Why read? Reflections on empathy and great literature
Monday, September 19, 2016
For a long time I have been meaning to write a Rumination on literary fiction and its capacity to arouse empathy. I didn’t manage to do that, but last weekend I was privileged to deliver the address at the Centennial celebration of Mount Berry Chapel at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, and I took this subject as my topic. I am therefore posting the address here.
Berry College, by the way, is an extraordinary institution founded by a great woman, Martha Berry (look her up!). Her spirit is still alive at this lovely small liberal arts college. Students, faculty, adminstration, and trustees still ask, “What would Martha think? What would Martha say?” I’d like to think that she would be pleased with this address I was honored to deliver.
The Mount Berry Chapel
Berry College, Rome, Georgia
The Symphony of Humanity
Centennial Address by Fleming Rutledge September 19, 2016
I wonder if you can imagine what a privilege it is for me, a person raised in Virginia, living in New York for nearly 50 years, having never heard of Berry College before, to be introduced to this remarkable institution. I’ve particularly enjoyed discovering that whenever I’ve needed anything, the person who would come to my assistance would be a student
. That’s part of the vision that guided Martha Berry. I would not have wanted to miss learning about Martha Berry. The women who founded my own college, Sweet Briar in Virginia, were outstanding people whom I have revered all my life, but Martha Berry was equal to all of them put together and then some. On the Internet there are photos of her with all kinds of famous people, including Amelia Earhart standing in front of this very chapel, but my favorite shows her sitting in a rocking chair in Warm Springs, Georgia, deep in conversation with a man who is also in a rocking chair. He is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and it is very obvious in the picture that they are absolutely delighted with each other.
She never married, but she certainly charmed a lot of men! We will not pursue the subject of Henry Ford, but I did greatly enjoy the story of Henry Ford’s tractors. If you haven’t heard about that, do ask someone!
The celebrated preacher of the Duke University Chapel, Will Willimon, spoke here not too long ago. I emailed him and asked him of his impressions of Martha Berry and her college. Here’s what he wrote me back: “Martha thought that there was no way to think deeply without the aid of God, and that the best way to serve God was with your mind, with advance training in thinking as a way of worship.”
Let’s hang on to that phrase, “advance training in thinking.” That’s what a liberal arts education is supposed to be. I’d like to reflect on this idea of serving God with your mind, and on the training of the mind—the training of the intellect.
It’s no secret that there’s tremendous controversy in academic circles about exactly what higher education is supposed to be in our present time, and what sort of person colleges and universities are supposed to produce. I graduated almost sixty years ago, if you can imagine that, and in those days very few women needed to think about getting a job. We were therefore free to choose majors in subjects that we loved. We didn’t give a thought to their utilitarian purpose. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that today. I don’t need to tell you that it is exactly the opposite now. Students today are under pressure from every direction to study subjects that are supposed to be useful in the marketplace.
Now the last time I gave an address at a college, it was the baccalaureate at Dartmouth
, and I succeeded in offending half of the people who heard what I had to say. I was on email for six weeks trying to calm everyone down (I am not making this up). I’m a little worried about repeating that experience today. To all of you who majored in, or teach, the subjects now considered most desirable—science, math, engineering, business, computer technology—well, I know I’m running the risk of offending you. But listen to this, from last week’s Wall Street Journal.
The new president of Stanford University
is a neuroscientist, known for his discoveries in brain circuitry. Yet today he is an eager advocate of the humanities. He received a degree in philosophy, and he says that this helped him to think critically. That was his “advance training” for his subsequent career as a scientist. He’s enthusiastic about Stamford’s new initiatives to offer a minor in humanities for students majoring in the STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The liberal arts, he says, are essential to “enrich the human experience.”
I compliment you for having a lot of minors here at Berry.
Last week I had surgery on my foot. When I was in the recovery room there were two exceptionally nice nurses, about forty years younger than I, who chatted with me while they kept an eye on my blood pressure. They asked me about myself, and one thing led to another, and I said I was going to give an address at a liberal arts college in the South. What about, they asked. I said I was thinking about the importance of reading. To my astonishment, both of these nurses lit up. “Yes!” said one. “Reading! Not social media all the time!” The other one nodded vigorously. “Reading!” she said. “Feeding the soul!” I could have hugged her. I told her I was going to quote her in my address. Later in the conversation I learned that they were both Catholic Christians.
Feeding the soul! What exactly does that mean? And how does reading feed the soul? How does it “enrich the human experience”?
