Emotions, like clothing and wine, are subject to fashions, though not so much emotions as their appearance. Chief among today’s fashionable emotions is a self-flattering hybrid of sensitivity and compassion. Master the correct facial and linguistic expressions and you too can be mistaken for Gandhi’s brother. On Tuesday, I witnessed such a performance when an angry narcissist made all the appropriate sounds and was congratulated on the depth of her selfless caring, thus adding a second layer of fraud to the proceedings. In a recent post Elberry places such posturing in a literary context:
“Chekhov was wasted on me in my youth: surface energy (rhetoric) meant more to me than subtlety and uncluttered observation. Today i was struck by the extent of his compassion, almost divine in its pervasive, unobtrusive influence. He writes of appalling human beings without apparent judgement or disgust. And yet it is not that he lacks affect; this is no unfeeling lens. It is rather an ability to see people as they are, as extending beyond one’s vision into the darkness of the soul, where - one might say - only god can rightly see and judge.”
This is shrewd, mature critical judgment. I share Elberry’s evolving relations with Chekhov. I respected him when young and recognized his power but tucked him in the obligatory file labeled “Great Russian Writer.” Today, in my pantheon, he ranks supreme among fiction writers. Part of the reason is precisely the “almost divine” sense of compassion cited by Elberry, combined with an unblinking narrative gaze. I’ve learned to beware of workers in my field – educating damaged children – who feel compelled to parade their compassion and selflessness. They (admittedly, a minority) put more energy into looking good than doing good. The same is true of do-gooder writers who wish to position themselves most advantageously in the compassion sweepstakes. Elberry’s father, like Chekhov, seems to have been a doctor of the old school, for whom professional competence was the sincerest form of compassion. Of course, the wish to appear sensitive long ago infected the ranks of physicians. Compassion is an action not a self-regarding pose for the likes of Dr. Elberry:
“My father, like Chekhov, was a doctor. He also tended to reserve judgement, i think because so many of his patients were drug addicts or violent criminals that judgement would quickly have overwhelmed the clarity he needed for his work. It wasn’t that he was oblivious to a patient’s character as that he witheld condemnation because it was irrelevant. He wasn’t what i would call compassionate; he was businesslike in his work, without any theory of doing good or helping humanity: it was what he was good at, what he enjoyed, and i think his patients appreciated the sense that he was a good businessman, his business being Medicine. So when he gets on a bus, passengers often recognise him from 15 or more years ago, and offer him their seats. And yet, he was simply doing his job.”
Based on Elberry’s description, his father sounds pragmatically, not histrionically, compassionate. In this, he brings to mind two other doctors: Johnson and Dalrymple, neither of whom gave a damn about striking an altruistic pose.