Empathy is an engrossing word. While it means the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, its Greek origin suggests entering into the emotions of others. The Greeks thought empatheia was sacred. In dramatic terms its absence was viewed as a tragic flaw. With the advent of literacy (“book learnin’” as Huck Finn called it) empathy was reckoned as the ability to imagine what someone feels, a difference, as the Greeks didn’t fully believe in imagination in these terms instead viewing it as a divine prerogative only available to the best minds.
In the modern world (which for argument’s sake starts with Shakespeare) empathy as imagination has been a responsibility of sorts. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Whitman, George Eliot, Grace Paley, Eudora Welty—a long list—each of these writers shouldered a duty to bring forward the buzz and confusion in the minds of outsiders. Beginning with the Elizabethans literary writing is understood as an obligation to reach beyond the self.
With the altogether exciting rise of singular voices in literary publishing, those who speak from singularities—disability, blackness, Native American experience, LGBTQ lives, Asian-American experiences, regionalisms of all kinds—literary empathy is often recast as “cultural appropriation.” It is asserted that no one “not of your neighborhood” should ever ever imagine your life for you. There’ve been many brouhahas recently about writers who are believed to be transgressors, who willfully seized the interiority of human beings not of their own neighborhoods.
As one who hails from a historically marginalized position I believe this febrile, literary neighborhood watch is both understandable and fatal.
I’m a blind poet and I loathe Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr presents a blind teenager, a girl, as helpless to the point of needing to be bathed by her father. Since Doerr makes her blindness vaguely interesting, allowing some flashes from her point of view many non-disabled readers flipped for the book.
From a disability POV Doerr extends damaging stereotypes—her inability to bathe, her half- prophetic intelligence—are junk. Many in the disability community have cited the book for “cultural appropriation” a position I fully grasp. Doerr uses blindness as a literary device to advance his plot, Within the field of Disability Studies this is called “narrative prosthesis.”
Does the novel really do damage to the blind? Who knows. The blind are 70% unemployed in the United States. We’re imagined as quasi-helpless, burdensome. Doerr plays into this. He does present her as having an inner life. Big whoop! I’m citing him for a failure of empathy. He cannot steal my culture.
This is the crux of the matter: talented writers can enter effectively into the lives of others, even people who aren’t situated precisely next door. For my money one of the most effective portrayals of disability in all of literature was written by Toni Morrison. In her novel Sula she puts readers inside the head of Shadrack, a World War I veteran suffers from PTSD and has been released prematurely from a veterans hospital. He can’t order his mind or control his hands. He’s seen brains flying in the air. She writes at first of his experience in the ward:
“When Shadrack opened his eyes he was propped up in a small bed. Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were—would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones—he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful—anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached to his wrist. He tried the other and found it also. Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk all over the tray and the bed. With a shriek he closed his eyes and thrust his huge growing hands under the covers. Once out of sight they seemed to shrink back to their normal size. But the yell had brought a male nurse.
“Private? We’re not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?””
Later, out in the world, alone, without assistance, we see him on a country road:
“Once on the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had left him weak—too weak to walk steadily on the gravel shoulders of the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for breath, started again, stumbling and sweating but refusing to wipe his temples, still afraid to look at his hands. Passengers in dark, square cars shuttered their eyes at what they took to be a drunken man.
The sun was already directly over his head when he came to a town. A few blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart—a pretty, quietly regulated downtown.
Exhausted, his feet clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside to take off his shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands and fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does for children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the manipulation of intricate things, could not get them loose. Uncoordinated, his fingernails tore away at the knots. He fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly without raising his eyelids, he began to cry. Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was…with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do…he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands. He cried soundlessly at the curbside of a small Midwestern town wondering where the window was, and the river, and the soft voices just outside the door…
Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.
By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was suffering from a blinding headache, which was not abated by the comfort he felt when the policemen pulled his hands away from what he thought was a permanent entanglement with his shoelaces. They took him to jail, booked him for vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell. Lying on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall, so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony for a long while and then realized he was staring at the painted-over letters of a command to fuck himself. He studied the phrase as the pain in his head subsided.”
Morrison’s portrayal of Shadrack is pure empathy and is a demonstration of literary writing at its finest. I won’t quibble about a non-disabled writer entering into the thoughts and torments of a wounded veteran. I can’t. The disabled need all the allies they can get. When a novelist as talented as Morrison turns her attention to a man with shell shock, who has no language for his experience, who cannot control his hands, then she is employing art in the service of a greater appreciation of tragedy and difference for every reader. This is empathy at its best. Its stunning.
I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. I think non disabled writers can write brilliantly about disability experience. They need to do their homework—talk to real blind people, true cripples, what have you.
The term cultural appropriation must never detract writers from the brilliant art of literary empathy.
I don’t want to live in the age when empathy died.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger