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Literature, God, & the Unbearable Solitude of Consciousness

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One of the primary and most consequential properties of consciousness is that it is absolutely isolated. One’s consciousness cannot be shared by anyone else. Self- consciousness about this condition can give rise to a debilitating sense of loneliness. One important task of culture is to manage this sense of loneliness, to defer and diminish it. Religion supplies ideas that function in this way. Literature supplies imaginative experiences to the same ends.

After introducing the general topic through a literary example, the paper takes up the problem of other minds and solipsism, considering aspects of the issue treated by Wittgenstein, Moore, Heidegger and Descartes. The possibility of solipsism both demonstrates and results from the unbridgeable isolation of consciousness. The second section turns to the mind/body relation. It argues that intentionality is irreducible to a purely physical explanatory account. This is not because the mind is a brain-like entity that interacts with the body. Rather, it is because any physical explanatory account presupposes an observer or speaker outside the system being observed or described. The irreducibility of that observer is, so to speak, the flip side of solipsism. The unobserved observer is, precisely, each one of us. Each of us is removed in just this way from the world he/she is perceiving and addressing hence, our isolation. The third section turns to the varieties of loneliness here called ‘longing’, ‘grief’ and ‘despair’ relating these to the inevitability of death, primarily the death of others. The fourth part takes up the feeling that makes loneliness intense, love. It goes on to consider the thematization of loneliness in the most common narrative structure cross- culturally, romantic tragi-comedy. The concluding sections examine the ways in which religion and literature serve not only to represent loneliness, but, what is more important, to inhibit or manage it.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept of English and Program in Cognitive Science, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, USA ., Email: [email protected]

Publication date: January 1, 2004

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