Susan Sontag: “No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”

I wonder how my best students make something special out of what I assign.

I’m staring at an essay—the first chapter of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others— Professor Wycoff assigned for his class. It’s beautiful, haunting. Susan Sontag, with a peculiar facility, causes the reader to imagine and ponder dead children in photographs of war. She doesn’t do this by dwelling on the details of the pictures, but by thinking through how others viewing those images felt. Whether their full visions can prove coherent and useful. Whether the history, their stated opinions, their own claims to identity matter.

As assigned reading, this is incredible. Wycoff’s students are receiving a world class education.

I have no idea if I can say anything which does Sontag’s essay justice. I’m in awe of my students, whom I ask to write on Plato after introducing them to Socrates for 15 minutes.

*

When you ask yourself to do something almost completely alien to your own habituation, you need neutral ground. I’m used to close-reading things like Aristotle and Machiavelli and proclaiming “Aha! This is the actual point they want us to think about.” It’s a way of doing political theory, but only one way.

Sontag hints at an issue that’s been on my mind: Is it possible for mass media to cultivate empathy? Can mass media serve a pluralistic, diverse democracy whose members have complex claims to justice? The trouble is inherent in the term “mass media”—the communication involved is reductive at the very moment it needs to identify and affirm a difficulty, a reality someone is living through. In war photography, unidentifiable lumps of flesh and bomb-torn buildings testify to violence, but partisans may celebrate that violence, seeing justice done for their cause. And it certainly is the case that spending too much attention on one person’s pain can entail a hideous neglect of others. Privilege works in sneaky ways; the most insidious forms of violence may never be explicitly identified, if they are seen at all.

I think I’m meeting Sontag on ground with which I’m more familiar, but it means I’m pulling away from her essay. She states No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain, and it’s a statement with a specific context. Virginia Woolf was asked by a male lawyer “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” Woolf initially denied a “we”—men make war; women, for better or worse, do not—during a strange moment in history. After the First World War, there was a tremendously earnest anti-war movement, dedicated to trying to end war as a means once and for all. Her brief denial of a “we” could have served as a serious question for that movement, one that if the movement engaged, it would have been that much stronger for. But despite originally resisting the grant of a “we,” she then goes on like it exists.

*

Perhaps I do have to pull away in order to wonder how an empathetic “we” could be constructed. It feels like so few of us nowadays bother to consider the pain of others. I remember speaking a few months ago about services for the disabled and immediately hearing that the disabled “get everything.” I don’t even know how to describe the moral disgust I still feel from that encounter.

I do feel—and this is an intentionally naive thought, one meant to start thinking—a marked emphasis on gentleness goes a long way. Instead of thinking “How do we end war?”, maybe the question has to be “How do we not make bad situations worse?” An emphasis on gentleness is not necessarily anti-war: bullies are verboten, and a climate in which people who are gentle can model their virtue and not be mocked is paramount. This may be challenged by Sontag’s repeated remarks that violent images can serve as an expression of another’s justice or outrage. Who is to say that gentle images can not be seen as privilege or attempted superiority?

But in terms of clarifying Sontag’s imperative, No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain, I’ll hold for now that gentleness is a start, if not the end. The recognition that hell has been brought to earth, that others are not being allowed anything resembling a life, is the beginning. From “there” (what comes first temporally in human affairs is always relative), we weigh the claims to justice, recognizing that some will wage war no matter what, believing humanity itself a weakness to be exploited.

Plato, “Meno,” 70A-72A

I am using the Anastaplo & Berns translation. Plato’s Meno, tr. Anastaplo & Berns. Newburyport: Focus, 2004.

In this lecture I want to address three different issues which I do believe fit together. First, some of you are concerned with how to draw out the so-called “deeper meaning” from a text or question. I have a practical answer to that concern—always try, in your writing, to address why something is said or asked—but, as you’ll see from Meno’s behavior, the “deeper meaning” itself can be a problem.

Second, I want to adequately introduce you to the figures of Socrates and Meno. Too often we start reading Platonic dialogues as if the characters don’t exist. Perfectly intelligent people believe Socrates is always right, Socrates stands in for his one-time student Plato, and who cares about the other people around and what they say?

