Right now I'm rereading May Sarton's Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (Norton, 1993). Sarton's later journals have a certain amount of intrinsic interest insofar as they describe her struggle with bad health and her reflections on aging. She had a relatively easy time of it nevertheless, with a large and faithful support network, who enabled her to live at home and by herself (more or less, if you overlook the many people passing through with food and entertainment, assisting with cleaning and gardening and transcribing the journals (after her stroke she began dictating them): most never-married old people don't have that. And even so, the later journals often read like thank-you notes to her friends and helpers and caretakers and other people she interacted with, as if she unconsciously feared that failing to name every benefactor and helper would result in a loss of their support. But maybe I'm just imagining that.
She also discusses art, politics, and culture, and as often as not I disagree with her. One of her correspondents
had the kindness to copy out, from a book by Piero Ferrucci called Inevitable Grace, something which goes right to the state of myself, my health and my life, in a marvelous way. The beginning of the quotation from Ferrucci is "Empathy, however, is no solitary event. On the contrary, it is that which permits artists to feel and express the most concealed needs, pains and dreams of a whole society. The aim of the poet, says Pablo Neruda, is to embody hope for the people, to be one leaf in the great tree of humanity." Then Ferrucci quotes from Neruda: "'My reward is the momentous occasion when, from the depths of a coal mine, a man came up out of the tunnel into the full sunlight and the fiery nitrate field as if rising out of hell, his face disfigured by his work, his eyes inflamed by the dust and, stretching his rough hands out to me, a hand whose callouses and lines traced the map of the pampas. He said to me, his eyes shining, "I have known you for a long time, my brother!" That is the laurel crown of my poetry, that opening in the bleak pampas from which a worker emerges, who has been told often by the wind in the night and the stars of Chile: you are not alone, there is a poet whose thoughts are with you in your suffering.'" And back to Ferrucci: "Empathy then is an expansion of consciousness. Through the faculty we are able to become one with trees and ants and elephants, birds, rivers and seas, children and old people, men and women, suffering and joyful people, rainbows and galaxies. Thus we become able to breathe and live in other things or to find them within ourselves, as in a living microcosm in the most unlikely face, in the strangest of situations, in the remotest places, we discover ourselves and once we reach this point there need never again be the feeling that we are strangers in a strange land." It is a good Sunday sermon, isn't it? [24-25]It's a sermon, all right, but I don't think it's a good one. I suspect the trouble may lie partly in the translation, as I presume Ferrucci writes in Italian. (He's a philosopher and psychotherapist who's evidently lived all his life in Italy.) So it might be that "Empathy, however, is no solitary event" should be something like "no isolated event", in the sense of being a process rather than a one-time event. Whatever. Of course empathy is a relation between two or more people, so it could hardly be solitary.
I don't believe that writers are necessarily particularly empathetic as writers -- many of us are ferociously egoistic, which is necessary to find the time to be solitary and construct our faery castles of words. (Sarton herself doesn't seem very empathetic.) Nor do I believe that the response of their readers has much to do with empathy, from either end. When a reader feels directly addressed by a work, is that because the author empathized with him or her? Or did the writer dig into him or herself, and find feelings and traits that he or she turns out to have in common with others? I vote for the latter. I'm no Neruda, but my experience is that when I've written most personally and idiosyncratically, that's when other people tell me they felt addressed by my work. For that reason I don't suppose that when I feel that something could have been written about me, the author must have been thinking about me. That experience has improved my own capacity for empathy, I think, when it took the next step and realized that feelings that I thought were unique to me, that isolated me, were really feelings I share with much or most of humanity.
Did that miner really know Neruda? I doubt it. Is that conviction that a stranger (maybe a long-dead stranger, or one in another country writing in another language) knows you, really about empathy? Sarton and other writers have had reason to complain about readers who showed up at their doorstep without advance notice, demanding personal attention and mothering, because they felt that the work was about and for them, commanding them to make an appearance. (A recurring theme in Sarton's journals is her guilt at not being able to answer all the letters she receives from fans.) Sometimes these fans were indignant when the writer had a schedule of his or her own, needs of his or her own, and couldn't give them what they thought they were entitled to. Is that knowing? Is it empathy? I don't believe so. It looks like self-absorption to me, and like a child's insistence that his mother give him all her attention. That's understandable in children, not in adults. Sarton also complained that many of her readers misunderstand her journals as celebrations of her own strength, self-sufficiency, and tranquility, even though she worked hard to describe her anger, depression, loneliness, and anguish when the Muse failed her.
Can I, as a writer or as a reader, really empathize with rainbows and galaxies? Not, it seems to me, without doing violence to the word empathy. A rainbow can't empathize with us; it has no mind. We have enough to be getting on with just empathizing with other human beings.
Sarton said in her journals and in her interviews that she thought her work had value because it had affected the lives of her readers, and I'll go along with that. I read her myself, after all, for insights into aging, the single life, and other topics that matter to me personally; not for her prose style or her formal brilliance. That's true for other writers I'm fond of too. But I look for other things in art as well. One of Marge Piercy's characters says in Woman on the Edge of Time that no single work can tell all truth -- that's for the whole culture to try to do. Some writers I read for the beauty of their sentences, for example, though I'm also glad when those beautiful sentences move me and seem to speak about my life. As a writer I hope to convey something to my readers, but I don't know what it will be; sometimes they find something in what I've written that I didn't intend, or didn't know I was putting into it.