Why do artists …?

Working in isolation and without an ordinary outlet seems to be uncomfortable to lots of people, but might be more familiar for artists and writers. Why have we been doing that kind of thing for so long? The question reminded me of an essay from some years back that took the form of a conversation among people waiting for an art class to begin, as told by a first-person narrator. It was the only piece accepted for this anthology that was told in a creative form.

Here are some lines from the ending of my essay “Reveyesed I’s,” written for the publication Creativity:

Just as Roger and Rose Ellen are leaving together, Roger turns back and looks at Marie. “Why did they persist? Why do you?” he asks.

“What?” asks Marie.

“Why do artists insist on making art, without pay or recognition?” Roger asks.

“Why is art made, when the artist is no longer employed to fill the needs of church or king? Why, when there are no animals to be entranced, no hunting spells to weave by firelight deep beneath the earth? When images can more quickly be made by other means?” the model chants.

“When there is no clear use for what they do?” Roger asks.

“The artist needs to get the intuitions of the mind outside, and see what they look like. Or hear what they sound like,” Marie answers.

“Thoughts grow and change as they emerge. The process of getting the images down is a process of knowing them better. It’s a way of coming to terms with the shifting and expanding nature of reality,” the model says.

“What does creativity have to do with reality?” Kay asks.

“I think that the relationship of art to reality lies in the creative act itself. It’s not in the images or other results produced. The creation of images is part of the learning process, not something carried out after it,” says Marie.

“Just for themselves, then?” asks Roger.

“Oh, no. The response of others adds to the meaning. When readers and viewers make their own meanings, they are also involved in the process,” says Marie. …

“But what does all of that have to do with living in the real world?” Kay asks.

“It is by focusing on the process of creating works of art, and by drawing the viewer into that process, that our arts represent the real world. They reflect the way that we function in that world,” says the model. She returns to her place among the still-life items.

The model sits still for a long moment, then shifts her position. She speaks slowly, “‘No longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work and the world, and thus to learn to invent his own life.’” She says nothing more. But that last, I am sure, was a quote from Robbe-Grillet. I shall have to look it up.

Marie nods. She gets slowly to her feet and gathers up her belongings. “My grandson is coming for me after class. But that’s still a long time off.”

“I’ll give you a ride home,” says Karen.

“Are there artists now, discovering?” asks Olivia.

“I hope so. I trust there must be,” says Marie. Once more, we glimpse through her glasses the multiple lights reflecting off her eyes.

Karen and Marie go out together. Kay and Olivia remain for a short time, talking quietly. Am I mistaken, or do I see there a slight glitter, a hint of a change in the eyes?

Then they, too, go out into the dark.

(See our Books and Downloads page for the whole essay.)

Pat

The Show Goes On …

Troubled times often lead to exciting innovation in the arts. Right now, creative people are dutifully quarantining themselves, just like the rest of the public. And yet at the same time, they’re refusing to sit back and wait for some kind of magical “all clear” signal before going back to work. This is especially true in the performing arts. Although bricks-and-mortar theaters and other performance venues have gone dark and dormant, there has been an explosion of virtual performances.

Songwriters, musicians, and other performers are going digital and online to reach out to a public that is hungrier than ever for artistic experience. Billboard, Grammy.com, Creative Capital, and other sites keep ongoing, updated lists of online digital artistic events.

I am excited and honored to be involved in an upcoming live, digital theater event. Project Chrysalis 2.0, an evening of staged readings of scenes from new plays, is going to take place online. An excerpt from my award-winning play The Shackles of Liberty will be one of five new works featured. For both rehearsals and performances, participants are working as an ensemble while remaining safely quarantined in their homes. I’m enjoying these unique, innovative, and rewarding rehearsals and am excited about the upcoming performance.

Hosted by the Cary Playwrights Forum, these scenes will will be broadcast live via Facebook Live on Saturday, April 11, at 7:00 p.m. Afterwards, the audience will vote on which play will get a full production. Please join us for this exciting and special event!