One of my favorite books is Moby-Dick. That seems very strange on the face of it. There is not a single woman anywhere in Moby-Dick. I don’t particularly love going out in boats, let alone whale-hunting. And yet, I feel that the book is about me. How is that possible? Here’s how. Herman Melville was no orthodox Christian believer, and the whole book is a struggle against the biblical God—the God of my faith—but the ship Pequod is a floating microcosm of universal humanity. Early in the novel, the narrator Ishmael sets the tone this way: “In the scales of the New Testament…who ain’t a slave?” Father Mapple, when he climbs into his ship-shaped pulpit, addresses his congregation as “beloved shipmates,” and describes himself, the preacher, as a fellow sinner. The character named Queequeg, a tattooed dark-skinned sailor, is from a South Seacannibal tribe. He practices pagan idolatry, but he declares his solidarity with the crew in these words: “It’s a mutual, jointstock world. We cannibals must help these Christians.” Later on, Ishmael cries out, “Heaven have mercy on us all, Presbyterians and Pagans alike, for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly in need of mending.” That’s me, and that’s you, and that’s all of us.
There’s a direct line from Moby-Dick
to Ralph Ellison’s famous book Invisible Man
, whose black narrator resembles Melville’s white narrator Ishmael. The socially “invisible man” signifies the African-American experience, but his testimony has universal reverberations, with its profoundly biblical allusions and its famous last sentence, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you
?” It is in reading the great writers on the lower frequencies
that we can find ourselves, but it requires mental effort and risk. Our souls are fed through struggle, not through instant uplift. Flannery O’Connor, the illustrious writer from down the road in Milledgeville, was scornful of what she called “instant uplift.” The mass-market book you buy in the airport or the drugstore may offer entertainment or uplift to you, but it does not exact any price.
Reading literary fiction, in contrast, will cost you something.
I am not sure how much importance we should attach to “studies”; studies about what we should eat, for instance, seem to change every five years or so. But there have been some studies recently that seem to show that reading literary fiction develops empathy. There’s a popular feature in The New York Times
every Sunday where various writers tell about what they’re reading and what books changed their lives. Three weeks ago, the author was Jacqueline Woodson, a well-known African-American writer of books for adolescents. She was asked what her favorite books were as a child and she spoke of the Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Little Match Girl.” She said that “it was the first book that unlocked empathy in me.
” Note this: Hans Christian Andersen was a white man writing in Denmark in the 19th
century. And yet his story about an impoverished little girl on the streets of Copenhagen
, trying to sell matches for pennies, who ends up freezing to death in the snow, touched the heart of a young black girl in Greenville, South Carolina
That is the universality of literature. I have a friend who is a very prominent African-American lawyer in New York City. His apartment is full of books in their original jackets, each one meticulously protected with covers of Mylar sheeting that he cuts to size himself. This black man’s most beloved author is Henry James. Henry James! who wrote famously difficult novels about the 19th
century [white] upper classes. But James’ subject, as a noted Jamesian critic wrote, was “conflicts of moral character…which are universal and inevitable
…[he was like other writers] who “do not even blame God for allowing [conflicts]… they accept them as the conditions of life.
I have been thinking about Ralph Ellison’s “lower frequencies.” I’m not sure what he means by lower frequencies, but here is what it suggests to me. Something happened to my mother in old age when she lost much of her hearing, and now it is happening to me and my sister also. We are a family of classical music lovers. My mother played the piano, my father had a good ear and played a little, and my sister has a good ear and sings beautifully. I have no talent, but listening to classical music, especially opera, has been about 40% of my joy in life. I have a vast CD collection of the music that I love. About five years ago I began to realize that I couldn’t listen to it any more. It sounded absolutely dreadful, like chalk on a blackboard. Going to the opera and concerts is no longer possible for me. The cello and the clarinet are not so bad, but as for the other instruments and the human voice, which I love above all things, forget it.
This phenomenon was recently explained to me by a couple who are trained singers. They explained that no musical note is just one single sound, but a combination of sounds. Every note has an overtone and a fundamental. You can look this up; it’s very technical and I couldn’t understand it all, but the general idea is that when a person suffers from hearing loss, they hear only the overtone and not the fundamental. They are not hearing the lower frequencies. The overtone without the fundamental sounds so bad that you can’t stand to listen to it.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? Ralph Ellison’s novel about being black, Invisible Man, has become a major classic because, like all great literary novels, it has both overtones and undertones, all shades of harmonics. There is no human symphony without the lower frequencies. The lower frequencies are what make the music of humanity. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer refers to “all sorts and conditions of men.” There is no complete understanding of the human condition without the lower register–the “fundamental.”
