Wednesday, April 08, 2009

That old devil called compassion

At the conclusion of the first part of Hemingway’s posthumously published Islands in the Stream, the protagonist, Thomas Hudson, has just discovered that his two sons and his ex-wife have been killed in a car accident. The boys had previously spent the summer with him, and the whole of the preceding chapters had been devoted to their adventures. Although there was an inevitability about their deaths – portents were everywhere – it comes as a shock. This being Hemingway, of course, the men are men, so you do not expect wailing and uncontrolled lamentation. This is how Thomas Hudson’s emotions are described:

“I’ll do everything,” Eddy [Thomas Hudson’s cook] said. “But I don’t give a shit about anything any more.”
“I don’t either,” said Thomas Hudson.
“We’ve got young Tom.”
“For the time being,” Thomas Hudson said and for the first time he looked straight down the long and perfect perspective of the blankness ahead.

That last line is beautiful. It is unself-pitying, undramatic, raw and honest. It suggests the terrible ache that now and forever will surround this man. In the next few pages Thomas Hudson tries to react as you would expect of a Hemingway character. He tells himself time will heal, so he must simply count down the days until the pain ends; he drinks, he reads; he finds ways to cope. But this single sentence has cut to the core of the man and we know as well as he does that the brave front he is presenting is nothing more than that. That line is a magical moment in prose, because it somehow creates an invisible link between the reader and the character. I understand, you want to say. Sorry is irrelevant, implicit.

It seems to me genuinely to capture that most elusive of human emotions, compassion. Compassion has many vulgar cousins which are often mistaken for it – the ‘I feel your pain’ school of emoting – and because of this it is sometimes frowned upon by people who should know better. True compassion is a wonderful and, I think, uniquely human trait. It is the ability to see events from the perspective of someone else, but with a vision that encompasses their views of the past, present and future; that is, to understand, even to share their hopes, and to see how those hopes are helplessly shaped by events, to see the bifurcation in the road that represents the radiant hope and the blank actuality, the diversion from the dream into the true life that unfolds. Thomas Hudson had anticipated his boys becoming men; now, he – and we – must look forward only to blankness.

I am reminded once more of a quote from Flannery O’Connor that I have highlighted before, because I think it reflects an indifference bordering on cruelty. She wrote:

It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.

I have always found that quote repugnant. That a Christian writer should write of compassion in a pejorative sense, or to consider it a weakness, seems entirely at odds with the tenets of her religion. That aside, I think her argument is unsound. It would be difficult to argue a case for Ernest Hemingway, of all people, being weak or hazy, or not being definite about his views, and yet here is a clear example of compassion – an O’Connor indicator, remember, of weakness and haziness – in his writing. Moreover, I have demonstrated that it is possible to ‘put my finger’ on exactly where and how that compassion is projected, and the effect that it has on the reader. There is no mawkish sentimentalism in the Hemingway passage, and the reader is not being invited to see the protagonist in anything other than the stark terms of the loss that he is enduring. Hemingway then goes on to portray the human weakness that undoubtedly resides in Thomas Hudson and never, at any stage, seeks to ‘excuse’ it, or to use the deaths and our reaction to them to change our views of him. His weakness remains and we, the readers, accept it, and yet we still feel compassion for this lonely man at this most solitary of moments. There is a beauty about that which is almost entirely absent in the works of Flannery O’Connor.

Death, of course, surrounds Flannery O’Connor’s work: for a Catholic, death is the stuff of life. And yet, throughout her ouevre, throughout the death and destruction, there is almost never any consideration of the human – as opposed to metaphysical – cost of all that loss. In her attempt to understand the unknowable, to play in God’s sandpit, there is a wilful inability to comprehend the dynamics of the human psyche on a human level. Thus, although there is death all around, there is precious little sorrow. Because she sees this mortal coil as only the anteroom to God’s Life Everlasting, she stubbornly refuses to consider her characters – or to allow us to – from the shifting perspective of time: there is no fork in the road for literalists like O’Connor, there is only the road and it only leads to one place.

From memory, I can think of only one O’Connor story in which there is some sense of change in the human emotions wrought by death. A Late Encounter With The Enemy is a remarkable story. It retains all the bite of a typical O’Connor piece, and yet the reader is drawn into the emotional scene more fully than is usual for her. There is a poignancy to the death from a stroke of the General as he watches his granddaughter’s graduation. His memory, as it slowly slides into darkness, conflates his Civil War past and the procession of modern-day graduands, and thus we are being presented with the past – and its defeated disappointments – the present, and the future, in the shape of the graduating students. Ironically, as O’Connor beautifully portrays the disintegration of this man’s mind, we are drawn irrevocably into it, and he becomes more real than any other O’Connor character.

Similarly, McCarthy’s work majors on death and the transition from this place to the next, wherever that might be – and that, one senses, is a matter of more uncertainty for him than it was for O’Connor – and he, too, generally displays the same lack of a human perspective. While the myriad deaths in his novels matter at some level – either metaphysical or arguably, in Blood Meridian, on a national scale – it is the personal context that seems lacking. Death seems to matter so little to characters in McCarthy’s novels. They don’t even appear to endure pain, far less sorrow. There seems a resolute unwillingness to deal with characters as individuals, as human beings with pasts, presents and futures. Things happen, and characters appear to show neither surprise nor regret nor disappointment. Remembering Hemingway’s line – ‘for the first time he looked straight down the long and perfect perspective of the blankness ahead’ – I can recall few instances in McCarthy where I have been similarly drawn into the consciousness of a character and felt so deeply moved.

The man and his son in The Road spring to mind, certainly. One might argue that the ending of Child of God achieves it, when Lester Ballard sees the boy on the bus and the boy – his double, perhaps – turns and looks back at him. That may be soand yet it feels small emotional reward for the litany of murder and degradation that preceded it. Or Suttree, perhaps, the most human of McCarthy’s characters, in his relationship with the feckless Harrogate, especially later on when he is forced, highly reluctantly, to assume the role of father-figure. But no specific instance comes to mind. Or perhaps Suttree’s relationship with the Indian, who he hopes might reach out and shake Suttree’s hand, literally a hand reaching out through the loneliness. That moment, definitely, could be conceded. One might consider the many acts of kindness which follow Rinthy in Outer Dark in her pathetic search for her child, but she remains resolutely unaware of them and it is difficult, then, for the reader to empathise. The kindly judge at the end of All The Pretty Horses, who shows some understanding of and sympathy for John Grady, could certainly be considered a compassionate character, but we are digging deep into McCarthy’s ouevre now in search of something that, I would argue, should be intrinsic to the human experience. Much death, so little consequence.

So are there examples I have missed? Or have misinterpreted? Thoughts welcome.


Brad Green said...

As always, an excellent post. Rawlins in All the Pretty Horses has a few moments wherein he allows a purely human reaction to surface. He's troubled by the death of Blevins as much as he was troubled by his life. He was affected and many times the same can't really be claimed for John Grady. I can't recall exactly where it occurred, but there was a particular scene (perhaps it was after the boys had been fighting in prison) where Rawlins looks up at John Grady with tears in his eyes. Now, he's not bawling by any means, but he's suffering and hurt and he shows it.

There's so little of that human aspect to loss and pain in McCarthy's work that it really stands out when it occurs.

The Road is ripe with love and want and rage but it's always presented in a hushed manner. As it should be there. People that have been through such devastation are usually beyond a good cry. If you take that thought and extrapolate it throughout his works, I suppose one can justify the lack of human response in the wasteland he portrays because that wasteland is eternal. No mercurial flash of despair there -- it's all unabating woe that leatherizes a soul.

Court said...

Nice catch out of Islands in the Stream; I didn't get much from that drearily overwritten piece of the latter Hem. (Which, to be fair, I don't think he edited himself in his lifetime.) On the whole I found the traffic-accident trope a touch too convenient, but I'll have to go back and take a look at it again.

I'm not as well-versed in O'Connor as you, but I think there's compassion in her short stories. Only, it's only angled to the characters she has pre-selected as "good" or "worthy." Which is one of her weaknesses as a writer, seems to me, as you point out.

As for McCarthy, I can't much make out what his true "concerns" are, other than an obsession with darkness, death, and pain. If there's little or no overt compassion in his works, it's because he never crafts characters capable of expressing it. (Though that doesn't mean they aren't capable of feeling it.) This is a fault of vision, perhaps; but it is by such intense focus on a narrow range of human existence that McCarthy achieves the sublime moments he does, I think.

Great post, thanks.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks guys, useful points as ever.

Rawlins is an interesting one, especially the antipathy he seems to feel (largely unexplained) for Blevins. I guess McCarthy may be using that to counterpoint the more positive feelings he has towards John Grady. I don't recall that specific scene when he has tears in his eyes, but it's worth hunting it down. I'll have a look.

The Road is such an odd book, I think. The guy undoubtedly feels love for the son, but is he really a good guy, and is he really doing the best for the boy? He intends to, sure, but does he?

Yes, I agree Islands in the Stream is not great. I think you're right, it wasn't edited by him, and I'm sure he would have edited hard given the chance. But some of it is still great. I think the fish catching chapter is terrific, very exciting. I enjoyed it more than Old Man and the Sea, to be honest.

The car crash is indeed too convenient, too, but at least he didn't linger on it. You could tell at least one of the kids was going to die, and I was dreading a dragged-out death scene.

I think O'Connor and McCarthy are quite similar in the way they manage the fates of their characters, and what happens to them happens regardless. The result, in O'Connor, is often two-dimensional and unconvincing (I never did believe the Haze Motes eye-acid bit). Less so in McCarthy, but it still feels like a weakness to me - his characters don't seem to breathe the same air that I do.