Los Angeles Review of Books

IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH of the mass shooting in Oregon, President Obama momentarily broke from the usual political script. Standing behind his lectern, shoulders and face drawn down, he stated what he believed was obvious to all: “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation and the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”

The president’s remarks as easily apply to the many other self-inflicted horrors humankind now confronts. Most immediately, the Syrian refugee crisis has wrought a new iconography of inhumanity, whether it is the barbed wire strung across Europe to welcome Syrians attempting to flee their native bloodlands, or the lifeless body of the drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi, crumpled and splayed on the Turkish beach. More distant, yet terribly insistent, has been the blaze of stories spurred by global warming, ranging from the pounding drought and fires on the West Coast to biblical rains and flooding on the East Coast.

The mass media, it seems, will never run short of opportunities to numb us. But are we, in fact, numbed? We should be so lucky. Numbness would show that we had been paying attention, and yet as the sense of these words reveals, we have failed in both respects.

Rooted in Middle English, numb derives from “nim” — a word that, for Chaucer’s contemporaries, meant to take or pilfer. We are numbed when something essential — our sensations and thoughts, say, or our capacity to care and pity — has been taken away from us. It is numbness that fills Emily Dickinson’s “hour of lead,” the moment that “Freezing persons recollect the Snow — / First—Chill—then Stupor—then letting go.”

Dickinson’s sonnet — to her chagrin, perhaps — offers the clinical criteria for compassion fatigue. This term, much in the news, describes the state of emotional stupor that can affect those who work closely with traumatized individuals. Over time, caregivers find they have no more care to give; they lose the capacity for compassion; they let go. Harrowed by others’ pain, they are overcome by a “formal feeling” and on whom “the Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.”

But I confess that, of late, this has not been my inner state. The media’s staging of the desperate and dead have not robbed me of care or pity. How could they? What the media has stolen from me is the world and time to make sense of these images. I have become a moving target, spending my days surrounded by screens across which tumble endless images and empty patter. Endlessly distracted and derailed, how can I possibly reflect long enough to experience shock? Or, more to the point, how can I make sense of the initial shock?

We might pose the question to the ancient Greeks — or, at least, to those who bumped into Socrates and experienced the sort of shock that we now lack. Comparing himself to a horsefly, Socrates spent his life stinging, through questioning, his fellow Athenians into awareness. Even less becoming comparisons came to the minds of those he stung; one unhappy victim likened Socrates to a cuttlefish whose questions had numbed him. But this is the raison d’être of Socratic dialogue: to shock the interlocutor to attention. Attention is key, for it is by attending to others and the world that we see the import — and importance — of the question at hand. For some, like the slave boy in the Meno, the shock is welcomed; for others, like Anytus in the same dialogue — who turns his back on Socrates — the shock instead is wasted. (Or worse than wasted: biding his time, Anytus stepped up at Socrates’ trial as one of his principal accusers.)

Of course, in 399 BCE, Athenians had much on their minds: military defeat, foreign occupation, and a reign of terror among other things. What they didn’t have were our omnipresent screens — big and small, strapped to wrists and embedded in walls in our private and public spaces — and the ramifying web of social media inoculating us, for better and worse, against the potentially beneficial results of shock. It is less that the medium has become the message than that the medium no longer allows us to dwell on the message. Not having stood still long enough to be numbed, we suffer not from compassion fatigue but instead from a kind of attention deficit disorder — one that cannot be treated with Ritalin. Instead, we must allow ourselves to be shocked and open what Dickinson called “the Valves of attention.”

Of course, the valves are easily overwhelmed in a world overrun by televised spectacles. This is not, however, a matter of changing channels. Binging on news cables like CNN will clog, not cleanse, these valves. Instead, it is a matter of changing our relationship to the world. This is not simply a matter of turning off our screens, but also turning on our capacity for attention. By attention, the French thinker Simone Weil understood the act of patience — our waiting upon the world — as well as the role of desire: our wish to be in and to be open to the world. Attention, Weil wrote, was “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” To be truly attentive is demanding — so demanding, she argued, that the self “detests paying attention even more than the body dislikes fatigue.”

Is it any wonder that, in order not to be attentive — not to be shocked — we frantically flit from screen to screen, image to image, and text to text? The screens don’t rob us of our attentiveness, they enable our selfishness.

Iris Murdoch, whose work was deeply influenced by Weil, argued that seeing the world justly was the condition sine qua non for acting justly in that world. At the end of the day, virtue is the “attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” In her novels no less than her philosophical essays, Murdoch showed how our moral character grows only when the valves of attention are open, allowing us to see the world — and ourselves — clearly. “Where virtue is concerned,” she affirmed, “we often apprehend more than we clearly understand and grow by looking.”

From seeing rightly flows the stuff with which we weave webs of value. When human conversation and inner reflection, dialogues with others and dialogues with one’s own self shape our lives, these webs of value grow more complex and varied. Tellingly, for both Murdoch and Weil, reading also deepens and sharpens our capacity to attend to others. Weil suggested that reading books is akin to reading the world. It is not just that reading literature is a training ground for moral and emotional judgment, but that it also reminds us how we ought to be in the world. Just as a book grips us when we give ourselves over to it, so too does the world seize us when we open ourselves to it. Reading well, Weil believed, meant nothing less than seeing well.

In her remarkable book The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch echoed Weil’s conviction. “The most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature,” she declared, “since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.” Of course, it might appear self-serving for a prolific novelist like Murdoch to make such a claim. Yet, scientific studies now confirm what Weil and Murdoch already knew: reading about the world and characters in great fiction is an apprenticeship for understanding the world and our fellow human beings. Two years ago, the psychologists Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd published an article on this topic in Science magazine. In their research, they found that people who read literature show greater empathy and emotional intelligence than those who read, say, whodunits or potboilers, or those who simply do not read or surf the internet.

Murdoch, who insisted it would “always be more important to know about Shakespeare than to know about any scientist,” would have smiled at these findings. But for those of us less certain about the uses of literature and demands of attention, they might serve as, well, a salutary shock. And not, it is to be hoped, the last one. As we attend and read, other shocks will ineluctably follow — how could they not? — and perhaps even momentary numbness. With all due respect to the president, this is to be embraced, as a sign that we are in the world, and not its increasingly distracted tenants.


Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College, University of Houston.

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