The Cleansing (Holy Monday) — a short play

Characters:

Mary and Martha
Jesus
Judah Ben-Hur

The scene is the Mount of Olives; Jesus sits on a stone bench staring forward; Mary enters, followed by Martha.

MARY (to MARTHA).
I’ve found him.

MARTHA.
Where?

MARY.
Sitting right here like nothing happened.

MARTHA (to JESUS).
What do you think you’re doing?

JESUS.
Watching.

MARY.
For what?

Jerus-n4i

Temple of Herod, Holyland Model of Jerusalem.

JESUS (pointing).
The Temple is about to fall; soon
not one stone will be left upon another.
Watch here and see for yourself.

MARTHA.
Nonsense.

MARY.
Let’s run.
Your disciples have fled already.

JESUS.
Why run? What’s the danger?

MARY.
After what you did just now?

MARTHA.
You’re joking!

MARY.
The Temple guards—
they’ll find you here and take you!

JESUS.
No. Not today. My betrayal is still
four days away—I’m safe till then.
Do you know how my Father makes figs?

MARY.
No parables, please!

MARTHA.
Not right now!
Let’s hurry home to Bethany
where we will all be safe
and you can tell your stories
and I can make you dinner
while she sits at your feet
doing nothing as usual.

Jacopo_Tintoretto_008-2

Tintoretto: Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary.

JESUS.
Since you’re curious, I’ll tell you.
My Father sinks his mighty hand
into a soft shaft of sunlight
as if it were riverbank clay—
like this, you see? And he seizes
a warm, pliant fistful of it
and squeezes it tight—like this.
See how the yellow light
oozes out between my fingers?
He holds the sunlight fast
a little while—just like this—
then slowly loosens his grip
to reveal a ripe and luscious fig
that tastes just like the sun.

(JESUS opens his hand to reveal a coin)

MARTHA.
But I don’t see a fig.

MARY.
I see a coin with Caesar’s face on it.

(JUDAH BEN-HUR enters.)

Denarius_of_Tiberius_(YORYM_2000_1953)_obverse

Denarius of Tiberius, known as the tribute penny.

MARY (to JUDAH).
Go away!

MARTHA.
He’s innocent!

MARY (to JUDAH).
You’ve got the wrong man!

JUDAH.
Foolish women—what do I look like?
A priest, a Temple guard, a stooge
of Herod or Pilate, either one?

MARTHA.
Who are you, then?

JESUS.
I’ll tell you.
His name is Judah, a son of Hur—
an angry soul, filled with hate.
The friend he most loved in his youth
betrayed him into Roman slavery;
he was chained for three years
to a galley’s oar; but he won freedom
and became a Roman citizen;
yet still he remains a Jew—
the most bitter Jew in Israel.

MARY.
You’re bitter yourself today.

Miracleofthefig

Byzantine icon of Jesus cursing the fig tree.

JESUS.
So I am. I wish I knew why.
(to JUDAH)
I killed a tree this morning
an innocent fig tree just outside
the city gates. A strange thing to do.

MARY.
It bore no figs.

MARTHA.
It’s not the season.

JUDAH.
You’re a carpenter, and a carpenter’s son;
that wasn’t the first tree you’ve killed.
Learn to kill men, my Lord.
It’s the one thing I have to teach you.

JESUS.
Can you teach me to kill men without rage,
the way a carpenter kills a tree?

JUDAH.
What you did just now at the Temple—

1024px-El_Greco_13

El Greco: Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple.

JESUS (interrupting).
A mistake. The Temple now
belongs to Caesar, not my Father.
I had no business there at all.
Its time is over—in moments now
a breath of icy love will send it
crashing under its own weight,
the weight of this world’s greed.

