The Moral Imperative to Act

Gray Space and the Political Power of Empathy

I have had a hard time focusing lately. I have had a hard time looking at anything abstract, find myself possessed by the present. This past November, hundreds of civilians were hurt, killed, or traumatized in the streets and venues of Paris. Just days prior, 43 civilians were killed in a suicide bombing in a street market in Beirut. Across the United States students of color are experiencing profound, alienating racism. Migrants are scattered, displaced, dying; France is bombing ISIS, and the United States is too. I keep looking at the news and refreshing my web browser. I find myself feeling as though I were water droplets against oil; I retract, react, I cannot combine.

There is, here, some sense of moral imperative. A moral imperative to act. I am wondering how one should be in the world. I am wondering how one should be, and how one should use what one has for the sake of some greater good. I myself don’t know what I have, but I know emotion, I know words. I am suddenly concerned with the idea that the artist—the writer, the poet—might choose not to deal in this immediate present. I am concerned that the frivolous might be favored over the fraught, and this concerns me because the fraught seems so fundamentally important right now.

In Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite spends a good chapter addressing the criticisms leveled against the French writer Gustave Flaubert. One of the primary concerns has to do with Flaubert’s political disposition. Critics ask: Was he or was he not involved enough? Did he address the issues of his time in his work? Did he care about democracy, the Commune; was he patriotic enough? To which Braithwaite responds, “Novelists who think their writing an instrument of politics seem to me to degrade writing and foolishly exalt politics. No, I’m not saying they should be forbidden from having political opinions or from making political statements. It’s just that they should call that part of their work journalism” (129-130). The writer should abstain from politics in favor of art, according to Braithwaite, because the elevation of the former can only lead to the degradation of the latter. The use of literature for the political cannot lead to effective works. Braithwaite seems to believe that writers who do believe the novel to be an effective political tool usually are bad novelists, politicians, and journalists. They fundamentally misunderstand the way that both literature and politics move in society.

This opinion seems to me slightly drastic. The idea that an entire structure—especially one that all of society interacts with, or depends on—should be excluded from fiction seems if not misguided, then at least somewhat hasty. If literature is a force that can change and shape the self-same society that produces it, should it not deal with the most pressing issues of the time?

In an interview conducted by David Eggers for The Believer in 2003, David Foster Wallace expresses a very different opinion about the writer’s political duty. Wallace speaks of contemporary American politics, and emphasizes how bipartisan positions cause people to look at issues as though they are black and white. Individuals, journalists, and institutions are not immune to bias; as such, all parties involved turn against one another and are incapable of broaching the gaps caused by their differences.

This being where the writer comes in. “My own belief,” he says, “perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problem ours is” (75). The writer’s ability to see the gray of all situations—to look at both sides, and understand the human element of each—makes him or her much better equipped to deal in truth and objectivity than the journalist or citizen. Because fiction writers spend so much of their time putting themselves into others’ shoes, their capacity for empathy will outstrip the politicians’ and the citizens’. Perhaps their writing can, in turn, help the politicians to see the citizen, the citizen to see the politicians.

Which is a nice idea, in theory. But it becomes harder in practice. Wallace goes on in the very next paragraph to outline the flaws in his argument. He himself is a case study; whenever he tries to write about political issues, he finds himself feeling much too strongly, much too deeply, his own position. He is suddenly unable to achieve the distance and objectivity necessary for the task. “I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any fair or nuanced way about the current administration,” (76) he says. He seems to conclude that politics make one inherently biased, and that this does prevent the writer from maintaining a distant, level interior-space.

Such a tension is echoed in the experiences of other writers. George Orwell, while not directly advocating for political engagement, deals with politics very primarily in his writing. In his essay “Why I Write,” he discusses the four main elements that motivate a writer in producing his or her own work. These include egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Orwell mentions that while he originally tended towards the former three, the circumstances of his time emphatically pushed him into the territory of the final category. The time he spent in the army and the advent of the Spanish Civil War caused him to become highly political, and his serious writing is dedicated to opposing totalitarianism and promoting democratic socialism. “It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subject,” he says. “It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.” He goes on: “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity” (4).

But this proves difficult for Orwell in just the same way that it is difficult for Wallace. When confronted with an issue he cares about—say, for example, the Spanish Civil War—he finds himself too angry to consider whether or not his aesthetic choices will impact the reader’s experience positively or negatively. He ends up sacrificing that aesthetic integrity. Retrospectively, he laments the addition of a chapter to his book Homage to Catalonia that consisted of naught but newspaper clippings. When a literary critic accuses him of becoming a journalist, Orwell concedes that he has allowed his politics to get in the way of his art. Both Wallace and Orwell seem to believe that the writer exists as an effective political conduit, but both also seem to find the tension between artistry and politics difficult to overcome.

