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The Accusation by Bandi / The Beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail / Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck – three books that recently led me to think about compassion and literature.

A number of the books I have been reading lately have had a great deal of very real (and very current) human suffering at their center. Most recently, I read The Beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail, which chronicles the true experiences of women who were captured by Daesh and the difficult work that they do to rebuild their lives, and sense of selves, after their escape. The text is, as expected, very harrowing and incredibly moving; there were a number of times when I ended up setting the book aside and meditating on what I had read, though I wouldn’t be able to put the book down for long. Between the horrific nature of what these women, children, and men experienced, as well as Mikhail’s tender but raw handling of these narratives, I wasn’t able to put it down. In the end, I cried — because what else can you do when faced with these stories?

What can you do?

The Beekeeper, in particular, left me thinking about these types of narratives — fiction or nonfiction works that focus on such profound human suffering — and the role of the reader. Part of it stems from what is probably a weird sense of guilt or uncertainty on my part; in many ways it feels like another avenue for consumption and a consumption that is based on the pain of others, while I sit in my armchair with my geriatric toy poodle snoring beside me. What good do I do for anyone as a reader and what can I do with books like these that urge me to do something?

I should say that this is not a call to arms nor is this intended to send anyone else on a guilt trip along with me. Likewise, I will only be touching mainly on The Beekeeper, though I include images of other books that I just happen to have read over the last few months. That being said, there are innumerable books that describe innumerable experiences that we could also easily use as other examples for my little brain dump.

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As someone who always had an affinity towards literature and as someone who does believe that the written word can carry a lot of weight in the ‘real’ world, I would be the first person to argue that reading makes us more compassionate people. Years ago I read Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice, which touches on the need for the literary imagination to become the public imagination because literature can teach people to practice empathy in a way that other disciplines cannot. A ‘literary’ approach to the world, as opposed to the economic-rational/cost-benefit analysis approach that Nussbaum pits against the literary, would be something we would want in political leaders and purveyors of justice in order to create a more compassionate and just world.

For those of us who resonate with literature, this is a really nice sentiment. And on a theoretical level, this stuff sounds great:

“My central subject is the ability to imagine what it is like to live the life of another person who might, given changes in circumstance, be oneself or one of one’s loved ones…Literature focuses on the possible, inviting its readers to wonder about themselves. ..Unlike most historical works, literary works typically invite their readers to put themselves in the place of people of many different kids and to take on their experiences. In their very mode of address to their imagined reader, they convey a sense that there are links of possibility, at least on a very general level, between the characters and the reader. The reader’s emotions and imagination are highly active as a result, and it is the nature of this activity, and its relevance for public thinking, that interests me.” — Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice, 5.

When I first read this book, and specifically the passages like this, I felt that this was it. This is why books are so important.

Looking back now, I feel less certain about the broad strokes that appear in Nussbaum’s ideas in particular, as well as the more general conversation about the place (or ‘power’) of reading in society. What has changed for me is partly that the Julia reading Nussbaum in 2013 was living in a different world than Julia in 2018. Then I simply believed that if more people read more stories then we will be able to understand each other better. Now, I see people who look at the same story told by the same person and get vastly different narratives out of them — and often the interpretation is not a very compassionate one. Now I see people who can read the same books I do and still believe that they deserve to be treated in a way that is different (i.e. better) than those who suffer in these books.

There is one passage in The Beekeeper that jumped out at me right as I got to it. Here, Mikhail is describing images at a photo exhibition,  a series of aerial shots that remind her of the Gulf War:

“The satellite images depicted us as rows of ants leaving their hills, leaving behind everything they had worked at for their entire lives. Every passage was an exodus for them. Our houses looked like dark holes, sometimes lit by the explosions. My home was in that little spot there. Can you see it? 

From above it isn’t possible to see inside the houses, to recognize the lives of the inhabitants, their struggles over the little things and the big things, their movements getting slower and slower all the time. From above the burnt fields and bewildered animals look more like an abstraction. 

From above, there are no souls, only bodies, but they are seen as hollow forms, moving the way atoms do in the universe — unseen. From above, it’s possible for bodies to disappear, to assimilate into water or earth or fire or air.” — Dunya Mikhail, The Beekeeper, 96.

What stuck with me is the idea of abstraction and how easy it is to do something to another person when they are just an abstraction. I think that what Nussbaum’s argument, when practically applied, would be that literature makes these things concrete for us — in the imagination. We envision ourselves as the character experiencing something in the text, which makes the situation real for us. But is that true? Aren’t the characters (whether based on real or fictional individuals) still abstractions to us, even if they are made legible on the page? Even if we are actively participating in the text as readers, making the links that allow us to imagine Character X as ourselves, or a loved one, we are still in the process of abstraction.

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I think that the belief that literature, or art as a whole, can solve all the world’s problems — including failures of interpersonal interaction — can be overblown. As much as I like the ideas put forth in claims like Nussbaum and others, I often struggle with whether compassion and literature are sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that the reader in Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice is an ‘ideal reader’ who has a specific approach to literature and it is a conception of a reader that attempts to be egalitarian, but ends up flattening difference. There is a certain type of person and approach to books that seem to be predisposed to being impacted by literature in this argument. In that case, what can readers do and to what end can literature lead us to be compassionate human beings who can bring some sort of positive change in the world?

I don’t know.

At this point, and counter to what I stated at the beginning, you may think that I don’t believe that literature has much weight when it comes to generating a positive political imaginary or creating compassion. I do want to take a step back and reiterate that I do believe literature is a significantly positive force in the world, but as someone who is a reader and can therefore fall into a passive state of consumption, to-be-read piles, and shelfies, I want to continue to interrogate this thing that I love so much. Another thing that gives me pause when it comes to the argument that literature can unequivocally overcome differences and generate compassion in the reader is, as I touched on earlier, the weird political climate we find ourselves in. We can’t believe that the ideal reader exists because I can look at the same text as someone else who sees a wholly different story than I do because their reading of the same novel is informed by a different set of beliefs about the people in that text.

I suppose the general argument here would be to continue to read, but to read as widely and diversely as possible — read things by voices who are historically pushed out of the conversation, read novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, and all types of work. To make sure that we are funding literacy for young people, providing spaces for many different voices to write and have their voices heard. To try and support those who are putting these books out into the world and try to get other people to read these books, too.

I think there is a limit to the compassion that can be generated by literature, but I believe that literature — and other artistic outlets, too — are one of the best chances we have to address issues of empathy. I hope this for myself, too, and I hope to continue to develop a better sense of empathy that moves beyond abstraction and into something concrete.

Suggested Readings:

  • The Accusation by Bandi
  • Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
  • The Beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail

Please feel free to leave your suggestions below and I will happily add them to the list!

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