All Commentary
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reading Each Other

National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Jim Leach spent most of 2010 on a Civility Tour of America, hosting events and discussions about the importance of the humanities for reintroducing civil discourse to American culture. Leach sees civility as a key part of a functioning society, and I agree. But whatever we mean when we talk about how the humanities can encourage civility, I think we have to mean something more than their ability to provide simple moral instruction.

Rules are good things to have. We need to learn not to wipe our noses on our sleeves, not to take stuff that isn’t ours, not to scream at people when we’re debating them on television, not to shout abuse at politicians even if they deserve it. But as useful as rules like that can be, they’re limited in significant ways. Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth probably has a few choice words for societies in which everyone obeys the technical rules of civilized behavior and where no one’s voice is ever raised—and where all these perfect manners simply serve to cloak the viciousness with which people treat one another.

If that sort of rule is all the humanities can offer, there’s no reason to value them any more than or any differently from how we do etiquette manuals or advice columns or the barrage of rules for meaningless politeness that Alice gets from the Red Queen. The interactions of politics, of business, of the adult world are too complicated for simple rules to be useful. To learn to deal with these things civilly, we need to get past thinking about civility as social rules that everyone can agree on. We need to talk about more than good manners. We need to talk about what the humanities do best. We need to talk about learning how to be a grownup.

It is, perhaps, another Alice who can help lead the way. In 1921 Booth Tarkington published his Pulitzer Prize-winning and now much-neglected novel, Alice Adams, which contains the most horrifying description of a dinner party since Grendel slaughtered and ate Beowulf ’s men in the mead hall. Alice Adams is just about to age out of the marriage market in her Indiana town. Her social class is marginal. She stayed at home while other local girls of “good” families went away to school, and she became something of the town belle, but did not manage to “secure a husband.” She has now attracted the attentions of Arthur Russell, a wealthy and handsome out-of-towner. Throughout the summer, Arthur and Alice have spent the evenings talking in the romantic twilight of Alice’s front porch. But now the relationship has come to the tipping point and Arthur must be invited in to dinner.

We’ve all done it, right? Dinner for the boss? For the prospective in-laws? For the man or woman we want to impress? We all know how it feels—that fear that what we have and what we are isn’t good enough. And we all begin to die a little inside when things go wrong for Alice. There’s the heavy, pretentious meal that her mother decides to serve: from canned caviar sandwiches and hot soup to larded beef fillet and Brussels sprouts. There’s the intoxicated waitress hired to make it appear that Alice and her mother don’t engage in housework. There’s Alice’s bewildered father, who can’t understand why they have to pretend to be fancy since “If they get things settled between ’em he’ll be around the house and to meals most any time, won’t he? . . . Well he’ll see then that this kind of thing was all show-off and bluff, won’t he?” There’s Alice’s mother, whose desperation to charm Alice’s suitor sends him running. And there’s the heat “like an affliction sent upon an accursed people”—that renders the heavy food, the reek of boiled Brussels sprouts, and the endless social pressure even more torturous.

The first time I read Alice Adams I was a teenager, and I thought the dinner scene was heartbreaking. It seemed unfair for Alice to have worked so hard and gotten nothing. And didn’t this Tarkington guy know anything about romance? Everyone knows the pretty girl and the handsome young man are supposed to get together at the end. I suffered for Alice, but I suffered childishly.

The second time I read Alice Adams I was in college. This time, I thought the scene was hilarious. Alice and her mother were such hopeless, desperate social climbers! I felt very sophisticated getting Tarkington’s joke.

Practicing Sympathy

Reading Alice Adams as an adult, I realized how callous I was as a college student and how sentimental I was as a teenager. Today the scene strikes me as a masterpiece of literary balance. It is tragic. I wasn’t wrong at 15. And it is hilarious. I wasn’t wrong at 20. But it took time and life experience for me to realize that Alice’s dinner party could be both of those things at once—and that when it was, it was a better, richer, more realistic piece of fiction than my earlier readings had indicated.

What I was doing with my repeated readings of Alice Adams, though I didn’t know it, was practicing what the eighteenth-century moral philosopher, economist, and rhetorician Adam Smith called “sympathy.” And I was using the humanities to do it.