JUDAH.
The Temple won’t fall—not till
you bring it down yourself.
The moment is now—you mustn’t wait!
The money changers’ backs are stinging
from the whippings you gave them,
and they scuttle about like scorpions,
grubbing up the coins you spilt
when you overturned their tables—
denarii, drachmas, darics, shekels,
the currencies of all the world
jumbled in gibbering heaps,
worth nothing until they’re sorted
and weighed anew. All commerce
is suspended—and all authority,
the power of priests and Rome alike.
The time is here—this very moment—
to cast off the yoke of Rome,
to lift up the poor and crush the rich,
and make of Israel the Kingdom
that you yourself have promised.

JESUS.
And you’ve raised three legions
to bring me victory. Right now
they mingle like cutpurses among
these millions who have come
to Jerusalem to celebrate
the Passover.

JUDAH.
How did you know?

ramon novarro-1

Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, 1925.

JESUS.
Three years you followed me
with thousands of men with knives
in their belts. I wasn’t supposed
to notice? While I sought farmers
and fishermen and tax collectors
and mothers, wives, and harlots,
you gathered soldiers. You trained them
in the lava beds—to guard and strike
with their fists, to cut and thrust
with javelins and swords,
an army of Galileans styled
like Romans to destroy the Romans.

JUDAH.
Your army—the Kingdom’s army.

JESUS.
Are you sure they are enough?
Do they have spears that hurl themselves
from tunnels forged from iron
and tear men’s bodies to pieces?
Do they ride winged chariots
that drop fire from the sky,
consuming cities faster than thought?
Can you make the winds themselves
breathe writhing and devouring death
into your enemies’ bones?
Can you unleash the power of the sun?
Do you have an arm like God?

JUDAH.
Rabbi, why all these riddles?
Why do you brood and wait?
Rome’s power is puny beside yours.
Rise up now, work miracles
to liberate Israel—the kind
I’ve seen you work a hundred times.

JESUS.
Miracles? What miracles? Tell me.

JUDAH.
You’ve healed the sick and lame,
the palsied and the paralyzed,
cast out devils, made blind men see;
you cured and cleansed my own
dear mother and sister of leprosy;
and Lazarus, these women’s brother—
he died, you gave him life again;
and when a multitude was hungry
you fed them, all of them.

200px-FeedingMultitudes_Bernardo

Bernardo Strozzi: Feeding the Multitudes.

JESUS.
Wait—I fed a multitude, you say?

MARY.
Of course you did.

MARTHA.
You know you did.

JESUS (to JUDAH).
Were you there?

JUDAH.
Right near you, yes.

JESUS.
So tell me—how did I do it?

JUDAH.
My Lord, everyone knows—

JESUS.
No—not what you’ve heard,
but what you saw and felt and did.
I want to hear it.

JUDAH.
Five thousand gathered by the sea
to hear you speak—but where
was food enough for them to eat?
Two hundred denarii would not buy
enough bread for that multitude.

JESUS.
And you—did you lack food as well?

JUDAH.
No. I’d brought bread of my own,
and so had others, but not most;
thousands more were waiting, hungry.
Then Andrew found a boy who’d brought
five loaves of barley and two fishes.
You told the multitude to sit
and gave thanks to your Father;
you broke the bread and gave it to some,
and you gave away the fishes,
and then … Oh, Lord, I am ashamed.

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
I’d had no wine, and yet
I became drunk—drunk and hungry.
I tore my own bread, stuffed my mouth,
and then …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
The old man next to me—
his hunger became mine,
his wrinkled lips, his aching belly,
I felt his craving as my own.
And on my other side, a mother
unfed, her baby at her breast—
I became her too, I felt the grip
of her baby’s gums pulling her dug,
felt the dryness inside her.
And then … Oh, Lord …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
I rose stark mad to my feet, reeling
with bounty and munificence,
and tore my bread and crammed
some in the old man’s hand, then
in the mother’s too, and staggered
giving amid the multitude
while others, as drunk with love as I,
reeled all around me, giving
and receiving much, much more
than all their fill. And then—
and then when it was all done …

MARY.
Twelve baskets were left brimming
with bread and fishes …

MARTHA.
… the leavings after
the five thousand were sated.

