James Baldwin on Literature’s Ability to Create Empathy

Woke early this morning but did not get up straight away. Lay in bed for some time and watched the light move gradually across the wall. A beautiful day. After a light breakfast, Jennifer and I went cycling around Cardiff Bay barrage. We found a bench overlooking the water and talked for awhile. Bright blue cloudless sky.

On returning, I settled down to read a few articles and blog postings. One of the finest literary blogs around is Cynthia Haven‘s The Book Haven, hosted by Stanford University. The site covers a rich variety of topics in a lively and accessible way, and includes reviews and interviews alongside thought-provoking essays. In addition, Haven is alert to the political and cultural turmoil that continues to shape contemporary American consciousness. In a recent post, she draws on the words of American writer James Baldwin to examine how literature can lead to greater empathy and understanding between people and communities:

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. […] Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

James Baldwin put it in his own insightful way: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

— Cynthia Haven, The Book Haven

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  1. “You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life…”

    And, worse, it’s lacking in today’s literature: so many MFA-products tailored carefully to seduce/please the target audience by offering to let it read about itself, or about “The Other” in terms it can relate best to, in an extremely familiar voice (its own).

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