My Faculty Book Group continues to discuss Elizabeth Selman’s philosophical exploration about how humans make sense of suffering (Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering). Literature has played a role in our discussions.
In chapter three, “The Heady Political Life of Compassion,” Spelman looks at how pity for those who are suffering risks perpetuating that suffering. This was the danger that certain abolitionists and escaped slaves recognized in slave narratives. Closely examining the masterful autobiography of escaped slave Harriet Jacobs (pseudonym Linda Brent), Spelman notes how Jacobs knew full well that, when she asked for pity, she abdicated a certain amount of power:
Harriet Jacobs herself well understood, far from tending to undermine the master-slave relations, kindly feelings of various sorts may simply reflect and reinforce it. For example, the white abolitionist Angelina Grimké exposed the political logic of certain emotions when she rightly read the “pity” and “generosity” of certain whites as indicative of their “regard[ing] the colored man as an unfortunate inferior, rather than as an outraged and insulted equal.”
German political philosopher Hannah Arendt is so worried about this dynamic that she advocates banning pity, and even the more acceptable emotion of compassion, from political decision making. Jacobs, however, needed the support of northern whites to help bring an end to slavery, and sympathy for the suffering of slaves was one of the most powerful tools that she had. She had to employ it carefully, however.
Spelman notes her artistry. Jacobs describes her pitiful plight but then instructs her readers how they should respond. If mere pity threatens to transform her into a helpless victim instead of a moral agent, then readers must be taught to see slaves as more than mere caricatures. They must learn that slaves are fully capable individuals who have their options limited by a horrendous institution. At one point, for instance, Jacobs risks the moral censure of her readers by telling how she became the mistress of a white man to protect herself against her rapist master. Her white audience must learn to feel, not pity for her (which just reinforces their sense of benign superiority), but outrage against slavery.
Spelman then goes on to show how great literature (as opposed to shallow literature) instructs us in similar ways. She turns to an article by R. W. Hepburn, “The Arts and the Education of Feeling and Emotion,” to make the point:
The more carefully a situation is delineated, the more particularized the emotional response it brings forth; and the more thoughtfully an emotional response is rendered, the more closely depicted the situation to which it is a response. Hepburn says, for example, that in Anna Karenina Tolstoy expands the reader’s emotional repertoire when Levin’s new child is described in such a way that we understand why he feels not what “greeting-card-emotion-stereotypes” would have us expect, but apprehension. Simultaneously, in order to understand the presence of such emotion, we have to think about aspects of the child and its birth that are the objects of the fear. While a lesser writer might simply have employed stock imagery and drawn a clichéd association between a child’s birth and a father’s joy, Tolstoy shows us ways in which emotional responses can be and are more complicated and less predictable.
Turning back to Jacobs, Spelman says that, while the author is “not unwilling to employ stock images of anguished mothers and trembling fugitives,” her autobiography
as a whole provides a context in which the audience can correct and expand the naïve, stereotyped emotional response such imagery calls forth.
To sum up, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl does what great literature accomplishes: it develops our emotional intelligence. In the hands of a lesser author, her slave narrative would have generated lazy and dishonest emotional responses by indulging in clichés. Whenever we face social injustice and other challenges, we need the emotional intelligence that great literature provides to build a better world.
In other words, never settle for cheap propaganda, even if you agree with it. Demand depth from what you read.
Complicating this last thought, it’s actually possible to read great literature in shallow ways (Pride and Prejudice can be read as a Harlequin romance, just as Beethoven can be listened to as elevator music) and lesser literature can be analyzed in ways that are sociologically and psychologically complex. But that being admitted, one is never as smart–intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually–as when one has given oneself over fully to a work.