I was teaching a World Literature class one semester when a student raised his hand and asked why the stories we were reading were so depressing. He seemed agitated by this, and I did my best to answer his question. “Because there is a lot of stuff in sorrow and suffering. Happiness is pretty straight forward.” It was a stock, oversimplified answer and from the expression on his face, it seemed not to suffice, but we dropped the topic nonetheless. Now some years later, I’m organizing the syllabus for my Intro to Lit class and I am having the same reaction. This has me thinking of how art and literature are generated and the state of the ethos that receives them.
It could be the snow, the cold, the winter doldrums, cabin fever, rendering me particularly impressionable. Perhaps these benchmarks of literature (think: The Story of an Hour, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Lottery, Madame Savage) are all too potent to be read together when in the throes of a winter semester. Most of these model stories were written during the late nineteenth, early twentieth century when there was a need for a good long wake up call from the facades of propriety. But these days we’re constantly in the throes of human calamity and dysfunction; it’s lurking on every device we have access to.
In an art magazine I bought for a friend, there was a painting of a woman carving out her own viscera a la grand guignol. Cathartic? Perhaps if one has dyspepsia. One has to wonder how a piece like this would be received: whether it would be novel and useful to a society over-staturated with gore. Would it promote contemplation or desensitization? And then there’s that picture of a young Adam Lanza dressed in camouflage with rounds of ammunition draped across his toddler legs. The image is just as revolting as the grand guignol painting, but it is also heartbreaking. We reached a new low with the Newtown tragedy; it is an indicator of a particular rampant mental lethargy and level of dysfunction in our society.
I understand that artists and writers create art for personal reasons and I don’t want to dictate what they should and should not create. What I am saying is that we need to be mindful of what we are releasing to the public and how it might contribute to this already dire ethos.
This brought my thinking to the Renaissance and how, perhaps, we could use one right about now. Just as the artists and writers of the Renaissance chose to revive Western Europe from its mental lethargy with ancient Greek and Roman texts on humanism, so too can we emulate particular works and redress our seemingly dire culture with new thought. I’ve been compiling a list of works with the theme of compassion because I believe it to be one of the most crucial of virtues, one whose power has been sadly underestimated.
Just how, exactly does the mechanism of compassion work in literature, for instance? Stories can inspire us. The writer presents a round, dynamic character with whom the reader can sympathize and draws forth the virtue through her actions and thoughts. For example, the character Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham. When we are first introduced to Kitty she is having an affair with a local politician. Upon discovering the affair, Kitty’s seemingly stoic, intellectual husband Walter blackmails her into accompanying him to a cholera-infested village in China for her penance. Here Kitty is transformed by witnessing her husband’s tireless efforts to better the lives of others and experiences the emergence of her own compassionate tendencies when she volunteers at a convent school. She transforms from a shallow, immature woman to a model human being; one a reader can aspire to be. A few months ago I had watched the movie version of The Painted Veil and revisited Kitty’s transformation. My reaction was none other than relief; it is always a gamble as to whether someone will be open and aware to the good in themselves and the world and when one chooses it, it’s someone to root for. And that’s what Kitty had brought out in me, relief and rooting.
A second way the mechanism of compassion can work in literature is more personal. I was about seventeen when I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in an AP English class and saw myself in the protagonist Stephen Dedalus, a sensitive boy vulnerable to the glorious and treacherous aspects of the Catholic Church. I don’t recall any big sin prodding me toward the flames of Hell as Stephen had prodding him, but I knew I was similarly impressionable and imaginative and aware of the Church’s message: Be Good or Else. I shared that yolk of guilt and shame when the conscientious Stephen bore the blows of the Fire and Brimstone Sermon given by the preacher:
The next day brought death and judgment, stirring his soul slowly from its listless despair. The faint glimmer of fear became a terror of spirit as the hoarse voice of the preacher blew death into his soul. He suffered its agony. He felt the death-chill touch the extremities and creep onward towards the heart, the film of death veiling the eyes, the bright centres of the brain extinguished one by one like lamps, the last sweat oozing upon the skin, the powerlessness of the dying limbs…No help! No help!
During a depression in high school, I had felt similar pangs of existential worry: No help! No help! The above paragraph depicts an impressionable and creative mind turning on itself; during my depression, I experienced just that. Here is an example of empathy at its best, when a reader and writer (through the persona of character) commune over an idea and/or emotion. One reads and one is not alone; one recognizes the suffering in another. The alleviation of that suffering is compassion due not only to this “intimacy”, but also through any answer that may be presented. Fallibility, according to Joyce, was part of artistic maturation:
A girl stood before him in midstream: alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird...Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!
Stephen’s “epiphany” is the realization of his authentic self- the artist. It was my realization as well, ultimately, and I had started to peel away at the skins of my suffering. In this way Joyce’s masterpiece is an act of compassion. Now, I can’t know if Joyce intended to be compassionate by writing A Portrait. But he presented the empathetic arena in which I might find compassion for myself.
The Renaissance had the printing press; today we have the Internet. We have the ability to flash mob on cue, tweet on command, transmit a tome in the blink of an eye. It comes down to this: do we assemble in the name of the good and think more critically of conflict, identifying more positive outcomes or do we grab that low-hanging fruit? In this broken and deluded world, we need compassion. We’ve always needed compassion.