Recently in Limitations on compassion Category

Prostitutes' paradoxes

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I don't know if Karen Blixen ever read Guy de Maupassant's story, "Boule de suif" - probably she did.  She'd lived in Paris as a student and spoke French.  Maupassant was (and still is) a writer who enjoyed wide popular acclaim; his work would likely have been unavoidable for young Blixen.

The question arose because my first thought on reading "Boule de suif" was its remarkable parallels with a (much later written) story by Karen Blixen, "The Heroine," which appeared in her second collection, Winter's Tales.

Both stories take place during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71.  In both stories, a band of French travelers are stopped by Germans.  A German officer in both stories demands sexual favors from one of the French women.  In both stories, the woman works in the sex trade.  And in both stories, the woman's companions - who, in both stories, include a pair of nuns - are instrumental in the outcome.  Yet the two stories are totally different.

In "Boule de suif," the woman, Elisabeth Rousett (known as "Boule de suif" or "suet dumpling") is a prostitute.  Her companions in her traveling coach initially snub her, but they welcome her into their society after she shares her food with them.  When the German officer arrests the progress of their party, however, Boule de suif's companions pressure her until she relents and complies with his demands.  The German officer allows their party to proceed, and the companions regress into their haughty exclusion of Boule de suif.  The story ends with everyone in the coach refusing to share their food with her, while she cries, and one of the men hums "The Marseillaise."

In "The Heroine," the woman, Heloise, appears to be a lady of some distinction.  She and her companions at an inn are trying to cross from Germany into Luxembourg.  A German officer tells Heloise that he will grant the laissez-passer if she comes to him naked.  She demands that the officer present the request to her companions.  Led by an elderly priest, who weakly waves his arms, they all give some sign of refusal, and the party is sent outside.  They fear they will be shot.  But a German officer comes with the laissez-passer and a bouquet of flowers, which he presents to Heloise, "to a heroine." 

After the war, one of the men who'd been with Heloise that night, a scholar named Frederick, goes to a nightclub in Paris where he sees Heloise - far from being a woman of distinction - performing naked in a titillating show called "Diana's revenge."  After the show, Heloise has a drink with him, during which she muses that, during their showdown with the German officer, their companions were running a worse risk than being shot.  Had they made her do what the German had demanded,

[t]hey would have repented it all their lives, and have held themselves to be great sinners. . . . for those people it would have been better to be shot than to live on with a bad conscience.
(p. 86).  When Frederick asks her why she is sure of this conclusion, she replied, "Oh, I know that kind of people well . . . . I was brought up amongst poor, honest people myself."  (Id.)   

This comparison between Maupassant's "Boule de suif" and Blixen's "The Heroine" brings Blixen's romanticism into sharp relief . . . and possibly some ridicule.  Romanticism in and of itself doesn't deprive a work of its plausibility - people behave romantically often enough - but as the side-by-side with "Boule de suif" clarifies, Blixen's romanticism was normative, not descriptive.  She wrote about how people should be, not about how they are.  And how Blixen thought people should be can seem a bit ridiculous today.

In Maupassant's hands, the social pressure exerted on Boule de suif to force her to comply with the German officer's request that she perform exactly what she would do for her job seems dehumanizing and cruel.  In Blixen's telling, Heloise's refusal to ensure the safe passage of herself and her companions by doing exactly what she does for her job seems foolishly proud; and Heloise's insistence that her companions would have been better off being shot, than having supported her in her honor, seems naive, if not offensive.

At the end of the stories, it is Maupassant, not Blixen, who has made me feel empathy for the prostitute, who has inspired me to insist on her dignity, on her human entitlement not to be sexually degraded, whatever she does to earn a living.  Who, then, is the romantic?  Maupassant, who lays the groundwork for realization of an ideal by showing us reality; or Blixen, who shows us a peculiar ideal, the realization of which seems not merely impossible, but ill-advised?

If Karen Blixen did read "Boule de suif" before writing "The Heroine," she didn't appear to take from it its most salient lessons.   

(Image of Guy de Maupassant from Narrative Magazine)

The best museum exhibit guide ever

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The Tate Modern's Gauguin show sparked an interest in Gauguin's life that prompted me to buy books.  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, one of the books upon which my hand fell (in the gift shop) was Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence.  Luckily, sitting beside Maugham's clunker was the Mario Vargas Llosa novel, This Way to Paradise, which I also snatched up.