Third, I want to try to make the philosophic drama come to life. People don’t just say things. They react. They get angry, sad, embarrassed, hurt. Sometimes they doubt other people, things they thought true, themselves. They may even change. We’re being introduced to a world where words matter, and this is probably the most radical claim the classics make. In daily life, one has to take the sheer feeling being expressed towards one seriously, where words pretty much only express rage or sadness without trying to further reflection. If words aren’t used, it’s possible one is being intentionally left alone, abandoned, made to feel as if they are of no consequence. What Plato tries to do in bringing his world to life is offer the possibility of presence and accountability.

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Typically, one is introduced to Socrates through Plato’s Apology. This gives a useful picture of Socrates, an impression of the man which can be examined in light of other dialogues. Socrates, the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, tells off the jury of his peers and gets sentenced to death. He leaves us with “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but it is an open question if he adequately responds to the charges of corrupting the youth and bringing in new gods. It does seem likely a lover of wisdom would encourage the impression which brought forth the charges, that he investigated the things in the heavens and under the earth in defiance of religious sentiment and common sense.

*

Meno is a complicated matter. Historically, he was a general known for betraying his own men. But look at how Plato lets him introduce himself at the opening of the dialogue:

Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is something teachable? Or is it not teachable, but something that comes from practice? Or is it something neither from practice nor from learning, but something that comes to human beings by nature, or some other way? (70A)

Meno here shows no trace of becoming a treacherous general. His first question—can virtue be taught?—seems exactly like the topic a philosophy class should engage and a question an ethics class should be able to answer. One might say he’s showing off with the distinctions he makes, trying to sound like he has thought about and can talk about the most important matters, e.g. whether virtue comes from practice, learning, or through nature. But there isn’t any significant hint, not yet at least, that he thinks morality a sham and he can do whatever he wants.

To be sure, there is a suggestive subtext. The Greek we render as “virtue” is arete, meaning “excellence.” This is not necessarily a moral term, though it speaks to what one ought to do, who should rule, how society should be organized. Meno asserting himself so boldly should give us pause. Does he mean to trap Socrates in asking whether virtue can be taught? Does he want an answer he can easily refute, so he can show himself the superior speaker? Socrates seems to think so—he takes none of Meno’s questions seriously. Instead, he praises the place Meno is from, saying those from there ought “to be admired for wisdom also.” He says the sophist Gorgias is responsible for this, creating a “habit… of answering fearlessly and magnificently whenever anyone asks… anything, as is fitting for those who know.” And then, of course, Socrates denies knowing anything about virtue: “I am so far from knowing about virtue, whether it is something teachable or not teachable, that I happen not to know at all what that thing virtue itself is.” (70B-71A)

Socrates emphasizes not only that he doesn’t know what virtue is, but neither does anyone in Athens. The snark speaks loudly with Socrates, as you can hear the overtones of “If you know so much, teach me—heck, teach all of us.” This, by itself, is not enough to get Meno to stop insisting on his questioning: “But do you, Socrates, truly not know what virtue is, and is this really what we should report about you back home?” (71C) What brings Meno into dialogue with Socrates is the possibility that he may have been taught wrongly by Gorgias. Perhaps he did not get the instruction he paid for, perhaps he feels he got ripped off. Note Meno’s shock that Gorgias did not impress Socrates with his talk about virtue (71C).

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We’re getting a better sense of who Meno is. A bit arrogant, ambitious, scared of being ripped off (a nod, perhaps, to the greed he was famous for). One could plausibly tell a story like the following about him. Perhaps he paid Gorgias a lot of money for instruction—maybe, I dunno, the equivalent of $60,000 a year. He practiced making speeches and debating others and felt he got good at making people look bad and giving convincing answers. So he tries to get in an argument with Socrates to show he mastered his craft.

If that story sounds right to you, it places us in an awkward position. We’re all Meno. We’re all using this education thing to get ahead; we want to know we can compete. I mentioned earlier that Meno’s behavior creates a problem around the idea of a “deeper meaning,” and this is what I meant. “Is virtue teachable?” is a perfectly serious question that challenges us to think hard about what we mean by morality and what we can achieve through teaching. Is the question doomed because Meno’s motives are too short-sighted? How do we, when we write, “earn” deep questions and complicated thoughts?