When Adam Smith talks about sympathy, he is talking about our ability to have “fellow-feeling” with the experiences and emotions of others. One thing I like about Smith is that he doesn’t assume that this fellow-feeling is always easy or natural. It’s something we have to work at, something we have to practice. Left to ourselves, he says, we’re not inclined to sympathize much with things that do not directly affect us:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. . . . And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. [The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.3]

Taken by itself, this paints a fairly bleak picture of human nature. But Smith doesn’t stop here. He adds that we don’t actually behave this way. We certainly wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice the population of China to save our finger, no matter how caught up we might get in our own misfortunes. So what makes us better than this? Reason, says Smith. Reason, and the ability it gives us to sympathize with others and to view our own conduct dispassionately. And, Smith argues, we learn to exercise those skills in a variety of ways, including contact with the humanities:

Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness. We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them. [TMS I.1]

The humanities—perhaps literature in particular, but art and music and philosophy and film, all the humanities—give us a way to practice sympathy. We look at the agony of a tormented saint in an El Greco painting. We listen to the manic patriotism of Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony, written at the height of Stalin’s rule. We puzzle through Socrates’s debate about whether to drink hemlock. We think about the way they make us feel, and the way their creators must have felt, and we work to understand the people, events, and emotions they portray. And because the works are great and beautiful and endlessly compelling, we come back to them again and again to think some more, and to find new ways to understand them, just as I’ve done with Alice Adams for more than 20 years.

Like almost anything worth learning, sympathy is hard, and learning it is a lifelong enterprise. The reason to devote time and energy to developing it in ourselves and our children, to practicing the fellow-feeling that Smith praises, is not simply to learn to cry when someone else stubs his toe. The point is to use this skill to think more intelligently about how we can understand each other and to capitalize on that understanding to create the kind of world we want for ourselves and our families.

Learning from (Others’) Experience

The nineteenth-century economic journalist Frédéric Bastiat carried Smith’s ideas about sympathy further in this direction when he wrote about political and economic issues in terms of “what is seen and what is not seen.” Actions have consequences, and those consequences take two forms: those that are immediately visible and those that are not. Bastiat writes,

This explains man’s necessarily painful evolution. Ignorance surrounds him at his cradle; therefore, he regulates his acts according to their first consequences, the only ones that, in his infancy, he can see. It is only after a long time that he learns to take account of the others. Two very different masters teach him this lesson: experience and foresight. Experience teaches efficaciously but brutally. It instructs us in all the effects of an act by making us feel them, and we cannot fail to learn eventually, from having been burned ourselves, that fire burns.

What Bastiat calls “foresight” and Smith and I would call sympathy, or moral imagination, is what saves us from having to learn everything through direct and painful experience. Bastiat shows us how this foresight, or sympathy, works in his discussion of “The Broken Window.” A man whose window has been broken is comforted by his neighbors with the reflection that “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody some good. Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?” Bastiat points out that the profit made by the glazier is “what is seen.” What is not seen, however, is that, if he hadn’t had to replace his window, our hero might have decided to buy books or shoes with the money instead. So a bookseller or shoemaker would have gotten the profit. What is not seen is that, when our hero’s window is broken and he pays to fix it, his money buys him only what he had before. When the window is not broken, his money buys him all the additional pleasure he gets from the book or shoes that he purchases.

What Is Not Seen

When we’re practiced in sympathy it is easier for us to notice “what is not seen.” When we have tried, over and over again, to put ourselves into others’ places and to see the world from where they are standing, we’re better people, living in a more civil world. Because we’ve read Alice Adams, we might not go over the top trying to impress people the next time we’re under great social pressure and we might not be so harsh on those who do. Because our children have read, and have had read to them, stories that help them think about the perils of greed, or the importance of kindness, or the dangers of drinking from bottles marked “Drink me,” they will grow up to be more considerate and more careful of themselves and others.

It’s tempting to close with promises about how if we all just read a few more books—better books—support our local arts scene, visit museums, attend concerts, read to our children and make them take piano lessons, our problems will be solved. Surely, a society that’s grounded in civility and sympathy and learned in the humanities would not be plagued with financial irresponsibility and ethical misconduct. Surely it wouldn’t be run by politicians and reported on by journalists who use language that would have shocked Lady Chatterley. Unfortunately people who offer easy answers to complicated questions are usually trying to sell you something.

The humanities can teach us civility and sympathy, but they can’t make us perfect and they can’t fix our problems for us. They can help us be more aware of the “unseen,” but they cannot help us predict unintended consequences. There isn’t a philosophical theory or a novel or a painting or a piece of music in the world that can solve the Middle East or clean up an oil spill or make the economy recover. The best the humanities can do is to remind us that, as Auden put it, “We must love one another or die,” and then show us how to do it.