A fictional double portrait of Paul Gauguin and his part-Peruvian grandmother, Flora Tristán, This Way to Paradise finds Vargas Llosa projecting himself into Gauguin's mind as he paints a number of his masterpieces, including "Manao tupapau" (pictured above), "Pape moe" (based on the Charles Spitz photograph below), "Nevermore" (below), "The Vision after the Sermon" (here).

Charles_Spitz_Tahitian_drinking.jpgVargas Llosa's imaginative reconstruction of Gauguin's psychology in the moment of creation captivated me.  I was excited by Vargas Llosa's audacity, combined with the singular opportunity that the Tate Modern's show afforded: I could stand in the presence of the paintings and test whether Vargas Llosa's words made me experience Gauguin as the paintings had made Vargas Llosa experience him.

The second time I went to the Tate Modern's Gauguin show, I took This Way to Paradise with me and read the passages that discussed paintings in the exhibit.  Here's Vargas Llosa on "Manoa Tupapau":

The raw material was in his memory, the image he saw every time he closed his eyes.
. . . .
The naked girl would be obscene without the fear in her eyes and the incipient downturn of her mouth.  But fear didn't diminish her beauty.  It augmented it, tightening her buttocks in such an insinuating way, making them an altar of human flesh on which to celebrate a barbaric ceremony, in homage to a cruel and pagan god.  And in the upper part of the canvas was the ghost, which was really more yours than Tahitian, [Paul]. . . . It was an old woman in a hooded cloak, like the crones of Brittany forever fixed in your memory.
(p. 23.)  I didn't see it.  The girl's eyes didn't show me fear, nor did I see an incipient downturn of her mouth - to me, she appeared to be smiling coyly.  The arch of her body was wrong for what Vargas Llosa was describing.  Far from the tautness that Vargas Llosa sees, the girl's lower half looked slack: her ankles are crossed, and her legs seem to be hanging off the bed.  And however much I ran between the galleries to compare the crones of Brittany with the spirit in "Manao tupapau," I didn't glimpse the connection.

Nevermore_Gauguin.jpgBut it didn't matter.  Tracking Vargas Llosa through Gauguin allowed me insight into the impact of visual arts on another writer's process.  This Way to Paradise isn't art criticism; Vargas Llosa isn't informing or educating his public about what they should see in the paintings.  He's exposing instead what he sees when he looks at them. 

That looking at "Manao tupapau" makes Vargas Llosa think about how Gauguin came up with the image reveals a mind intrigued by the artistic process, and one additionally that sees parity in the process between visual artists and writers.  Although I have wondered how other artists arrive at their images, I hadn't speculated previously about Gauguin's, in part because (before the Tate Modern show) I didn't identify with him: but Vargas Llosa must have.  And, although I sense that Vargas Llosa's connection with Gauguin is very masculine - a bond I can't share - Vargas Llosa nonetheless showed me one way of empathizing with Paul Gauguin.

Empathizing - with oneself, with other artists, and with one's characters - is part of the novelist's job, and it's not the easy part.  Somerset Maugham couldn't do it for Paul Gauguin (nor likely for himself), which is why Maugham depicts a Gauguin-like character, Charles Strickland, as being without compassion (discussed here).

But Vargas Llosa's way of always doing the hard part - and doing it well - is why I admire him so intensely.  Even his lesser works (and This Way to Paradise isn't his masterpiece) deepen and enrich my experience of life and art. 

I've never before entered a blockbuster art exhibit clutching a novel.  After This Way to Paradise, I'm not sure I'll be able to enjoy future shows as fully without one.

(Image of "Manao tupapau" from Shafe; of "Nevermore" from Tate; and of Charles Spitz' photograph from Cultor College

Note to Self

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If I am ever crafting a romantic male lead in a novel, I'll do well - both for character and for reader - to spare him the indignities of chronic constipation. 

I don't get what Gabriel García Márquez was doing, in Love in the Time of Cholera, when he saddled poor Florentino Ariza (as played by Javier Bardem in Mike Newell's movie version, pictured left) with this debility.

Granted, I recognize that the problem is common.  Also, that people who suffer chronic constipation have just as much entitlement as the rest of us to passionate love affairs.  Also, that they can screw a lot.

But I don't like to dwell on it.  When García Márquez conflates constipation and screwing, as he does Florentino Ariza first meets Leona Cassiani, I cringed:

Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic constipation: "The world is divided into those who can shit and those who cannot." . . . But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino Ariza stated it another way: "The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not."
(p. 183).  Please!  Gabriel!  Spare us!

