Private Experience vs. Public Good

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.”

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