Sympathetic Imagination

Sympathy, according to Dr Johnson, is “fellowfeeling; mutual sensibility; the quality of being affected by the affection of another.” That’s a lovely, generous definition, broader than we commonly allow the word. Today sympathy is often used as a synonym for pity, which at least in American usage has come to have a negative connotation (“I don’t want your pity!”). Empathy, a word which doesn’t appear in Johnson’s Dictionary, is sometimes employed to do the work that sympathy once covered, but it’s not as musical a word to my ear.

I think a lot about the idea of sympathetic imagination. By sympathetic imagination I simply mean the mental work of putting oneself in another person’s place, imaginatively entering someone else’s perspective. It’s the stuff of cliché (walking in another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, etc.) but without it life and art, I think, become unbearable. Exercising sympathetic imagination means withholding judgment, extending charity, allowing (either by stepping forward or by not retreating) the gap that separates us from others to close at least a little, for a least a little while.

Lack of sympathetic imagination is a prevailing flaw of our civil discourse. It’s a negative temptation for international relations. The partisanship of perspective is total. We’re not only uninterested in the way our intellectual or political opponents view things, we’re doctrinally forbidden from granting their basic premises even for the sake of argument. We don’t dare allow ourselves to believe they can have anything other than hateful, destructive intentions. This is nothing new, I’m sure, but it has consequences.

If only we could learn to be better readers.

It’s strange to reflect that sympathetic imagination can be extended to fictional persons but it can. As readers we’re asked to do it all the time. Of course it helps when the prose is pleasant and the story a good one because characters can disappoint. Not all perspectives deserve sympathy (nor all books reading) but the effort is rarely a total waste. As an exercise of sympathetic imagination the reading of a book, no less than the writing of one, becomes a moral action. How well we read books can affect how well we read people. The library is a school for sympathy.

I recently read The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman’s autobiographical story of the summer of 1846, which he spent in part with a band of Oglala Sioux in the Black Hills. For all his professed fascination with the “savages,” it’s remarkable how little curiosity he exhibits. He considers them occasionally amusing, physically impressive, but mostly stupid, cruel, stubborn, backward. There are a hundred questions we wish he’d asked or, if he did ask them, that he’d bothered to report the answers.

In his review of the book, Herman Melville gave Parkman some righteous chastisement for his lack of sympathetic imagination. In his own masterpiece, Melville largely avoids the pitfall. His Tashtego and Queequeg, among others, are equal possessors of earth and sea with Ishmael and Ahab. This is not to say that the things people share in common trump their differences. Quite the opposite; difference is always enlightening. But I suppose I believe, as Melville did, that human nature is one and that the accidents of culture and civilization can accrue or melt away in a mere few generations.

As Melville acknowledges after he’s put the stick away, The Oregon Trail is a wonderful book even so. It’s a rich, detailed, companionable travelogue, expertly written. Parkman has blind spots, but he still manages to see an awful lot. And though there’s less sympathy than we might have hoped for, there’s even less sentimentality. To my mind this illustrates the point I’m clumsily trying to make. Parkman’s limitations don’t let us off the hook. In enjoying the book it becomes necessary for us to exercise our sympathetic imagination, as readers, for the benefit of Parkman, who sometimes failed to exercise his own.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sympathetic Imagination

  1. Dave Lull

    From a review of William Gass’s latest book, talk of sympathetic imagination applied to Platonic Forms:

    ‘Deep inside his new collection of essays Life Sentences, in a discussion of mimesis, in the middle of a paragraph about the Pythagorean world of numbers and the differences between perfect Forms and imperfect appearances, William Gass throws down a challenge: “Put yourself in their place.” He’s referring to the place of the Forms—those poor, elusive abstractions that, according to Gass’s concise rendering of Plato’s theory, are damned to have reality but no animation, Being but no life. To understand them, we can’t do less than consider their predicament from their perspective. And once we’ve come this far, we have to pity them. Think about it: how utterly wretched it must be to exist as a Form, stuck for all eternity as a law of motion that does not move, or as an object of knowledge that “will never know what knowing is.” It might be tempting to strive for the symmetry of something as impeccable as an equilateral triangle, but it would be grim never to experience, or even to conceive as a delicious fantasy, “what it is like to be seen, longed for, touched, loved.”’

    http://www.thenation.com/article/166663/till-knowing-ends-william-gass

  2. Ian Wolcott

    A very strange and charming idea. Thanks for sharing that, Mr Lull.

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