Throughout, I had problems believing Florentino Ariza as "one who screws" because I just couldn't reconcile the openness required for sexual release with the closedness required for chronic constipation.  And when one of Florentino Ariza's lover takes his enemas with him, I found myself regretting the compassionate capacities of my gender: ladies, there are limits!

Later, when Leona Cassiani gives the aged Florentino Ariza his enemas, I had a hard time with the humiliation and emasculation that redounded to Florentino Ariza from this interaction.  He's going to get up off the enema bed and go woo Fermina Daza?  Really?

When it comes to enemas and a romantic male lead, my feeling is that there's too much realism and not enough magic.

(Image of Javier Bardem in the film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The Telegraph)

Becky Sharp, c'est Thackeray

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Melusina.jpgI've already blogged about how William Makepeace Thackeray's bitchiness to Becky Sharp fouls up his plotting in Vanity Fair.  But the more I think about his lack of compassion for Becky, the more compelled I am to take issue with his behavior simply as an affront to women and the poor. 

Thackeray creates Becky as a creature of few advantages.  Her mother dies when she's very young, and her father dies of delirium tremens when she is a teenager.  Moreover,

[Rebecca] had the dismal precocity of poverty.  Many a dun she had talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman she had coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more.  She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions - often but ill-suited for a girl to hear.  But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.
(p. 10.) 

Thackeray bounces orphan Becky from one demeaning environment (Miss Pinkerton's School) to another (the Sedley house, Sir Pitt Crawley's house in Queen's Crawley, Miss Crawley's house in London), marries her to a gambler solider without a penny, promptly revokes the soldier's inheritance, and then gleefully watches Becky make do (dishonestly) in genteel society.

Social climbing (particularly in Becky's time and place), of course, is vulgar, and people who do it well are invariably insincere, insecure, shallow and vain.  (Becky is all these things.) 

And, yes, vanity is a sin.  But one of the great innovations of Judeo-Christian ethics is proportionality: Inspector Javert, the policeman - not Jean Valjean, the thief - is the sinner in Les Misérables because hounding a man for a lifetime is a disproportionate punishment for stealing a loaf of bread when a man is starving.

In the same way, casting vanity on par with murder and cannibalism is hardly in the enlightened Judeo-Christian spirit.  Here, for example, is Thackeray giving an account of Becky after she's been ruined:

In describing this siren [Rebecca Sharp], singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, and curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish moralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously.  They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling [sic] and feasting on their wretched pickled victims.  And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
(p. 620-21 (emphasis added).)  

I bridle reading this indictment.  Becky, without question, exploits those foolish enough to allow her to do so - her lady companion, Briggs, and her landlord, Raggles, in particular (both of whom she ruins financially).  She's beastly to her husband, Rawdon Crawley, and utterly cruel to her son. 

But, frankly, her crimes are the usual run-of-the-mill misdeeds of the impoverished.  The fever pitch of Thackeray's accusations is unwarranted.  (Besides which, his constant excuses that propriety prevents him from recounting her bloody - as opposed to economic and emotional - crimes is scarcely credible and makes the whole passage seem gratuitous.)

Thackeray's excessiveness surprises me because I believe he loves Becky Sharp (in contrast to Amelia Sedley, who I think Thackeray comes close to despising).  I don't think Thackeray would've made Becky so beautiful, intelligent, witty and resourceful - nor would he have given her an adventure with so many men and opportunities - if he didn't adore her.   

And yet, I feel that, in spite of himself - in spite of Thackeray's certainty that those of high birth and spotless reputation are as decrepit in their moral conduct as those of their opposites - Thackeray can't really accept a smart, resourceful, poor woman who isn't a monster.  Cerebrally or ideologically, he knows that poor women aren't deserving of especial reprimand; but viscerally Thackeray connects them with terror.  (As I discussed in another prior post, I think Thackeray attributes too much power to women, which may relate to this fear he manifests in respect of Becky.)

Thackeray's treatment of Becky also put me in mind of another novel about a rapacious, social climbing woman, a woman who exploits and abuses everyone she can, a woman who comes from crushing poverty and who dies desperate and penniless.  The book is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl is based on Madame Bovary, an ambitious book with which to compare one's work; and yet Vargas Llosa more than lives up to the company in which he places himself. 