I don’t have an easy answer, but I suspect that whatever the answer is, it involves some degree of self-awareness. Meno, pressed by Socrates, gives a definition of virtue that in part can suffice but comically lacks self-awareness:

...if it’s the virtue of a man you want, it’s easy to say that this is the virtue of a man: to be sufficient to carry on the affairs of the city and while carrying them on to do well by his friends and harm to his enemies and to take care that he not suffer any such thing himself. And if it’s the virtue of a woman you want, that’s not hard to go through, in that she needs to manage the household well, conserving what is inside and being obedient to her man. And the virtue of a child is different, both female and male, and of an elderly man, and if you want, of a freeman or, if you want, of a slave. And there are a great many other virtues, so that there is no difficulty in speaking about what virtue is. For according to each activity and each time of life relative to each task for each of us there is a virtue, and in the same way, I suppose, Socrates, there is also a vice. (71E-72A)

Meno provides a definition of manly virtue which caters to his own interests. His virtue of a man consists in not suffering harm himself; this notion of virtue does not seem to reconcile with self-sacrifice. It instead emphasizes that he should rule and be able to hurt his enemies. His definition of womanly virtue does not speak to a figure like Antigone, but instead ends in obedience to him. However, despite the set of self-serving definitions he offers—there is virtue for a “slave,” opposed to a freeman?—he does give a definition of the whole of virtue. Virtue is relative to “activity” and our “time of life.”

Relativism in Plato can be a problem. When I think about Cleitophon, whose anger entails complete contempt for everyone around him, I tend to think him an extremist. Cleitophon, in Plato’s dialogue of the same name, openly says that people who do not know how to use their bodies, people who are wrong in their souls, ought not to live. The usual argument about Cleitophon is that he’s a relativist–historically, he signed on to an oligarchic faction committed to revolution but eventually sided with a part of that faction which was less extreme when things got violent. My own solution to the difficulty is that Cleitophon is an extremist who got caught up in matters which were over his head. He may not have a lust for violence like a terrorist or serial killer, but he played with the idea that if people didn’t accept his rule, they didn’t know how to live in the least. When his faction broke apart, that was a sign that other people thought the same thing about him accepting their rule.

In this case, Meno’s relativism is almost thoughtful, except for the small problem of the use to which he puts it. It does seem true, as a practical matter, that what is good or bad, what is most noble or shameful, is dependent on the activity and where we are in life. Perhaps if Meno thought a bit more, he might realize the best use of Gorgias’ instruction entails asking what virtues, what excellences, he’s missing. Maybe there’s a virtue of a husband, a virtue of a student, a virtue of a guest, a virtue of a young man, and maybe those virtues are defined less by entitlement and more by obligation. The “deeper questions,” the “deeper meaning,” would be accessible through his noting the tension between what he wants and what he owes, what his capacities are and what he cannot do.

Emily Dickinson, “A lane of Yellow led the eye” (1650)

After another day of worrying about everything and nothing, I find myself drawn to imaginative realms, specifically places for meditation and of meditation. Dickinson, with painterly words, creates an image which she may only be able to witness and never directly experience: A lane of Yellow led the eye / Unto a Purple Wood. She emphasizes how she sees (“led the eye”) and what she sees (“a Purple Wood”), and I do believe she invites us to consider that what is not directly experienced can actually be experienced.

A lane of Yellow led the eye (1650)
Emily Dickinson

A lane of Yellow led the eye
Unto a Purple Wood
Whose soft inhabitants to be
Surpasses solitude
If Bird the silence contradict
Or flower presume to show
In that low summer of the West
Impossible to know — 

Her colorful vision changes into another sensation. The “Purple Wood” contains soft inhabitants to be and either they, or the Wood itself, surpass “solitude.” She seems to have created a meditative realm from elements of her daily life. The sun stopped shining, and as evening fell, sunset made the forest purple. Alone, she imagines the forest containing only gentle growth and creatures. At once she transcends her loneliness and amplifies it. This is her world, a world resolving in softness, but what does it mean? Is it even real?

She finds herself trying to imagine specific “soft inhabitants.” If Bird the silence contradict / Or flower presume to show / In that low summer of the West / Impossible to know. Her vision seems a lost cause. She doesn’t know if silence has overwhelmed the birds or whether any flowers have bloomed. It’s “impossible to know” what the inhabitants of the wood actually do. But she did follow a “lane of Yellow” to this “Purple Wood.” She did feel a momentary softness, one governing all inhabitants, and she found herself in a specific moment, a “low Summer.” Perhaps she doesn’t know because she believes.