JUDAH.
But I … Oh, Lord …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
Such horror of great brightness!
I was sick to my soul, lost to myself—
lost, all lost, the son of Hur,
his lonely desire, the solitary
warrior thirsty for vengeance,
all gone, my precious life was gone.
I ran down to the Galilean shore
and retched up all I’d eaten until
I was alone in my own skin
and not filled with a multitude
made drunk with lovingkindness.

(JUDAH is weeping.)

JESUS.
Leave me now, Judah—go.
You have chosen another way.

JUDAH.
How can you be so indifferent?

JESUS.
What do you think I am?

JUDAH.
You are my King, Israel’s King,
much mightier than Caesar,
more splendid even than Solomon—
a king to rule the world forever.

JESUS.
I am a door. A door is indifferent;
it makes way to everyone.

(MARY and MARTHA begin to reel about, as if drunken.)

MARY.
What’s this?

MARTHA.
What’s happening?

MARY.
The ground—it rolls and shakes.

MARTHA.
I can’t stay on my feet.

MARY.
I can’t either.

(JESUS and JUDAH seem undisturbed by the forces felt by MARY and MARTHA.)

JESUS.
Dance, then.

MARTHA.
Yes!

MARY.
If we can’t stand, we’ll dance!

(MARTHA and MARY dance wildly to silent music.)

Wallace_Ben-Hur_cover

Original edition of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

JESUS (to JUDAH).
All love is cold and open.
I am the open door of love;
to pass through, open yourself,
go naked through the cold,
or else consign yourself forever
to the Kingdom of Caesar.

JUDAH.
Forever?

JESUS.
Each moment is forever;
the Temple is always standing;
the Temple is always falling.

MARY (pointing).
Look!

MARTHA (pointing).
Look there!

MARY.
The Temple!

MARTHA.
It’s dancing too!

MARY.
No, it’s falling!

MARTHA.
Its white stone frowning faces,
its porticoes, pinnacles, ramparts …

MARY.
… all breaking, breaking
like twigs in children’s hands!

MARTHA.
The sacred veil tears clean in two …

MARY.
… the Holy of Holies now
stands revealed …

MARTHA.
… now disappears
into the vaults below …

MARY.
… and dust clouds billow skyward!

MARTHA.
The air rings with falling stone …

MARY.
… the thunder and music of love!

MARY.
Let’s go there—before the dust settles!

MARTHA.
Yes, we’ll dance among the clouds!

(MARY and MARTHA hurry away.)

JESUS (to JUDAH).
Hatred is soft and sweet;
love is hard and bitter.
My time in this place is done.
The friend I love most of all
will soon betray me out of love—
cold and indifferent love,
strong and unyielding love,
the biting kiss of love.

(JESUS leaves; JUDAH stands alone, facing forward.)

JUDAH.
But the Temple—it still stands!

END OF PLAY.

—Wim

 

Amid the Ashes of the House of Commons — London, May 1941

And Churchill wept as he saw his beloved House in ruins.
—Vernon Bartlett

Deliverance wears thus a mocking face,
the last bomb of the last raid
stabbing sharp and deep into our moral belly.
How rapidly may men, unteachable from infancy to tomb,
match long eroding centuries in ruin!
As England sighs reprieve and licks her wounds,
you creep amid the rubble toward the Speaker’s Chair
now pulverized beneath smoking debris,
inhaling the mortal residue of the Hun’s contempt
for norm and decency and truth and law.

I am a House of Commons man.

Here you first tested your youthful tongue and timbre,
your heavy but not very mobile guns,
urging a principled peace in the war against the Boer.
Heckled and prodded you were by riotous voices
as cacophonous as sirens and bomb blasts,
the warring factions kept from each other’s throats
solely by an invisible barrier of honor,
that inviolable corridor measured across by two swords plus one inch.
This never was meant to be a place of peace.

