In Search for the Sympathetic Heart

We carry our cynicism on our backs as snails do in defense against certain inevitabilites, death not the smallest amongst them.  It’s best not to be shocked. Let’s not, in our naivety, be taken by surprise. Let’s put it out there, warts and all, before life slaps us squarely in the face.

Our cynicism opens doors for us in social circles and we lean against lamp posts and on dinner tables with a terrible nonchalance that may, if we are lucky, look like wisdom or street smarts, at the very least. We’ve broken down traditions which were worn out echoes of less understanding days and there are more to topple, but this was done with hope for an inclusive world. We forget that. We forget no great change has come from sitting back with our scorecards and our schadenfreude. Change comes from deep within the sympathetic heart.

I first heard of the sympathetic heart when I read Saul Bellow’s lecture transcript after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. It was another literary great, D.H. Lawrence, who said, “The sympathetic heart is broken.” It was he whom Bellow quoted and I was struck by this. Both in meaning and in attitude, it was cynical to the bone. Lawrence believed what he saw as the brutal civilisation of America was not accomplished until the hearts of the pioneers were broken.  It’s a dramatic and deeply revolutionary theme, this cauterisation. There must be distain and jeering from the sidelines, but there is something within me which is unconvinced. Perhaps, I am weary of postmodern beliefs, cynical about cynicism; that because everything is a matter of opinion, no opinion, no passion, no belief is valid. Perhaps, I want to topple this structure, which I imagine is a many-roomed house, each room more empty than the next.

Mostly though, it is the writer in me who craves the sympathetic heart. I want there to be a common well of sympathy from which every human draws; that there be a place where the pulse of humanity can be felt and appealed to. It is the opposite of sitting back and saying “Oh well, we are all fundamentally screwed anyway,” as we sigh and prepare for further disappointment.

Joseph Conrad says it much better:

…the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition–and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation– and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity–the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.

It may be unfashionable to say such things. It exposes the throat to the cynics and to be fair Conrad said this way back in 1897, when such things could be said. It resounds though, doesn’t it? And he is not the only writer to speak of a commonality amongst all people.

Maya Angelou said:

All great artists draw from the same essence: the human heart, which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike.

I think great books do speak to the heart. They help us dip beneath the surface to those places where the cynics dare not go. We see pain, hope, disappointment, love, joy against the canvas of the story and connections are made. What chance does the cynic have when faced with words like these?

Susan Sontag said:

Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

There are studies which confirm this. Something about a positive correlation between empathy and readers of literature, but I’d prefer to stick to the writers and the thinkers like Bellow, Conrad, Angelou and Sontag. They are expert in the region of the sympathetic heart.

Bellow has the last word because he started all this:

The value of literature lies in these intermittent “true impressions.” A novel moves back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these “true impressions” come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously—in the face of evil, so obstinately—is no illusion.

So be a reader. Read until your eyes bleed. Find your compassion. Find your sympathetic heart.

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