Reading and the cultivation of empathy
Seeing a favorite critic expound at length on a favorite author is an undersung form of literary pleasure -- as close as you can get to reading two great writers at the same time. William Deresiewicz's "A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter" certainly achieves that effect for this particular reader. Like Austen, Deresiewicz is lucid, principled and knows how to think as well as how to feel, without ever sacrificing one to the other. He understands that most of us want more than just an exquisite aesthetic experience from a novel. His reviews are gratifying even when you feel inclined to quarrel with them, and (unlike a surprising number of esteemed critics) he has a sense of humor.
[. . .]
Does reading great literature make you a better person? I've not seen much evidence for this common belief. Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate -- which is admittedly an anecdotal argument, but then, when it comes to this topic, what isn't? (Laura Miller, “Does reading great books make you a better person?” Salon, 31 May 2011)
How does one become emphatic? In my judgment, it owes to spending a lot of time around people who were themselves well enough loved to be naturally inclined to well attend to you, to love you, rather than use you as means to hopefully satisfy some of their own unmet needs. Like with our lifemates, I think there is an automatic inclination to link ourselves with people who are at about our own psychological/emotional level. It would indeed be to our benefit if somehow we found ourselves in the company of those ... even better: who could nurture us, so we can make a step up, rather than feed us responses that satisfy on some level but ultimately keep us in place.
Teachers can amount to/do this -- AND through their choice of reading material. For a short bit, they can put you in the company of people, of authors, who are potentially better, emotionally more healthy, than your own parents are. It is nowhere near as good as a more involved interaction, where the text itself, THE AUTHOR him/herself, could respond to your responses, and so on, but at the very potentially substantial least you know what it is to be in the company of someone you intuit would know you to be more worthy of attendence and love than you've been made to understand. People routinely hear about authors who love their characters, and those authors who truly do, love their readers as well -- and their readers also intuit this about them. From learning this, out of this gift, partial fulfillment, your life will be just a little bit more about seeing what you can give other people, rather than tasking them for claiming things you never got to lay much hold of and are convinced are mostly about MEism -- selfishness.
As far as William Deresiewicz: He speaks very well to the moment -- such clever, often true stuff about elite universities -- but I do not trust the man.
About whom to read: the ones I turn to, who I think, can love in ways I'm trying to reach, or reach, but sometimes fall back from, are, it seems, falling away from the moment. But Kingsolver's one. So too Updike, Piers Anthony, Michael Bishop, and some good bit of Ian McEwan. The ones I see most on the upswing right now, though, frighten me. I think they're mostly about making empathy, lightness, incomensurate, a betrayal, of the hard times we're entering. Sort of David Foster Wallace on Updike kind of thing, but not even as "charitable," and certainly not as sensitively "offered." They want to show you how bad they are, and so too you. And then agreed, all on a hunt for those who might think of themselves, something different.
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Empathy, but also demons
People who do not at the start of their lives obtain for themselves sufficient love/empathy to lead to them being well-souled enough to drift so often to how they might learn more about and help out others, but receive it later -- through whatever means -- have a tough time in life believing they really deserved the good nurturance, the absolute attendence they ended up receiving. At some point, they become convinced they'll be punished for it, and project their bad selves onto unfortunate others, to be punished. This explains why an emergant benefactory generation (like the '60s), a ME-ME but also evidently YOU-YOU generation, can at the end of their term drift really reactionary, abandon so willing those they used to forthrightly champion, and is a truth that should be used against those who would cancel out the possibilities of light and truth from Art simply by showing us how a lot of formerly progressive art-lovers ultimately drifted. "Yes, not always anywhere near to bad, mind you, but THIS IS to be expected. After true Light, inevitably Darkness: it's its bitter 'aftertaste.'" Only the likes of miracle good people like Paul Krugman escape it entire. (But note: he has.)
We're very comfortable saying (the likes of) we were intially asses but learned to become better people, more attendent to other people's needs, through --. (It's the framing for the prototypical Salon lifestory, is it not?) We are NOT comfortable saying that we love other people because we ourselves are pretty great and interesting -- and so too, surely, must you be! The former assessment keeps us seeming essentially modest and small -- of the sinful; keeps the demons at bay; but doesn't lead to much presumption or growth. The later surely at some point invites the demons: but for awhile can lift a generation on to great things ... before the also-consequence. But next time around, though the same nasty flip, it's not as devestating.