The reason is his compassion for his bad girl.  Despite all her bad behavior, Vargas Llosa made me believe that poverty - not original sin or some other form of damnation - had tarnished her.  With this tactic, Vargas Llosa is not simply being sentimental: he's making his story work.  Although I never came to like the bad girl, I did feel emotionally engaged in her fate (and that of her steadfast lover) in a way that never happened with Vanity Fair.  I read The Bad Girl in a matter of days (not a month, like Vanity Fair), and the bad girl's scar of poverty has resonated with me for years after I finished the book. 

Speculating about the sources of authorial limitations and strengths is always risky.  Nonetheless, I'll hazard the following guess:  Vargas Llosa has compassion for the bad girl because he's well-acquainted with his naughty side; Thackeray thought Becky a monster because she was too close to what he didn't want to know about himself. 

(Image of Melusina from Wikicommons

The color of morality isn't Red

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Guy_Burgess_1956_at_Black_Sea.jpgReading Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review of Chapman Pincher's book, Treachery: Betrayal, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain (in The New York Review of Books), I experienced one of those synergies that make me look up from my reading and exclaim, "That's exactly right!"  The passage that provoked my experience quoted Isaiah Berlin, speaking of Guy Burgess, one of the "Cambridge Five," who spied on England for the USSR:  "Guy . . . [was] someone with no moral center to his life."
Knowing little-to-nothing about Guy Burgess (except for the fact that he's not Anthony Burgess, a point I had to reiterate several times in conversation recently), I was excited, not by the personal specifics, but by the general import of Berlin's remark.  Having lived in China for four and a half years, I've had plenty of opportunity to observe the way Communism erodes the moral fabric of a society and the moral integrity of its adherents.

In reflecting on this side-effect of Communism, I've concluded that its mechanism relates to the connection between morality and compassion, and to the further connection between compassion and individuals. 

Morality, in essence, is the intellectual expression of visceral compassion.  When we empathize with another person's pain, we condemn the cause of that hurt in moral terms: e.g., because we feel bad for fatherless children, we define as immoral the behavior of deadbeat dads who shirk their parental duties to their children.

The human capacity for compassion, however, is limited.  Whether by hard-wiring or otherwise, we relate best to other individuals.  Our empathy doesn't spring into its fullest expression until we can lavish it on another individual.  Our moral outrage at deadbeat dads is never stronger than when the neglected children are known and beloved by us.

The fundamental flaw of Communism is its insistence on cultivating compassion for the group, in preference to the individual.  Human beings do this poorly at best.  (The group with which most of us identify most strongly is our family, and even that instance of empathizing with a group tends to pale beside our sympathy for individuals within the family.)  Throw in the typical Communist government modus operandi of instigating betrayal of one's nearest and dearest - children informing on parents, siblings turned against one another, etc. - and Communism produces an individual whose compassionate capacities are well and truly broken.

And without a visceral compassion response in working order, moral reasoning cannot operate properly.

Milan Kundera has repeatedly documented this breakdown as it occurred in (then) Czechoslovakia (viz. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being).  Kundera's example is significant because it suggests that the problem is with Communism, and not China's flavor of Communism.  Isaiah Berlin's observation about Guy Burgess resonated with me because it provides additional support: a man with no moral center would, of course, match with a system that eviscerates the moral backbone of society and person.

I did not match with such a system.  To illustrate just how profoundly I was at odds with Chinese Communism, I'll admit that, upon learning that Guy Burgess defected to the USSR in 1951 and died there, I felt - traitor that he was - pity.

(Image of Guy Burgess sunbathing at the Black Sea in 1956 from Times Online
Migrant_Mother.jpgThe Code of Conduct of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies decrees, in its tenth and final point, that, "In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

The principle distills general anxiety about interactions between powerful storytellers and powerless subjects.  Such anxiety is neither new nor unjustified.  In an article in The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban describes the Farm Security Administration's (FSA) photographic propaganda work as follows:

the owner of the camera was rich beyond the dreams of the people in the viewfinder, whose images were used by the government both to justify its Keynesian economic policy and to raise private funds for the relief of dispossessed flood victims, sharecroppers, and migrant farm workers.
Obviously, storytellers engaging in such interactions should act with a consciousness of the risks and an acceptance of responsibility for the outcome.  Nonetheless, despite the risks, such interactions are not merely worth undertaking, but critical.

