Questions of Origin and Identity in English 203

“Thank you,” I said. “I came back to this place to find something, to connect with something lost, to reunite if not with my whole self, then with a piece of it. What I’ve discovered is that this thing is not here. In fact, it is nowhere. I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself. My mother is buried not far from this auditorium, and there are no words on her headstone. As I glance out now, as I feel the weight of this trophy in my hands, as I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say:

I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”

–Percival Everett 

The first time I read this epigraph in the English 203 syllabus, I had little knowledge of what this class would entail, except for what I could extrapolate from the course description. In all honesty, I didn’t even know what the word “epigraph” meant. That being said, the quote still struck me; the exact thought that popped into my head was something along the lines of “huh, that’s relatable.” Everett, in this quote, captures the image of a person lost and searching to find themselves again. I think on some level, many people have been that person trying to “connect with something lost;” I know I have.

The question is, though, how does this quote relate to our class, aside from the obvious fact that it was said by the author who wrote the books we’ll be studying? A clear answer first came to me when we were talking about The Bacchae in class for the first time. Again and again, the word “‘origin” wiggled its way into our discussion. In my small group, we focused specifically on the star of the play, Dionysus, and his homecoming to the city of his birth. In the beginning lines of The Bacchae, the god proclaims, “Newly arrived in this land of Thebes, I am Dionysus, son of Zeus…” Dionysus is new to Thebes; he has traversed the world (he mentions trips to Persia, Asia, Arabia, and more), and yet he has inevitably ended up back at his birthplace, his place of origin. Dionysus mentions later on that his motivation for return is to make his “godhead plain for all to see.” Essentially, he finds himself, like Everett, returning home in search of something; in his case, he seeks acknowledgment of his godly power.

It seems to me that both Everett and Dionysus are really talking about identity and the pesky question of “who am I?” Even in what I’ve read of Everett’s Frenzy, I see this same question reflected in the character of Vlepo, who knows nothing of his origin or who he is outside of what Dionysos tells him and makes him to be. Vlepo admits after looking into his own mind, “I saw nothing, felt nothing.” While the story is about Dionysos and his journey, there is an underlying plot in which Vlepo tries to comprehend his own existence and what exactly his purpose is. This search for self seems to be already ubiquitous in the two major works we’ve studied thus far.

Origin and identity, however, have not just come up in our discussions of the books. One instance that comes to mind, for example, is when we went around the room and stated how we pronounced certain words, or if we said “soda” or “pop.” These differences are all a result of where we come from and who raised us, and they end up formulating a part of our identity. This got me thinking even more so about the implications this could have in terms of literary analysis, which is evidently the focus of this class. How does one’s personal origin and the components of their individual identity affect how they evaluate and interpret literary works?

Naturally, this led me back to our discussion on the different types of literary criticism, and whether New Criticism (as defined by Ross Murfin and Supriya M. Ray, a type of textual analysis based on “elements within the text rather than on external factors”) is truly achievable. If the question of “who am I?” influences our everyday lives, will it not, then, inevitably influence our reading of texts? After the first few class periods in English 203, I’ve come to decide that the answer is yes; this influence is inescapable. In small group discussions especially, I constantly find myself and my peers dragging in some fragment from our personal lives to make sense of the text. Understanding identity seems to coincide with understanding literature.

Amongst all these connections between the epigraph and the course content, I found, most importantly, a goal for myself emerging. As I mentioned earlier, Everett’s quote radiates a sense of confusion and lack of self-recognition. I feel the same in terms of my identity as a writer and analyst. I want this class to be a journey of discovery for me. In high school, I feel like we’re often taught specific, step-by-step guidelines for looking at and responding to a work of literature. While I don’t detest structure, I do not want to sound like a robot trying to follow a formula. Instead, I hope to explore my own identity as a writer; “who am I?” but with an English literature student’s twist. Everett’s quote suggests that I may never truly be able to achieve this, but I’m going to use this class to give it, as Professor McCoy would say, “the good old college try.”

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