What does it mean then, to have a full vision that cannot engage a specific life? Here, Dickinson’s loneliness and my worries converge. Am I lost in solipsism? Do I do anything real? If I did, would my life be entirely different? Dickinson’s poem culminates in softness, a world where she does not want to disturb the inhabitants. It’s a conscious choice which happens to coincide with the failure to be able to identify the behavior of other living things. If she could hear what noise they make or what form they display, they would be welcome to a poem which started with colorful nature imagery. But they don’t, as if they are asleep in a wood, and she’s fine with that. Her meditative realm takes the limits of observation to be what they are, and nothing more.

Anna Akhmatova, “Reading Hamlet”

Akhmatova’s imagination brings us to a cruel but familiar place. She reads Hamlet, casts herself as Ophelia, and then sets herself to the task of confronting Hamlet’s incredible callousness, rage, and lack of remorse. “All right then, get thee to a nunnery, / or go get married to a fool…”

It’s a task which not only challenges our typical approach to reading Hamlet, but pushes us to challenge our expectations and desires in the name of self-respect.

Reading Hamlet
Anna Akhmatova (tr. Kunitz & Hayward) 

A barren patch to the right of the cemetery,
behind it a river flashing blue.
You said: "All right then, get thee to a nunnery,
or go get married to a fool."

It was the sort of thing that princes always say,
but these are the words that one remembers.
May they flow a hundred centuries in a row
like an ermine mantle from his shoulders.

Akhmatova identifies Hamlet’s toxic masculinity; in doing so, she makes Ophelia’s descent into insanity and suicidal ideation vivid. Yet, despite Hamlet’s causing so much pain, most of us do read the play as his quest for justice for his father. We wonder how deeply corrupt the royal court is, how many are complicit in murder. I feel like it’s easy to pass over the full scope of the injustice done to Ophelia, instead of noting her trauma caused by a man more committed to feigning insanity than treating those to whom he’s obligated with respect.

It is difficult to learn to read in ways which do not automatically dehumanize others. I still crave stories where it’s easy to identify the good guys and they always win. Those, unfortunately, are the stories where the most dehumanization occurs. I’m not speaking so much of the nameless uniformed goons working for a tyrant who get beat up, but the people who are served by the hero, who testify to his good deeds and are heard from in no other way. Toxic masculinity and heroism are terribly hard to separate at times. Quite a few people believe stories should be traditional and morals should be simple so we’re not confused by unintended consequences or the failure of good intentions.

Akhmatova’s sensitivity—a fanfiction writer’s sensitivity—gives us Ophelia’s eyes, which strangely allows us to find ourselves. She begins with a vision: A barren patch to the right of the cemetery, / behind it a river flashing blue. It isn’t merely morbid or dark; it’s all Ophelia sees, just as the only words Ophelia hears are Hamlet’s. I cannot believe it is possible to forget how hard it is to regret loving someone you’ve loved deeply. But it is possible to forget this, just as it is all the more possible to underestimate how much you’ve invested in the thought of a life together. You end up not only questioning your whole life, but the foundation of your whole life, which in Ophelia’s case is the court. Polonius’ “to thine own self be true,” one might say, creates a fatal problem: as a proud daughter of a royal courtier who loves the Prince, to watch him go mad means wondering if you know how to love or how to judge. Wondering if your whole life has been a lie and can never be anything but a lie.

Ophelia mutters not only anger, but lasting resentment. She wants to give the Prince words he must remember: May they flow a hundred centuries in a row / like an ermine mantle from his shoulders. History will remember the Prince’s cruelty toward her, just as the purity of the flowing ermine mantle is mocked by the flowing river of flashing blue in which she will drown. Her resentment, her thought of suicide, is where we as readers begin our response. Perhaps we have not been so callously mocked as she has, but we may wonder how our expectations can betray us, or under what circumstances our judgment proves fatal.

Following Ophelia, we can see that one key issue for us is respect. On the one hand, genuine respect for oneself and others does not demand any particular disposition toward us. Ophelia did love Hamlet, her family, the court. This basis for genuine respect is no guard against insanity, though, because there is another sort of respect we need. In order to function—in order to feel useful in the smallest of ways—we need to be shown respect for who we are and what we can do. Of necessity a more conventional form of respect bleeds together with what I term genuine respect. I do not want to belittle Ophelia’s position in the least: at the very moment I can see her will to suicide, I can see how I’m different and not-so-different. That hollow feeling we get at moments of defeat or failure—”Is this all the world has to offer me?”—entails the feeling that nothing can ever be put back together again, not one’s family, not one’s dreams. One might ask what right we have to dream, but Akhmatova’s imagination, while it brings us to a rather dark place, helps bring forth the sensitivity and tenderness which only dreams can bring to the world.