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

Upon your cheeks, twin tears cut rivers through the caking dust.
How shall you rebuild?
Listen as the rivers whisper their reply …

Words are the only things that last forever.

The law has ever carved
its own path through the dust of chaos;
men must forever stand aside in humbled awe
and follow its chosen course.
Change nothing, rebuild it as you left and lost it,
so that rivers of words may find their way again
amid moldering wonders of stone, mortar, and timber,
vainglorious and doomed.

I am a House of Commons man.

The carnivorous sheep of the Reich
are done with grazing the bitter weeds of England;
the herd skulks its way toward fatal pastures of the East.
Let Britain prevail;
let the council of Europe join familial hands
and America bring forth her kindred vengeance;
let the sun set forever on the tyrant and his monstrous evil;
let him taste the bile of his transgression;
let presently burst from these coals the cleansing and devouring flame.
The Blitz has ended.
Let the True War begin.

*

(Appeared in Dissident Voice, January 20, 2019.)

7ac37c5ebf1bbb7c82353c3623493ef3

 

Collaboration and Creativity

I’m admiring the RC James song post of Wim’s poem, and other related pairs that show up on the Open Arts Forum (great place for creative people showing work and exchanging ideas). Collaboration can be like a conversation … Hey, is this what you meant? or How about this in addition to/instead of …? That can contribute mightily to creative experience when creativity is understood as not just a search for a way to express something understood but as a way of discovering more about whatever you’re reaching for. Probably musicians, especially jazz-inclined, get this better than those of us who use more stationary media. Not that either way of working replaces the other, but collaboration can open up possibilities in the process. Maybe it also readjusts our sense of how we function in the world.  — Pat

 

Three Double Takes

by Wim Coleman

1 allegretto

A zebra with a party
horn and hat has crashed
your thirtieth. This
creature was your friend
when you were three
and lived beneath the
checkered tablecloth
and would come up
from time to time
to munch with you on
globes of milk-drenched
Too-Sweets, but this
was not to be expected.

Hear the horn &
knit your brow &
turn & see &
nod as if you
understand &
turn away.
Your eyes pop out,
you turn right back
& stare amazed.

*

2 allegro

Her husband has
come back again
as you were raising
up your glasses
in a toast to
one another
naked in white
sparkling wine
swapping an
indecent ripe
Greek olive
faintly tinged
with feta. He
called her from
Tibet an hour ago.
This was not
to be expected.

Hear & turn.
Look & nod.
Turn away.
Beat. Beat.
Face react.
Turn again.
Stare afraid.
Beat. Beat.

*

3 presto

Death
has come
in a fake
tuxedo
t-shirt
with a
chainsaw
while you
were adding
a rhythm
section to
St. Matthew’s
Passion.
He calls
you by
a name
you can’t
pronounce.
This
was not
to be
expected.

Hear. Turn.
Look. Nod.
Turn. Six.
Seven. Eight.
Eyes pop.
Turn. Gape.
Stare. Six.
Seven.

“A Connecticut Yankee” in Trump’s America

800px-Twain1909Every several years, I have to re-read Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court just to make sure I got it right. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s so unlike its reputation, and it never loses its power to unsettle me. I finished re-reading it recently, and I found it to be especially disturbing in these dark days of Trumpism.

I suppose most of us have heard A Connecticut Yankee described as a light-hearted spoof of medieval chivalry, or a satire that pits Old World traditions against American innovation and ingenuity. The barebones story would certainly suggest just that. It’s the tale of Hank Morgan, an educated 19th-century Yankee with rare engineering gifts who gets magically transported back to King Arthur’s England, where he tries to bring things up to date.

As a premise, it sounds harmless enough. Indeed, Twain’s first mention of the idea in his notebooks suggests that he originally intended it that way …

Dream of being a knight-errant in armor in the middle ages. Have the notions & habits of thought of the present day mixed with the necessities of that. No pockets in the armor. No way to manage certain requirements of nature.…

As one might expect, the book does contain its share of burlesque humor. Knights roam through the kingdom wearing advertising placards for commodities like soap; they play baseball while wearing suits of armor; and Hank wins a jousting match by lassoing his opponents until he dispatches his last challenger with a pistol. In true Quixotic fashion, Hank’s future wife Sandy insists that he rescue a group of ladies held captive by a monstrous ogre—ladies who turn out to be pigs.

book coverBut as the narrative proceeds, Twain’s intentions seem to drift into more sinister realms. This isn’t unusual for Twain. Even his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is notorious for its abrupt shifts in tone and mood. In later years, Twain confessed to his own limitations as a novelist

A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story.… So he goes to work.… But as it is a tale which he is not acquainted with, and can only find out what it is by listening as it goes along telling itself, it is more than apt to go on and on and on till it spreads itself into a book.

Twain was, after all, a live performer who entertained audiences worldwide with his lectures. He honed his literary technique as a teller of tall-tales that defied conventional narrative expectations of logic or consistency. He was an improv artist whose greatest works, A Connecticut Yankee among them, are really tall-tales enlarged to epic proportions.

To some readers, Twain’s seat-of-the-pants approach to novel-writing is a weakness. To me, it is a rare and original strength. As Pat and I often say, “Art is a way of finding out.” As he staggered through A Connecticut Yankee trying to find his narrative way, Twain found out a lot—about his story, his characters, himself, and all the rest of us. And what he found out wasn’t pretty.

For all its burlesque and low comedy, much the latter half of A Connecticut Yankee focuses on the nightmarish realities of medieval life. Horror and comedy alternate at a dizzying pace during the memorable chapters in which Hank disguises King Arthur as a peasant and takes him on a tour of his own kingdom.

Tree & the FruitThe king learns a number of grim lessons during this journey. He and Hank visit a peasant home in time to find its last family member dying from smallpox. They witness the hanging of a young woman whose only crime was stealing bread for her starving baby. When Hank and the king are unwittingly sold into slavery, they and their fellow slaves are offered relief from freezing weather at a stake where a woman is burned alive for witchcraft.

From the beginning, Hank maintains a smug sense of his own superiority as a visitor from a more rational time and place. He decides that he’s going to accelerate history itself and bring the 19th-century American blessings of education, industry, and democratic government to King Arthur’s Britain. In principle, he has nothing against achieving these ends through violence. Echoing Twain’s own personal sympathy for the French Reign of Terror, Hank muses …

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break?

Even so, Hank hopes to carry out his own revolution through peaceful means. Working in secret to avoid the censorious eyes of the Church, he builds factories and schools and imagines that he’s making real progress toward ending the depredations and superstitions of feudalism. But after King Arthur dies and Hank declares Britain to be a republic, the Church reasserts its stranglehold on mass opinion and wipes all of his accomplishments away. And this leads to the novel’s dark and disturbing conclusion.

After the ExplosionAs they prepare for a final battle against the forces of chivalry, Hank, his apprentice Clarence, and 52 loyal young cadets take refuge in a cave, which they fortify with a moat, electrified wire, high explosives, and a battery of Gatling guns. Thousands of heavily-armored knights are blown up or electrocuted before the final charge, when the remainder of European chivalry must choose between a ditch suddenly flooded with water or a hideous storm of bullets …

The thirteen Gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand. They halted, they stood their ground a moment against that withering deluge of fire, then they broke, faced about and swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full fourth part of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment; the three-fourths reached it and plunged over—to death by drowning.

Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were masters of England! Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.

It is a futile victory, to say the least. Hank and his followers are literally and hopelessly walled in by mountains of corpses. As the corpses decay, the cadets begin to sicken and die.

But Hank mysteriously survives to return to his own time and tell his tale. The magician Merlin, hitherto regarded by Hank as a fraud and a charlatan, creeps into the cave disguised as an old woman and murmurs a dark spell over the wounded and sleeping Hank …

“Ye were conquerors; ye are conquered! These others are perishing—you also. Ye shall all die in this place—every one—except him. He sleepeth, now—and shall sleep thirteen centuries. I am Merlin!”

