Sontag, Baldwin, hooks: On Reading As a Gateway to Empathy and Love

Susan Sontag had a writing mind like no other that I’ve encountered. She was a force, a magnetic personality born with an insatiable urge for knowledge, and she dedicated her life to developing a brilliant intellectual mind. Her body of work speaks volumes of the manner in which she analyzed matters that concerned her. The only living writer I would ever compare to Sontag would be Siri Hustvedt, yet another force of authorial brilliance. There are many wonderful passages in Sontag’s oeuvre which mesmerize me in such a way that it sometimes takes me days to work it all through in my head. Reading is never the difficult part; truly understanding something always is. Especially something that exerts empathy on your part. In this text I share with you one her quotes that has touched my soul:

Literature can train and exercise our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

It made me think of another great string of thoughts by James Baldwin, who was a literary giant of his own merit :

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

I’d say the two bits might contain some of the most important meditations on reading, its role, and the merit of the whole process. E m p a t h y is what comes along with reading voraciously and diversely. These are testing times, as terrifying as centuries and decades have been for many who have unjustly been subjected to the process of ‘othering’ regardless of the criteria (plural!) in question (race, ethnicity, religious preferences, gender… you name it). Knowledge and acting on it is all humanity has; a sharp and informed mind is a force to be reckoned with. And so is an empathetic heart! Read, read, and read.

 

As bell hooks has noted,

Making the choice to love can heal our wounded spirits and our body politic. It is the deepest revolution, the turning away from the world as we know it, toward the world we must make if we are to be one with the planet – our healing heart giving and sustaining life. Love is our hope and our salvation.

Concluding from all that I’ve stated, the matter is simple:

Reading = empathy = love = salvation.

Four words that can change our life, and the lives of others, particularly those who we don’t know and never hear about or from, because they have not been given the space to verbalize their pain. As Baldwin has wisely stated, pain is not unprecedented, regardless of the fact that it may appear to be the case, and it might be our job as “members of the human race” to work on our ability to feel empathy, to understand pain other than our own. We are all suffering and hurting in a particular way, and it is our job to save each other, because no one else will ever do the work for us. We are the ones who must conquer the generic ways of creating centers of privilege. As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats stated in his poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

 

As I’m sitting in my flat in Belgrade writing this piece, it seems to me that the screams are not so silent anymore.

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Sanja Gligorić

Sanja Gligorić obtained her BA and MA in English Language, Literature and Culture at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, where she is currently studying for a PhD in Literature. She has presented papers at various international conferences and is the author of a bilingual monograph on Virginia Woolf. She enjoys reading, writing and translating.