Intellect Does Not Exclude Empathy

This post was originally published on Peachleaves.

One of my jobs is to read papers written by senior English majors for their capstone seminars, and apply to them a rigorous rubric intended to judge how well (or if) these seniors have received the kind of training our department would like to give them.  The papers are widely varied; this week I read as many fabulous papers about Nabokov’s Lolita as completely abysmal and demoralizing ones.

But one of the fabulous papers made me smile broadly, because the author pointed out that Humbert Humbert’s character is doubly a seducer: he engineers his “romance” with Lolita, but he also cajoles and flatters the reader into seeing from his perspective.  Therefore, if readers who conclude from this story that Humbert is a victim of love, ravaged by a vicious little girl’s wiles – and many well-known critics have indeed argued – then those readers have been hoodwinked.

This paper brought to mind a particular afternoon I spent studying in a coffee shop.  The barista had a copy of Lolita ostentatiously planted on the countertop, inviting customers to comment.  I did not ask what he thought of it.  The next customer did, and the barista replied “I think it’s hilarious.”

In places, it is.  Or at least, it solicits humor.  It is frequently bombastic, occasionally charming, and yes, seductive.  But to read it only for these qualities is to miss a lot of the point.  I rankled when the barista made this pronouncement, but I didn’t get into a discussion about it.  I fully expected I would be told that I was taking a delicious literary classic too seriously.

And I have wonder, why is it that the argument with the least emotional power wins?  Why is it that the so-called rational reading is the one that reads only for humor, and not for empathy?  What is the point of reading, anyway, if not to identify keenly with another voice – even, in the case of Lolita, a submerged and suppressed voice?

Sometimes I think that teaching empathy is a form of activism.  Reading closely and reading completely does not preclude reading with feeling.  My Intro Lit class this semester, as a group, seems to have a grip on that – they felt very sorry for the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” very much more so than I suspect Flannery O’Conner did, but I admire their apparent instinct to identify with other human beings.


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