What are we to make of this bleak and nihilistic denouement? And what does it have to do with Trump and Trumpism? I think one of the book’s earlier episodes hints at an answer.

During their incognito travels, the king and Hank witness a spree of mob violence in which many innocent people are butchered or hanged. The two travelers soon come across a group of children who are playing at hanging one of their own fellows with a makeshift noose. The king and the Yankee manage to rescue the hanged child just in time to save his life. As Hank observes …

It was some more human nature; the admiring little folk imitating their elders; they were playing mob …

I think, as he wrote A Connecticut Yankee, Twain found himself increasingly faced with grim realities of what he eventually described as “the damned human race.” Human beings aren’t cruel, bigoted, and violent by nature, but they are by nature ignorant, and they can be easily persuaded to cruelty, bigotry, and violence under one another’s influence. This is why history can seem so hopelessly cyclical in its repeated patterns of civilization and barbarism, enlightenment and superstition. In the end, Hank himself falls prey to this cycle by wreaking apocalyptic destruction upon King Arthur’s England, and also in his final enchantment by magic in which he knows better than to believe.

160127164121-donald-trump-aug-rally-exlarge-169We are living out much the same situation in today’s America. In a nation steeped in the ideals of tolerance, equality, liberty, and justice for all, many of us are forsaking those very ideals under the influence of vile and unscrupulous leaders. We are in danger of rejecting all that is best about America. Can we escape this repetition of historical forces? Maybe—but not, I think, without fully understanding those forces. A Connecticut Yankee is an invaluable guide toward such understanding.

But for all its humor—and there is much humor in Twain’s novel—it is bitter medicine. Twain may have spared us the bitterest of his vision, remarking privately that he would need “a pen warmed up in hell” to share all of it. As Hank himself observes late in the book …

Lord, what a world of heartbreak it is.

—Wim

The End

Cold-Blooded Kindness …

Did anybody need a reminder that we’re living through mean times? Whether we needed it or not, we’re getting one right now, as states enact anti-abortion laws that have virtually nothing to do with protecting human life and a everything to do with controlling women’s lives and bodies. What has gone so terribly wrong with our culture?

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The Good Samaritan by Aimé Morot (1880).

Perhaps our collective empathy is failing us. I’ve certainly thought so for quite some time. So did then-Senator Barack Obama back when he gave a 2006 commencement speech at Northwestern University in which he warned graduates of America’s “empathy deficit” …

[W]e live in a culture that discourages empathy.  A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

It’s gotten worse since 2006, as I’m sure Obama would agree. Incivility rears its head all over the place, from hate-filled Trump rallies to petty name-calling and ad hominem attacks on social media. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is descending into what the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra calls the “Age of Anger.”

But is “cultivating empathy,” as Obama proposed, some sort of magic bullet? Maybe—but maybe not. Lately some writers have been suggesting that empathy has its limitations—and also its dangers.

Hanna Rosin recently wrote about the ideas of Fritz Breithaupt, the author of the book The Dark Side of Empathy. Breithaupt turns some of our conventional notions of empathy upside down. For example, while we routinely think of terrorists as lacking in basic human empathy, Breithaupt suggests that they are instead afflicted with an “excess of empathy. They feel the suffering of their people.” Their empathy drives them to commit vicious acts against those whom they suppose to be responsible for inflicting that suffering.

I almost balk at this idea. Still, I’m afraid there’s something to it. Even those of us who are not terrorists can fall into narrow tribalism. It is easy to empathize with people who are like us, and near and dear to us; it is harder to empathize with people who are different and farther away. And this is dangerous. By giving ourselves over to divisive and selective empathy—the kind of empathy that excludes and persecutes the other—Breithaupt suggests that “basically you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy.”