James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”

James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew” is a masterclass in authorship. You’re saying duh and getting ready to roast me. Tell us about that theory of relativity, Einstein. For my part, I’ve built an enormous collection of books for the express purpose of having sharper prose, and I don’t know if the books are helping. I want prose which demonstrates how a given issue can actually be a tangle of issues—an invitation to how messy reality is—but also demonstrates a certain precision. If I write well, do I help my readers see more?

Baldwin opens his letter by getting his readers to see nothing less than the full weight of familial love. I can’t say what exactly I’ve learned by trying to love my family or expand love to people I consider family; I suspect most of us can’t. Baldwin manages precision of a sort by pointing to the source of his pain:

I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.

Baldwin speaks not only of loving someone over decades, but watching them change completely more than once during that time. “You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.” Our cliches about love look like platitudes about loyalty in the face of his statement. We all know parents who won’t take serious effort to appreciate their children, let alone their adult children. They’ll only see their baby, if they see anyone. To try to love someone as an infant, a child, and then as a man is, I imagine, to understand and accept that your love changes. It has to. They changed and became someone in whom you both hoped and also could never have conceived at all.

Baldwin’s depth of insight is only matched by the depth of his pain. The anger that his brother has been left for dead by an entire country animates every word of his essay:

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Musing on what love of a brother has meant to his life transforms into righteous anger. “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” It’s hard, I suspect, for most of us to square love with a rejection of innocence. This isn’t just because of a romanticized notion of love where we imagine the object of love to be vulnerable or guiltless, impossibly beautiful in ways meant to accentuate their physical beauty or our status. It’s because we believe love has to have some notion of innocence at its core, that what is most worth loving could not possibly be guilty of anything. If we’re all guilty, and we want to be morally serious, and we want to love—well, that gets complicated. It breaks down any number of childish assumptions about how the world works—assumptions, we note, in oversupply among the most privileged—and pushes us to see what we’ve done and are doing wrong. That, as Baldwin notes, is the most frightening thing to some, as it punctures how they’ve seen themselves since childhood:

...the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

He makes a point many others have made before, that whiteness is a social construct dependent on an Other. It must demonize that Other while promoting itself as a fount of goodness. But Baldwin obviously doesn’t only make this point. He shows that a reality for many, one that has persisted for generations, is of a magnitude analogous to a cosmic order. He does not hesitate to connect reality with identity, and his address to his nephew is a plea for the nephew to develop his own identity, over against those who made and enforced segregation:

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.

It may be true that there are some rich kids who have been told they can do no wrong because some institutions were obsessed with teaching self-esteem. I don’t really buy this as a general explanation for insolence, though. I’ve seen far too much bullying, far too many attempts to call others “worthless.” And when I’ve run into people who considered themselves untouchable, what I found was their families had made it an article of faith they were entitled, and if schools and churches and clubs reinforced that notion, it was because of the power of their social class. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to be disadvantaged and spoiled. But there’s a real need to be able to distinguish monsters who would destroy everything for the sake of their ego from those who aren’t respectful of their own potential.

For many, finding an identity—yes, that cliche of “finding your voice”—isn’t just vital to their well-being. It might be the central democratic task, the only thing promising a redemptive future. To see yourself as you are is to see your beauty and your ugliness, to make hard decisions about how you will accept your judgment and use norms to better yourself and better humanity:

But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend.

Because the United States of America has an utterly deranged idea of freedom, there’s a non-zero chance a non-zero number of people will see these words, see “with love shall force,” and immediately judge this communist propaganda. But Baldwin is so much greater. Any sense of justice comes from a willingness to accept the norms which bind us together. Men of great wisdom respect this while understanding that conformity can be very dangerous. The solution is not “non-conformity.” The solution is to understand moral wisdom means taking a hard look at who you are and what you stand for. The solution is openness to self-knowledge, an understanding that being a genuine individual begins with respect for others. American individualism too often is nothing but unchecked privilege and unfounded myths. It’s a false sense of confidence which reduces others to props in a childish story. Against this, knowing what’s right because of the concrete knowledge of what’s wrong is the only acceptable redemption.