Why I cried in a lecture, again

Desdemona/me after studying this play

This morning my professor MJ Kidnie ran her fourth lecture on Shakespeare’s Othello, and I felt unwell.

On Monday’s class, MJ cited strolling in the sunlight to get a coffee on the break and wondering why she felt off-kilter. ‘Right,’ she remembered, ‘we’re doing Othello.’

This weird anecdote flickered through me this morning when, halfway through the Moor’s final monologue, I realized I was going to cry. I localized my sadness on losing my own friend to suicide two months ago, but I was keenly aware of a more general nature to it. A thickness. We do this often, I think, ascribe abstract emotions to specific incidents that probably produced them. When I was a girl I used to tell my Mom I was dreaming about skeletons. I wasn’t dreaming about skeletons — my dreams were just so strange and terrifying that I didn’t have the proper language to explain them yet. At 21 I continue this behaviour, blindly jabbing into human experience with good-enough adjectives, good-enough reasons.

Othello is awful. I can’t think of another descriptor, besides its friend ‘tragic,’ that fits. Reading Othello produces a certain hopelessness that we don’t often see in literature again until the 20th century. This hopelessness can function in a literary vacuum, but I think a great deal of it rests on the fact that the subject matter (read: extreme violence, extreme racism, extreme sexism) of a play written in 1604 is relevant in 2016. In this sense, there’s a sort of absurdity to its relevance that’s hard to shake.

Being part of something larger than ourselves is why most students study literature; to recognize our temporary place in a moving body of human consciousness. On good days, this means opening up my iCal to remember to run into the woods on May 11th and ‘bring in May’ after a lecture on Renaissance poetry. It means feeling less alone when someone brings up a single line in an entire book during lecture and you’ve also written it down. It means feeling less alone in general.

But there are bad days. There are days when this sort of connectivity switches veins to a much lower vibration. Days when you realize all-too-well that sharing the human experience means sharing the trauma, sharing the nausea, feeling the weight quite fiercely and having very little tools to deal with it. Professor Donaldson always says that ‘having a little poetry in your head makes life easier,’ although he does forget to mention that the opposite can also be true. I suppose even in this place that I find myself in sometimes, which, coupled with whatever is going on for me as an individual, isn’t a very nice place, there’s an objective beauty to the experience. The dull pang of bearing something that will live after you and lived before you. Passing a baton. This is a nice romanticization, but I don’t want to veer too far away from addressing the ugliness of it all.

Here’s something else about Othello: it’s not real. Right? Well, in one sense Othello is just a story, but it’s simultaneously also a patchwork quilt of things that have constantly occurred throughout history, things that occurred today, and things that will likely occur tomorrow. So the rejection of its function as a real thing is untrue. Anything that so plainly lays out the insidious things we are capable of is quite real. I could blabber for days about the merit of studying history and literature to fine-tune empathy, objectivity, and tenderness, but I can’t help but notice a certain academic silence about the downside to entering this field; how mentally draining it can really be.

Take care of yourselves. That’s all I’m really getting at. Cultivating an ethos that extends past ‘I’ is a life-long journey, and it hurts. I spent a lot of my undergrad ignoring how closely my depression was linked to the subject matter I was exploring, challenging, and applying. This stopped me from acknowledging all of the ways these beautiful interconnections could be used to make my life better, not sadder. It’s okay to feel trauma that isn’t your own. Because, well, the truth is, it is your own. It’s all of ours.

Othello agrees:

“But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.”