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Paul Bloom
photo by José Luis Somensi

Also, because empathy focuses on individuals, it is just about impossible to exercise in the abstract—which is to say, on any truly large human scale. Empathy is like a spotlight that blinds us to widespread suffering. In his controversial and provocatively-titled book Against Empathy, Psychologist Paul Bloom comments on this “spotlight” problem …

[S]potlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

Bloom is fond of citing a question posed by the Chinese philosopher Mencius: If you are out walking and see a child drowning, what would prompt you to rescue her? Would it be empathy? I can certainly imagine feeling empathy for the child’s pain and terror, and also for her parents’ grief and sorrow should their daughter drown. But when it comes to actually rescuing her, I suspect that Bloom is right in suggesting that I’d rescue the girl because it is simply the right thing to do.

According to Bloom, this may not be an empathetic decision, but it is definitely a compassionate one. We’re not used to making a distinction between empathy and compassion, but they’re really not the same. Bloom quotes a paper by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki

In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

Bloom describes this sort of “non-empathetic compassion” as “a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others.” Such compassion involves a level of caring that empathy doesn’t necessarily engage. And because it isn’t easily exhausted, compassion also facilitates sustained, positive action to remedy human suffering.

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Migrant children detained in McAllen, Texas.

I can remember my own outrage when the crisis of family separations began at the U.S./Mexico border. Like many Americans, I was devastated by images, videos, and audio recordings of terrified children. But I’ve also experienced a feeling of gnawing helplessness at the sheer number of children who remain separated from their families. My tears did those children no good—but perhaps my modest contributions to the ACLU did. That organization’s tireless effort to reunite children with their families is a task for which empathy seems ill-suited, but for which the more distanced, diffuse, and nuanced emotions of compassion and kindness are essential.

Such thoughts about empathy vs. compassion aren’t exactly new. Zambian writer Namwali Serpell compares Bloom’s notion of non-empathetic compassion with Hannah Arendt’s theory of “representative thinking”

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Hannah Arendt

I find that the best way to grasp the distinction between “representative thinking” and emotional empathy is Arendt’s lovely phrase, “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.”

I’ve noticed that new developments in neuroscience seem to bear out these ideas. The hormone oxytocin has lately gained what I’m tempted to call “celebrity status.” Because it facilitates empathy, trust, and social bonding, and is released during sex and childbirth, it is popularly known as a “love drug” or “cuddle chemical.” But as sociologist Christopher Badcock points out, oxytocin has a dark side. The empathy that it generates seems to be limited to one’s own group and can actually stir up hostility toward outsiders.

Nevertheless, recent experiments with oxytocin suggest some intriguing possibilities—and maybe even potential therapies. When administered as a nasal spray to human subjects, oxytocin alone does not change preexisting attitudes toward, say, refugees and foreigners. But if a dosage is accompanied by “peer influence” promoting the value of tolerance, subjects show increasing generosity even toward outsiders.

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Model of oxytocin (ball-and-stick) bound to its carrier protein neurophysin (ribbons).

In other words, when administered with a spoonful of advocacy for positive social behavior, oxytocin might help transform “mere” empathy into robust and inclusive compassion. According to researcher Rene Hurlemann, “Given the right circumstances, oxytocin may help promote the acceptance and integration of migrants into Western cultures.”

That’s a tall order. I find it hard to imagine Americans lining up at clinics to get inoculated against xenophobia. Also, the mystique of empathy is so strong that people probably won’t easily give up their unquestioning faith in it. Even when it is painful, empathy makes us feel good about ourselves, promotes a desirable self-image. But there’s a difference between feeling good and doing good, and even between righteousness and doing what’s right.

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Bernard Shaw

I’m reminded of the words of playwright Bernard Shaw, who could be notoriously unemotional—even chilly—in both his life and his writings …

The only aim that is at all peculiar to me is my disregard of warm feelings. They are quite well able to take care of themselves. What I want is a race of men who can be kind in cold blood.

—Wim