Domination and Power

In, ” The Bonds of Love”, the author, Jessica Benjamin, proposes a theory that investigates the reason why Americans are desperate for power. The idea that powerless people have the strongest desire for power isn’t completely off, yet that argument is underdeveloped. Benjamin believes that the desire for domination and power begins with the submission and relentless following of an all-powerful figure. Usually, the submitter sees that all-powerful person as a goal to one day get to themselves. This power dynamic is becoming increasingly common in today’s world. However, the relationship between the powerful and the powerless is a tale as old as time.

In order to stop this harmful cycle that will lead America into many more disagreements and even more polarization, we must address the power struggle. Even more specifically, the oppressed person or group must name the harmful power dynamic and peacefully work to end that dynamic. However, this is no easy task. The oppressor might not see themselves as all-powerful. Many times the person in power does not know or believe that they have large amounts of power and that they are viewed as all-powerful. This often leads to the powerful not listening to the powerless which destroys the hope of healing and change. No wonder this dynamic has been happening since the beginning of time.

Vladimir Nabokov & the Empathetic Reader

Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to his book Lectures on Literature contains one sentiment that I find to be particularly rabble-rousing.

There is the comparatively lowly kind [of imagination] which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature... A situation is in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or someone we know or knew... Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.
Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers”

There’s a humorous bit of what I perceive to be self-awareness at the end of that quote, when Nabokov acknowledges that all of his dictations about what makes a good or bad reader are really nothing more than his personal preference (This… is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use). But that’s besides the point.

One of literature’s greatest powers is the power to make a unique, individual reader feel seen. We spend our lives calling out into the abyss, begging question, “Does anyone else feel the way I do, or am I alone?” It is art–literature and other media–that answers the call: “No. You are not alone. Look here, we feel the same way.”

Nabokov identifies this power as a fatal weakness on the part of the reader. While his argument that readers should seek exposure to new experiences is sensible, to discount the personal connection a reader develops with text that they can specifically empathize with is overkill.

It is also impossible for readers to embrace such an impersonal handling of their reading. As Nabokov himself says, when a reader is reminded of a personal experience while reading of some situation or another, that situation will be intensely felt. The reader cannot choose whether or not to relate to something, it’s just instinctive. And it would be foolish to actively try to block out any feelings of empathy inspired by a text while in the process of reading it. If the goal of reading is to have some visceral experience, then the reader that heeds Nabokov’s instruction would be swimming against the tide that conveniently flowed towards that goal.

All that being said, Nabokov’s ultimate message is valuable. Readers should definitely seek out literature that heralds new and foreign experiences. However, when they come across literature that calls upon their personal experience, they should embrace that feeling of empathy rather than squash it.

The Power of a Good Reader

Nabokov is partially famous for his discussion of what makes a good reader, and by correlation, what makes a good writer.

Nabokov mentions in his long reasoning that one important aspect of a reader/writer, is the ability to separate the reader’s world from the world the writer creates. But I disagree with this. The best thing about stories is the ability to connect things from your own world to the world the writer creates, whether its understanding the situation a character might be in, to imagining a location to something you’ve seen in your past or everyday life.

That is what makes books so much more imaginative and mentally stimulating than movies, when you read a book every person who reads it has a different image in their mind about a location, or even a character. Not to mention if we followed Nabokov’s example of not inserting ourselves into the story we might not feel the same nervousness, satisfaction or fear that the story presents.