“I exist not if I do not attend to the suffering of others.” —Pablo Neruda
Neruda’s empathic statement rings out like an anthem to me. In fact, I would make a case for empathy as the root not only of social justice but also of the creative principle.
Neruda was much loved by the Chilean people because, despite being a Nobel Prize winner for his poetry, he made an effort to read to them in even the smallest villages. Neruda’s willingness to speak out on behalf of oppressed Chilean miners cost him his political career and nearly his life, forcing him into exile. He used his poetry to address issues of slavery and injustice, culminating in superb works such as Canto General and The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Martin Espada, poet and professor of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, considers Canto General a masterpiece, declaring that, “there is no greater political poem.”
And indeed the empathic principle—long downplayed by social Darwinists and capitalist apologists—has much deeper roots in civilization than we’ve been led to believe. In his book The Empathic Civilization (2010), Jeremy Rifkin writes: “Our collective memory is measured in terms of crises and calamities, harrowing injustices, and terrifying episodes of brutality inflicted on each other and our fellow creatures. But if these were the defining elements of human experiences, we would have perished as a species long ago.” This indeed may be what millions of people around the world are beginning to realize.
As a creative principle, empathy is a fundamental tool for the artist of any discipline. We must be able to “see into” things to draw out of them—as Neruda did with his famous Odes—their innate nature. Such seeing requires an ability to exercise empathy—to enter into the existence of a person or object and experience their point of view. It can also mean “ascribing to an object or person feelings or thoughts present in oneself,” as dictionary.com explains. What’s interesting—as Rifkin points out—is that the word empathy only entered common language just over 100 years ago. Yet aboriginal nations around the world have exercised this ability for millennia. Even hunter-gatherer cultures had a tradition of treating prey not merely as food objects but as beings loosely related to humans. In North America, this was described by First Nations teachers like Black Elk as the principle of Wakan Tanka—the spirit that infuses everything with life.
The great Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke alluded to this when he wrote what has since been collected as Letters to a Young Poet: “…try to be close to Things; they will not abandon you; and the nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands; everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in…” And, having done so, “don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law.”
Am I trying to say that it’s possible for human beings with all their biases to ever fully discern the ‘true’ nature of a person, animal or object? Here we end up back in the territory of Pilate’s philosophical axiom: “What is truth?” For Rilke the dilemma was less thorny than we might expect: for him what mattered was that the poet was truthful to his own nature, which is itself Nature. Again, from the Letters to a Young Poet: “…go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create.” Rilke was enough of a spiritual being to recognize that this was far from merely a license for narcissism: it is an imperative running through creators like sap through a great tree. As with all great artists, he recognized that we are the forest that contains the tree, and we are the individual tree. To separate ourselves is to begin to die. So once again we return to the uniting principle of empathy.
A school of poetic thought emerged during the 20th century that held as its premise that the writer must obliterate all traces of herself in an effort to reach maximum clarity in her writing. This was thought to be the clearest way toward achieving a pure rendering of the creative work’s subject, free of the author’s bias. While noble in concept, it has proven at best an illusion and at worst an intellectual fallacy, the same as ‘objective journalism’ has proven itself elusive at best. As linguist George Lakoff has explained, we are all indelibly stamped by our formative experiences and the kinds of families we grow up in. Lakoff has written extensively on how our ‘frames’ or ways of seeing the world shape politics. These frames are inherited from our upbringing—or as a reaction against it. “To be accepted, the truth must fit peoples’ frames,” writes Lakoff in Don’t Think of An Elephant! “Concepts are not something that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact.”
But we may be discussing two different aspects of empathy here—the facility that allows us deep penetration into the inner nature of something and the response that triggers in us. That response may, for example, move us to start a charity for a Third World country or write a letter to the newspaper protesting the clearcutting of a forest. Lakoff would argue that even this statement reflects my own bias, that someone with a more conservative frame might respond quite differently. The writer walks a fine line between imposing his own views on the reader as a result of his frame and endeavouring to evoke an empathic response in the reader.
The way this is achieved will vary depending on the culture. In the Latinate cultures such as Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca were writing from, the passion of the speaker is highly contagious and holds great power over its audience. In English-based cultures, we seem to require a less overtly emotional appeal, something that appeals to the head as much as the heart. But does this mean that Neruda’s anguished, openly emotional cry is somehow less accomplished than T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, muttering in a rather English manner “through certain half-deserted streets…?” Hardly.
The purveyors of poetic culture in the West are forgetting—purposefully, it seems—a vital part of their own tradition: the Romantics. Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution was a rallying cry to others who viewed the rapid, thoughtless industrialization of their culture with horror. Were it not for the Romantics and novelists such as Dickens, the social Darwinism of industrial capitalism would have eaten the culture alive. Dickens’ own experience of child labour, however brief, provided him with the empathy he needed to apply his talents to highlighting this social injustice. Yet today there is a barely withheld scorn or at least condescension toward anything that smacks of Romanticism. Naturally all arts need to continue developing and progressing and not remain fossilized in one period. But it seems to me we could use a revival of Romanticism in the Age of Climate Change and resurgent fascism.
We have reached the end of a cycle of history. Our political, social, economic, literary and political systems no longer serve us—or serve only a very tiny percentage of us skimming off the top. As Rifkin points out in The Empathic Civilization, “Although life as it’s lived on the ground, close to home, is peppered with suffering, stresses, injustices and foul play, it is, for the most part, lived out in hundreds of small acts of kindness and generosity. … Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization.”
I’m sure Rilke and Neruda couldn’t have agreed more.