So, then, is Braithwaite correct? Can the political and the literary never mix? Do Orwell and Wallace ineffectively underscore this perspective, just as they attempt to work against it?

I don’t believe so, and I think that returning briefly to Wallace’s passage may help in explaining why. Wallace speaks of the writer’s empathy, and the writer’s inherent ability to put himself or herself into other person’s shoes. (75) This ability to ‘see the gray’ in situations, so to speak, is not something that need be applied only to politics. In an essay for The Atlantic called “How Literature Inspires Empathy,” writer Alaa Al Aswany speaks of how literature does not judge but rather presents perspectives and truths that allow for human understanding, and, in that way, empathy. Literature is thus the antithesis to subjectivity and bias, black and white. “If you are a fanatic,” he says, “you will never appreciate literature. And if you appreciate literature you will never be a fanatic. Fanaticism is about black and white: people are either good or bad. People are either with us or against us.” This echoes Wallace’s discussion of politics; many people adhere to their political party or position, and many have a difficult time accepting all that opposes their views. With literature, though, these barriers become thin, and possibly irrelevant. Aswany says: “On the other side, literature is the absolute contrary. Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us to feel other people’s suffering.” Literature is this gray space between adamant faith and alienating disbelief. It allows one to consider the why and how of actions; to feel common human emotions; to experience things that might never have been open to you. It allows people to broach the chasms between them on rope bridges consisting of narrative, poetry, plot. It allows one to put aside immediate emotions and understand those of a distant but not dissimilar individual.

Wallace questions whether political writing can ever really change society, as most of the time it simply parrots back ideas that the specific readers already hold true. It does not, necessarily, persuade. It may, simply reinforce. Journalism is informative. Political writing—in whatever form that may take—reinforces. What, then, can persuade?

The answer may just be fiction, but not in the way suggested by Wallace. Asway speaks to the idea that literature should act as a solution to or impetus for politics, and he states that this idea is misguided. “I don’t think literature is the right tool to change the situation right now.” he says. “If you would like to change the situation now, go out into the street.” To resolve political turmoil, it may be more beneficial to act, to get involved, to work towards changing the political landscape itself. Petition, protest, fight. Writing cannot move the world. It can only move people. Asway goes on, however, to say that “literature, to me, is about more important change: It changes our vision, our understanding, the way that we see. And people who are changed by literature, in turn, will be more capable to change the situation.” While literature is not on its own an agent of change, it can move inside of people and cause them to create tangible change.

If writers are able to express human experiences in ways that inspire empathy, humans will be able to rise above divisions of belief and difference. The most political thing act may be to tell stories of truth and gravity, so as to touch and affect other people. To present situations of ambiguity from a vantage point free of judgement, and to allow readers to understand the why and how of behavior; to present one’s sorrow in hope that it will elicit someone else’s sympathy; to illustrate that which one knows and sees so as to inform the public. Rather than trying to push and manipulate, perhaps one need only present honestly and objectively. Perhaps nothing is as persuasive as that which inspires empathy.

So my conclusion is this: the writer need not write of political topics to be involved in the immediate present, nor to effect change or growth in society at large. To simply champion for gray spaces of common experience, and, in doing so, inspire empathy in readers, is powerful in and of itself. Writing directly of politics may or may not even be the most relevant approach. Writing of people, however, and the way that people’s lives touch one another and are touched by events, is one of the best ways to help people turn away from the black and the white and towards one another. Once they can see eye to eye, maybe they can enact change.

Flaubert is not to be condemned for his “lack” of political concern, and the contemporary writer need not feel obligated to write politically driven fiction. To write honestly and movingly in such a way as to inspire empathy is, it would seem, the most effective way to tug at the fabric of society. If one can manage to change society’s eyes, hearts, and minds, one might manage to change their hands as well. Writers deal not in issues, but in individuals. Fiction need not deal with the fraught; it need only provide the foundation to feel. Perhaps there is nothing more political—and persuasive—than the presentation of common humanity, emotion, injustice, experience.


Works Cited

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert’s Parrot. New York: Knopf, 1985. Print.

Fassler, Joe. “How Literature Inspires Empathy.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 31 Dec. 2015.

Orwell, George. “Why I Write.” Gangrel Summer 1946. n. pag. Web. 30 Dec. 2015.

Wallace, David Foster. “David Foster Wallace.” Interview by Dave Eggers. Believer  Nov. 2003