Speaking of empathy, the novelist William Kennedy said in an interview that writing his novel Ironweed “gave me a chance to think about a world most people find worthless… The small details of that life weren’t instantly available to my imagination until I began to think seriously about what it means to sleep in the weeds on a winter night, then wake up frozen to the sidewalk. Such an education becomes part of your ongoing frame of reference in the universe.” The revered New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who grew up on a farm in North Carolina, became famous for writing about people he met on the streets of New York City. He was infuriated when someone said that his stories were about “little people.” “There are no little people in my work,” he said. “They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”
The symphony of humanity: Chaplain Erin has a quotation from Martha Berry on her office wall. It reads: “Our colleges should be miniature versions of the world we would like to see.” This is the creed of a true visionary. But how was I, growing up in a tiny, rigidly segregated town in Tidewater Virginia, supposed to envision a world of people totally unlike me? How are you, students in rural Georgia, right up against Appalachia, supposed to understand what life is like for people very different, foreign, strange, incomprehensible, threatening? Understanding other people from the inside out is only possible through literary fiction of the best kind. Not even the best biographies, not even the best films, can tell us what another person is really thinking, what motivates him, what causes her to act against her own best self, what causes people to make the same mistake over and over—in other words, what makes life so different from our most fervent wishes? The great novelists tell us this, through their capacity to imagine the inner lives of others. Supreme Court Justice William Breyer has written that reading Proust, that supreme writer of insight into the inner lives of others, was life-changing for him as a young man, and later as a lawyer and judge.
But our normal condition is not to want to know much about the inner lives of others. It is so much easier to regard them as The Other and build a wall against them. Feeling empathy for another person can shake you up and leave you feeling as if the ground is unsteady under your feet. It can therefore be very strengthening to read in common with others. I’ll bet there are people here who belong to book clubs. Some towns and cities—even New York City—have committees that pick a book and recommend that everyone in town read the same book at the same time.
The only trouble with that is that the books are sometimes picked because they are topical, or because Oprah likes them. That’s a lot better than reading mass-market fiction, but we need to stretch ourselves more. I love The Lord of the Rings
, and I’ve even written a book about it, but when someone tells me he’s read it 35 times (I’m not making this up), I’d like to send him home with War and Peace.
Some of the greatest masterpieces ask a great deal of us—for instance Faulkner’s Light in August
, or Shakespeare’s King Lear
. It’s in the liberal arts environment that such works are best valued and taught, not for what they teach us about some political perspective or other, but about what it means to be human, to see and try to understand those who are utterly unlike us—to have empathy for others. That’s advance training for life. That’s life on the lower frequencies. Such knowledge truly feeds the soul, because it is in attending carefully to something and someone outside ourselves that we truly find ourselves.
When I grew into my middle age, I spent a lot of time trying to understand my mother, whom I adored. One day she said, quietly and reflectively, “Nobody understands anybody else.” I have been thinking about that for many years. I think it’s true. I know that there is no single person that truly understands the murky depths of me, not even my sister of nearly eight decades, not even my husband of 56 years. Nobody truly understands anybody else, and yet all of us have a deep and fundamental longing to be truly understood. There is a promise in the Bible about that. St. Paul wrote, “Now I understand in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I am fully understood.” That’s from the famous chapter on love. But the chapter isn’t about love in the abstract. It’s about Jesus Christ. It is he who fully understands us and fully loves us and in his coming Kingdom, will accomplish something humanly impossible, and that is to reclaim and restore the full symphony of redeemed humanity—the new creation.
That is the promise of God. In the coming reign of Jesus Christ, the blind will see, the crippled will dance, and the deaf will be able to hear music again in company with the family of God. In the Kingdom of God we will be fully understood, and we will fully understand one another, in the light of the love of Christ the Savior. For as Flannery O’Connor wrote in one of her essays,
The Catholic [Christian] writer will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that [human life] has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”
 There is apparently more than one photo of Martha and FDR taken on this occasion. One of them is posted prominently in one of the Berry College buildings, but she looks quite serious in that picture. In the one I saw, they are twinkling at one another!
 Here’s the story as I heard it at Berry College. There was a certain amount of gossip about the unmarried Miss Berry and her devotee and patron Henry Ford, who contributed the splendid collegiate-Gothic “Ford buildings” that adorn the campus today. He also donated a number of Ford-manufactured tractors to help maintain the beautiful acreage. They turned out to be greatly inferior to John Deere tractors, but when Mr. Ford came to visit, Martha arranged for the John Deeres to be discreetly hidden and temporarily replaced by Ford tractors, decoratively placed about the campus.According to my informant, Martha cut her ties to Mr. Ford when he turned out to be an unrepentant racist and anti-Semite.
 The Wall Street Journal, Review section, September 10-11, 2016.
 From my notes, Flannery O’Connor at a “Symposium on Religion and the Arts” at Sweet Briar College, March 1963.
 The New York Times, Book Review section, August 28, 2016.
 Edmund Wilson, quoted in Lewis Dabney (a distant cousin of mine), ed., The Portable Edmund Wilson. Emphasis added.
 Quoted in John Heilpern, New York Observer, 11/15/04.
 And perhaps not incidentally, Justice Breyer, a Jew, has a daughter, Chloe, who is an Episcopal priest.
 I later learned that the freshman class at Berry, as at other some colleges, are asked to read a selected book before they arrive.
 Mystery and Manners, 146.