By: Lorenia Salgado
Professor Kathleen L. Komar earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. Her books include Pattern & Chaos: Multilinear Novels by Dos Passos, Doblin, Faulkner, & Koeppen, Transcending Angels: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and Reclaiming Klytemnestra: Revenge or Reconciliation. She has served as President of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), and she has written academic articles about authors such as Christa Wolf, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Bessie Head, Ingeborg Bachmann, William Faulkner, and Christa Reinig. Dr. Komar is currently a professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA.
The Crisis of Consciousness in Modern Literature, a seminar taught by you at UCLA, highlights—among many things—the myriad connections between philosophy and literature. More specifically, in utilizing texts such as Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, Franz Kafka’s The Castle, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Wallace Stevens’s The Palm at The End of the Mind, it exposes an intricate delineation of human nature and its cognitive vulnerabilities or “crisis of consciousness.” Could you elaborate about the class’ engagement with the texts? That is, what was it about the aforementioned books that became a part of your seminar and subject of study?
In part, I chose these books because they are among my favorite pieces of literature. But they also give some idea of how varied and exciting the writers of the early 20th Century are. And they let us look at several different cultures at roughly the same moment in history. We can see how those in Prague and London and Paris and New Haven and Mississippi all react to the philosophical problems laid out by Kant and Kierkegaard. These texts allow us to see intriguing cultural and philosophical connections worked out in novels and poetry.
In what ways do the analyses of such literary texts provide insights into the so-called metaphysical aspects of human consciousness?
Each text looks into the mind of the individual character or poet and watches our human consciousness wrestle with issues that we cannot solve or have certainty about. It allows us to think about those conditions in our own lives (and there are many) in which we simply can’t have enough information to know exactly what to do. How do we then act anyway? How do we keep going in a world of radical uncertainty? That question is what these authors explore.
In the act of rationalizing literary texts, the analytical reader seeks logical, plausible argumentation for “answers.” However, in doing so, it appears as though another realm of meaning and communication in literature is being lost. Now, if one willingly removes analytical processes when approaching a literary text, is communication beyond the expectations of reason possible? If so, does literature offer something beyond the semantic expectations of reason alone?
Yes, I very much believe that literature can communicate not only through logic and reason, but through feeling and emotion. Poets can create connections through language that may never occur in the rational world. They open up new possibilities and force us to consider other options and other views of the world. Authors can communicate ideas through imagery and structure as well as through logical, discursive writing. These authors find ways to communicate things that are impossible to describe or explain logically.
Rilke’s The Notebooks Of Malte Laurids Brigge exposes the angst of crafting an identity while attempting to cognitively make sense out of the outside world. As an isolated individual, Malte is driven by communicating how he perceives the world while being trapped in self-consciousness. Could you elaborate on Rilke’s use of prose in this novel and how it plays a role in describing a writer’s stream of consciousness?
Rilke uses recurrent images to create larger themes that link together across the novel as a whole. Faces, costumes and hands, for example, all tie to the theme of identity. By narrating moments when faces and costumes play a crucial role, Rilke can help the reader reach an epiphany about his or her own identity—in much the same way Malte does in the novel. Malte does not explain his thoughts and feelings, he embeds them in images that keep coming back and that allow us to follow the development of his thought process.
Lastly, what are your thoughts concerning the purpose of literature within and/or outside academia?
Literature provides us with a way to explore ideas and try out points of view that we might not want to enact in real life. We can explore crises of identity that allow us to understand ourselves better.
We can be induced to understand that all meaning is not generated by logic and rationality. We can try out philosophical ideas that we might oppose in the end but that allow us to see from someone else’s perspective. We can gain empathy for the struggle of characters like ourselves—or very different from ourselves. Literature helps us to see connections—as well as deceptions. And it does so in aesthetic structures that enrich the way we experience our worlds. Literature helps us to appreciate what an amazing tool language can be when used by a great writer. It isn’t just entertainment. It can be hard work too. But it is incredibly rewarding.
Thank you Dr. Komar for taking the time to answer a few questions for our Crossroads’ literary community!