Without such interactions, of course, fund-raising for relief efforts is much harder.  But that explanation does not make such interactions critical.  Rather, such interactions are critical because engagement with the world, and everything in it, is a moral responsibility.  Yet a paradox exists: engagement with any "other" or "unknown" is difficult to achieve without doing more harm than good. 

If war and enslavement is on the negative end of the spectrum of engagements with "others," and colonialism is somewhat more towards the center of the spectrum but still on the negative side of the balance, then photographing the dispossessed for humanitarian purposes (or engaging in any type of storytelling about disadvantaged peoples) must be on the positive end (although, again, not without its risks).  Indeed, undertaking the empathetic leap to tell the story of an "other" (in whatever medium) is possibly our safest and most promising tool for engagement. 

Sunita.jpg Full disclosure:  I take photos for humanitarian purposes (examples right and below).  I have found the experience uniformly rewarding.  Usually I am able to ask permission before I take photos, and where possible I know the subject's name and rudiments of his or her life.  Very often, the subjects request that I take the photo, either verbally or by appearing before the camera and posing.

Although I cannot speak for the subjects of my photos, what feedback I have received has been positive.  In my experience taking such pictures, I have typically been photographing individuals who have either never been photographed before, or who have been photographed only rarely.  Some have indicated to me that being photographed gives them a sense of importance as well as excitement to join that part of humanity that has appeared in photographs.  Many smile or laugh upon seeing their photos.  I have felt the satisfaction of having made a contribution to my subjects' enjoyment of their lives. 

Maharashtra_boys.jpgIn the case of photos I have taken, the subjects have only rarely seen the end products in which their pictures appear (brochures, online stories, etc.).  In the instances in which they have seen themselves in fund raising and knowledge awareness materials, they have been pleased.

That said, I have never taken a photograph that has been worth any amount of money or garnered any fame.  Such events tend to change the calculus.  Florence Thompson, depicted in Dorothea Lange's photograph "Migrant Mother" (first photograph above), ultimately objected to circulation of the photograph for reasons that appear to have to do with the class disparity between herself and Lange (although Lange didn't own the copyright to the photo and made no money off its reprints).

Kevin_Carter_photo_vulture_and_starving_child.jpg And although the female subject of Kevin Carter's photograph of a starving Sudanese child and a hovering vulture (right) never complained, Carter was harshly condemned for snapping pictures instead of helping the little girl more directly.  After winning the Pulitzer in 1994 for the photograph, Carter committed suicide.

But iconic imagery is a bad baseline for the vast majority of interactions involving powerful storytellers and powerless subjects.  When images become iconic, they represent concepts greater than either the subject or the photographer, and control of the image transitions from model and photographer to the public. 

Although the fallout of that shift in power may usually be worse for the less empowered subject (e.g., Florence Thompson) than for the more empowered photographer (e.g., Dorothea Lange), the fundamental problem is not that the photographer somehow exploited the subject at the time of the photograph, but that exposure (through fame or otherwise) is terrible to bear.  Few have the capacity for it: Florence Thompson didn't; but neither did Kevin Carter.

Blaming the photographer for this outcome is neither productive nor fair.  A photographer (or any storyteller) has a very limited tool at his or her disposal.  A means of telling a story may be our safest and most promising means of engagement, but it does not include protection from the aftermath of that story's circulation, nor does it include a guarantee of reward should the story prove profitable. 

Even a storyteller's responsibility for the outcome of the interaction with the "other" cannot extend beyond circumstances in the storyteller's personal control.  When an image becomes iconic, the photographer has lost whatever control he or she had over the image's use and message and cannot be accountable for the actions of unrelated third parties or the public at large.   

We can condemn the storyteller for not doing enough (e.g., snapping pictures instead of feeding the child).  But ultimately such criticisms are hypocritical.  The storyteller, after all, was (among other tasks) fulfilling a moral obligation to engage the world, while most often the critic was doing substantially less.  

Moreover, the storyteller's engagement produced a lasting contribution to our collective imagination and awareness.  We are richer for the storyteller's efforts. 

Rather than criticizing the storyteller, then, perhaps efforts should be directed to compensating (or feeding) the subject of the story.  Or critics should get off their asses and try engaging the world themselves.

(Dorothea Lange's photo "Migrant Mother" from Wikimedia Commons; Kevin Carter's photo of a collapsed Sudanese girl and a waiting vulture from the Pulitzer Prize website)
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About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Limitations on compassion category.

Integrity under fire is the previous category.

Prudishness is the next category.



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