IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Elaine Scarry: Using art to encourage empathy

The problem that’s gripped Harvard English Professor Elaine Scarry, 61, is why many people lack the empathetic storyteller’s sense of “generous imaginings.”  Contribute magazine has her story in the final installment of the Storytellers series.
/ Source: Contribute Magazine

The problem that’s gripped Harvard English Professor Elaine Scarry, 61, is why many people lack the empathetic storyteller’s sense of “generous imaginings.” She says, “Pushkin provided a stunning portrait of how we come out of the opera weeping with compassion for those on the stage, not seeing the cab-driver and horses who are freezing from their long wait to carry us home.”

There are serious difficulties in imagining other people. “We know that by our ability to injure them. 600,000 Iraqis have been injured. Even in the case of people we really love, it’s hard to imagine how sometimes a word we say might injure them. Multiply that inability by the effort of trying to imagine people in a distant country and culture.” The late Susan Sontag called Scarry’s book on this subject, “The Body in Pain,” “extraordinary, large-spirited, and heroically truthful.”

Applying the expertise of close reading of stories, she has come to understand why we fail at this task — and the cost of failure. “People can’t imagine a bad event in the future.” And so, politicians have learned to infantilize the population, “to read them out of the most important deliberations we have,” the limitations on our freedom and what this will mean over time and continued erosion. “Law after law is being broken. Things happen in a way that outpace people’s ability to respond to them.

‘Rotation of the nouns’
“The human capacity to injure other people has always been greater than its ability to imagine other people,” says Scarry. To expand our imaginations, Scarry suggests an exercise called “rotation of the nouns.” An event occurring between the United States and Somalia would be reversed. Or, if you read about a Turkish person’s house firebombed in France, you would imagine how you would feel if it were a Parisian diplomat’s house firebombed by a Turk.

Beauty is another way to increase generous imaginings. “If people become cut off from the love of beauty, that sabotages their love of the world and increases their willingness to compromise it,” she says.

As a testimony to the impact of her hybrid approach — literary and legal study of constitutions and consent to governance, Scarry has an unusually high number of graduate students at Harvard, perhaps more than anyone in the world-famous English department.

”Justice and fairness involve a symmetry in all our relations with others,” she says. “Every account of justice requires a symmetry of relationships: between crime and punishment, expectations and fulfillment. Many forms of beauty involve symmetry, like octahedrons.

“But in this country people are impatient with the word symmetry; it’s now that we are in an asymmetrical relationship with the world, that’s why we turn off from it. A major percent of the wealth is owned by a miniscule percent of the population. Or the staggering inequality of weapons. If we lose a sense of beauty, we lose a sense of symmetry in all our relationships. Looking at beauty reminds you what fairness is.”

Scarry’s students call her brilliant and unafraid of controversy. Her critic’s eye reframes the words people often use to pat themselves on the back. Several glamorous vocabularies, she says, help to ensure separation; authenticity instills in young people a dread of being “inauthentic” or “unreal.” It prescribes for them, she says, the conservative obligation to reenact and perpetuate the racial, religious, or linguistic preferences of their parents or grandparents. It urges sameness, Scarry says — and discourages shaping one’s fate through allegiances with others. “Should we hope that a president, faced with authorizing the firing of nuclear weapons, will have the imaginative powers to picture other people in their full density of concerns?”

One can hope. When the imagination fails, says Scarry, “the law says you don’t have to be able to imagine me. You just can’t kill me. It doesn’t matter whether you like others or not.”

The Federalist Papers, Scarry says, written as essays in advocacy on behalf of the Constitution at the time of its ratification, continually asks the questions: What kind of arrangement will produce a noble and generous people? and why does a noble and generous people inflict harm? “That is why laws are needed,” says Scarry, “to complete the work begun by stories.”

Harriet Rubin writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, (Doubleday, 1997), and Dante in Love (Simon & Schuster, 2005), among other books.