around the frolic of the poem, one can see that the poem is quite heartbreaking. The reader sympathizes with the boys and sees the poem for its true message: even faith in God is not setting the innocent boys free.
In the essay “Two Scenes from a Hospital,” by Melvin Urofsky, the issue of who decides whether care should be provided or withheld from a terminally ill patient is explored. The context of the private experience is that all possible attempts should be made to prevent the death of a patient to ensure that no possibilities at prolonging life are overlooked. The first story tells the experience of the Musolino family where Rocco, the terminally ill patient, despite his family knowing how much he hated hospitals and never wanted to die in one, is kept alive at all possible attempts by Dr. Nevin Katz. The hospital gave permission for procedures to be performed on Rocco that were ruled out before. Rocco’s wife and daughter watched for months as Rocco’s health progressively failed. Even a “Do Not Resuscitate” order from Rocco’s wife and daughter was denied. Rocco died after 102 of hospital stay. The second story contrasts with the first. It is of Helga Wanglie, an elderly woman who was put on a respirator after developing breathing problems from a hip fracture. After several months, Helga’s heart stopped. Her family understood that the result was severe brain damage and she would never regain consciousness. What was keeping Helga alive was a ventilator pumping her heart. The hospital insisted that since Helga’s heart was being pumped artificially, she was in essence dead, and the ventilator should be turned off. Helga’s husband Oliver insisted that Helga wanted everything that could be done to keep her alive should she become very ill and it was Oliver’s claim that the doctors were in no position to decide when Helga dies. After a court decision granting Oliver the right to decide Helga’s fate, Helga died in the hospital.
Within the private experience, Dr. Katz in the first story is the good doctor, who did everything he could to save his patient from death, while in the second story Oliver is the good husband, who made sure that his wife was privileged with every precaution necessary to ensure that she lives. However, human sympathy is evoked not from the experiences of the dying patients, but from those of their families. Urofsky portrayed Rocco’s wife and daughter living in despair of their situation. The reader is forced to sympathize with the women because they were depicted as suffering with the moral issue of the right to allow a person to die in peace, a right which Dr. Katz and his colleagues were denying Rocco. In the second story, the reader sympathizes with Oliver’s struggle to fulfill his wife’s promise during her dying days–to do the best he can to keep her alive. Both stories share the same moral dilemma depicted in contrasting points of view; however, the author portrays that the universal message is that because we live in an imperfect world, the issue of who decides the right to live, is complex. Human sympathy changes the private experience into the experience of the pubic good: the right to life is decided by a “bewildering legal, moral, and medical maze” (Urofsky 1993).
Harvey Fierstein’s “On Tidy Endings” is a play that demonstrates the battle of the private experience vs. the public good. The storyline is based around Collin, who was married to his wife for 16 years before telling her that he was gay; he recently died of AIDS. Collin’s ex-wife, Marion and lover, Arthur exchanged feelings throughout the play about their relationship with Collin and what rights they each had to the belongings Collin left behind. Marion argued that Collin was her husband and that they had a child together. They had a wonderful relationship, happy years of marriage and made many friends. She had never really overcome her shock over Collin disclosing his true sexual orientation but she eventually learned to deal with it when she saw how much happier Collin was. It was not easy for Marion to let go of her marriage even though it ended they way it did but she asserted that all of her reasons and feelings entitled her to a piece of Collin’s heart and that she had just as much a right as Arthur to mourn Collin’s death. Arthur on the other hand, felt resentment from the fact that he was not on the same playing field as Marion because he was a homosexual; his relationship with Collin was not even recognized by Collin’s friends and family, both during Collin’s life and at Collin’s funeral. Arthur also resented that during the funeral, friends and family consoled Marion and not him. He further asserted that everything Collin left behind belonged only to him because Marion was long out of the picture before he met Collin and because he was the only one by Collin’s side through his sickness and in death. In the end, Arthur could in no way see Collin’s death through Marion’s heart just as similarly as Marion could not see Collin’s death through Arthur’s but in the end, both seemed to “tidy the endings” of their relationship to each other, expressing their feelings over a person they both shared and loved so dearly.
“On Tidy Endings” was written at a critical time, 1987, during the decade in which the contagion of fear of AIDS spread like wildfire not only in America but across the world. In the private experience, our culture has surrounded us with negative images of homosexuals and about homosexuality, particularly when AIDS emerged in the 1980s. For example, before the term we now know as AIDS, GRID–“Gay Related Immune Disease,” was the initial name for the mysterious epidemic. The term is derogatory because it labels those with the disease; in addition, it is incorrect because AIDS is not specific to gay men. Although incorrect, information disseminated about the disease satisfied the moral climate of 1980s America (Goodman 2002). As a result of the negative portrayal of homosexuals, the private experience is devoid of what the voice and humanity of a homosexual individual is. Fierstein creates an amazingly human play; we see anger, resentment, hurt and the beginnings of healing–all through the heart of a homosexual individual. It is through this human experience that the reader can share in the experience of the public good: the merge of understanding occurs where Arthur and Marion make peace. The worlds of homosexuality and heterosexuality arrive at the beginning of a relationship of comprehending each other.
The final work of literature demonstrating the private experience vs. the public good is the dramatic play Antigone, by Sophocles. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and niece of Creon, Oedipus’ brother. Etocles and Polyneices, Antigone’s brothers, fought over alternating turns to rule Thebes after their father’s death. Polyneices attacked Thebes after Etiocles’ refusal to step down after his year of rule; as a result, both died in combat (Lines 1999). Creon became the king of Thebes after Oedipus’ death and failed his promise to Oedipus to take care of his children; after his nephews’ deaths, Eteocles was given an honorable burial while Polyneices was left for the birds. Antigone defied Creon’s law not to bury Polyneices, her rationale being that every human being should have reverence for the dead. After Creon discovered that Antigone was responsible for secretly burying Polyneices, he sentenced Antigone to death, so as not to appear a cowardly ruler. Creon later realized the gravity of his actions and set out to release Antigone, only to find that she hanged herself in the cave to which she was confined. Haimon, who accompanied his father to release Antigone, his love, killed himself over the devastation of Antigone’s suicide. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, committed suicide after learning of Haimon’s death. In the end, Creon lost his wife, son and niece.
The private experience here appears obvious, that Antigone is a heroine for standing up for a human principle. Her action was contrary to the fact that she was a female and was a member of a ruling family; women of her time were submissive and obedient and she should have been expected to obey the law as her uncle was the king of Thebes. Antigone dared to do what no one else would do and because she died after Creon took action to liberate her, the reader is evoked to feel sympathy for her disposition. However, the public experience tells the reader that Antigone is actually a coward. Antigone’s flaw, or hamartia, was that she was under the illusion that only she was able to grasp the meaning of higher justice (Line 1999). As a result she concluded that she did not belong in this world. Antigone died in vain, her death caused the deaths of Haimon and Eurydice; had she not killed herself, everyone would have lived and still would have learned from the errors in his ways. In this work of literature, sympathy for Antigone makes the reader rationalize that Antigone is flawed.
In summation, it is sympathy that helps the page to come alive in the life of the mind where it is given a unique private context coupled against a universally shared public concern for the condition of human suffering. It transforms the private experience of the reader into the universal experience of the greater public. In the end, the experiences of the reader and the public are one.
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Fierstein, H. (2002). On Tidy Endings. In Abcarian, R. & Klotz, M. (8 th Ed.), Literature, The Human Experience, Reading and Writing (pp.1460-1478). Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s.
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