Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

A feminist grad student and Othello

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My recent Good Men Project, Becoming a Man Who is Ready For Love, has been shared over 400 times on Facebook and continues to be read today. I hope you’ll take a look at it. It’s about a pathetic relationship I had a with a girl when I was in college, and what I learned in the introspective aftermath.

The piece is short and tells only part of the story, as these things do. There’s actually quite a bit more to tell: I’d have to cast characters like psilocybin and mescaline into the narrative, and retell a long conversation I had with a former roommate. I’m saving all these things for the memoir I’m writing.

I do want to fill in one gap and tell you about a lecture I heard at the University of Illinois when I was taking a course on Shakespeare, one of the more important classes I have ever taken. We certainly learned all the things one learns—all the important questions about psychology—when you read a load of Shakespeare’s plays. There were also unexpected, empowering lessons.

We were studying Othello. Here’s a layman’s summary of the play’s plot that I found on a therapist’s website:

Well there was this guy, a military guy. Othello. He was a black general and he was very successful. And the world at that time was dominated by whites. Anyway, he had a beautiful wife called Desdemona and there was this evil guy called Iago who tried to make Othello believe that Desdemona was having an affair. He stole her handkerchief and then Othello got really jealous and he was so convinced [of Desdemona’s affair] that he killed her.

Of course, in our study, many questions about race and political power came up. Most of the students were used to them and anticipated what the professor was going to do. Towards the end of our time with Othello, however, the professor invited a graduate student, a feminist only a few years older than me, to give a lecture on her study of Othello. What she said planted an important seed that left me rethinking what I believed I knew about human emotions and romantic relationships between women and men.

She analyzed Othello’s motivations, and she claimed that Othello killed Desdamona not because he was jealous or even because he was sexually possessive. Othello had been projecting himself onto Desdamona, and determining his own personal value through his marriage to her, a beautiful woman who should have been (indeed, she was) “true” to him. This is an important distinction. The student didn’t believe Othello was simply seething with rage because he’d been betrayed. He was seething because his peers would judge him for being unable to satisfy and control his wife. But he was also seeing his identity crumble. What was he? In large part he was the husband to the fair Desdemona. And if Desdemona were not fair, than that husband no longer existed. He didn’t love her as a person. He loved what she made him out to appear. It’s vain and dehumanizing.

Psychologically, I had been doing something very similar in the relationship to “Lucy”, the figure I draw in the article. I had not been dating her because I had any interest in her. I was interested in what status I gained by showing up places with a beautiful girl. That’s not love. It’s (a very flawed kind of) self-inflation. Tragically, I was only partially aware of it, and I never got the status I desired except from total strangers in places like cafes, people seated at neighboring tables.

As a side note, part of the reason I believe great literature should be taught in schools, and people who understand literature should be asked to present their findings to young people, is exactly because of this kind of moment. I had hundreds of them as a literature student, and I continue to have them as I read great books.

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