Last week I wrote about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s contention that the mass media “dulls” us to the world’s horrors while literature can restore contact. Tuesday’s Los Angeles Review of Books made similar observations as it addressed the issue of compassion fatigue and becoming numb. Like Knausgaard, history professor Robert Karetsky regards the way we flit from one news item to another as a form of escapism. Citing Emily Dickinson, Plato, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch, Karetsky says that numbing is not the problem. Rather, we must learn to pay attention.
To make his point, Karetsky looks at the origins of the word “numb” and cites Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” to illustrate the condition:
Rooted in Middle English, numb derives from “nim” — a word that, for Chaucer’s contemporaries, meant to take or pilfer. We are numbed when something essential — our sensations and thoughts, say, or our capacity to care and pity — has been taken away from us. It is numbness that fills Emily Dickinson’s “hour of lead,” the moment that “Freezing persons recollect the Snow — / First—Chill—then Stupor—then letting go.”
Dickinson’s sonnet [sic] — to her chagrin, perhaps — offers the clinical criteria for compassion fatigue. This term, much in the news, describes the state of emotional stupor that can affect those who work closely with traumatized individuals. Over time, caregivers find they have no more care to give; they lose the capacity for compassion; they let go. Harrowed by others’ pain, they are overcome by a “formal feeling” and on whom “the Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.”
Karetsky cites Dickinson only to say that she is not applicable in this case, however. We should consider ourselves lucky if we are numbed, he asserts, because that would mean that we have been paying attention. Only a break from the endless whirl of images will allow us to exert this attention.
In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ main goal is to focus our attention. He doesn’t worry about compassion fatigue but about awakening the mind:
We might pose the question to the ancient Greeks — or, at least, to those who bumped into Socrates and experienced the sort of shock that we now lack. Comparing himself to a horsefly, Socrates spent his life stinging, through questioning, his fellow Athenians into awareness. Even less becoming comparisons came to the minds of those he stung; one unhappy victim likened Socrates to a cuttlefish whose questions had numbed him. But this is the raison d’être of Socratic dialogue: to shock the interlocutor to attention. Attention is key, for it is by attending to others and the world that we see the import — and importance — of the question at hand. For some, like the slave boy in the Meno, the shock is welcomed; for others, like Anytus in the same dialogue — who turns his back on Socrates — the shock instead is wasted. (Or worse than wasted: biding his time, Anytus stepped up at Socrates’ trial as one of his principal accusers.)
It was as important in 4th century Athens as it is today to have our minds awakened, Karetsky says. We, however, have many more distractions than did the Greeks:
Of course, in 399 BCE, Athenians had much on their minds: military defeat, foreign occupation, and a reign of terror among other things. What they didn’t have were our omnipresent screens — big and small, strapped to wrists and embedded in walls in our private and public spaces — and the ramifying web of social media inoculating us, for better and worse, against the potentially beneficial results of shock. It is less that the medium has become the message than that the medium no longer allows us to dwell on the message. Not having stood still long enough to be numbed, we suffer not from compassion fatigue but instead from a kind of attention deficit disorder — one that cannot be treated with Ritalin. Instead, we must allow ourselves to be shocked and open what Dickinson called “the Valves of attention.”
Our goal, then, should not be to throw up defenses for fear of becoming numb. Rather, we should enter more fully into the issues that we deem important. Before looking at Karetsky’s citation of Weil and Murdoch to make this point, however, I first pass along a piece of advice I once received from Igal Roodenko, an anarchist and long-time member of the War Resisters League.
Igal noted that activists too often spread their energies, thereby undermining their effectiveness. He advised instead to focus on a single issue that is close to one’s heart, knowing that there are others who will attend to other concerns. The role of activist organizations, meanwhile, can be to coordinate efforts.
Back to Karetsky, who quotes Weil and Murdoch on the value of “seeing” the world:
Iris Murdoch, whose work was deeply influenced by Weil, argued that seeing the world justly was the condition sine qua non for acting justly in that world. At the end of the day, virtue is the “attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” In her novels no less than her philosophical essays, Murdoch showed how our moral character grows only when the valves of attention are open, allowing us to see the world — and ourselves — clearly. “Where virtue is concerned,” she affirmed, “we often apprehend more than we clearly understand and grow by looking.”
This emphasis on seeing sounds very much like Knausgaard. To aid the process, he, Murdoch and Weil all regard literature as playing a crucial role. Here’s Karetsky again:
From seeing rightly flows the stuff with which we weave webs of value. When human conversation and inner reflection, dialogues with others and dialogues with one’s own self shape our lives, these webs of value grow more complex and varied. Tellingly, for both Murdoch and Weil, reading also deepens and sharpens our capacity to attend to others. Weil suggested that reading books is akin to reading the world. It is not just that reading literature is a training ground for moral and emotional judgment, but that it also reminds us how we ought to be in the world. Just as a book grips us when we give ourselves over to it, so too does the world seize us when we open ourselves to it. Reading well, Weil believed, meant nothing less than seeing well.
In her remarkable book The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch echoed Weil’s conviction. “The most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature,” she declared, “since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.”
For scientific confirmation of this observation, Karetsky mentions a study that I’ve discussed about how literature sharpens our emotional intelligence. While admitting that the study would probably not impress Murdoch, he concludes that reading provides an important to engaging and to becoming productively numb:
Murdoch, who insisted it would “always be more important to know about Shakespeare than to know about any scientist,” would have smiled at these findings. But for those of us less certain about the uses of literature and demands of attention, they might serve as, well, a salutary shock. And not, it is to be hoped, the last one. As we attend and read, other shocks will ineluctably follow — how could they not? — and perhaps even momentary numbness.
In other words, read a novel and you may overcome compassion fatigue and care about Syrian refugees. Or whatever other pressing issue you commit yourself to.