Shared Experience – Shared Consolation? Fictional Perspective-Taking and Existential Stances in Literature

Torsten Petterson


This paper suggests some ways in which the concerns of exis- tential psychotherapy may be combined with the practice of poetry therapy. It emphasizes the capacity of literature for inducing perspective-taking, i.e. the reader’s opportunity of experiencing the ongoing here and now of a fictional character, including the speaker of a poem. It goes on to show this pro- cess in action in four poems exemplifying, respectively, four different attitudes to the existential question of meaning and purpose in life: transcendental-optimistic (Erik Gustaf Geijer’s »Natthimmelen« / »The Night Sky«); transcendental-pessimistic (A.E. Housman’s »The Laws of God«); immanent-optimistic (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s »A Hymn to the Night«); and immanent-pessimistic (Tennyson’s »Oh Yet We Trust«). What- ever the stance of the poems, the reader grappling with exis- tential questions may take the perspective of the speakers of the poems, thereby finding solace in a shared experience of the human condition.

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