27 Jul 2018

The Limits of Human Sympathy

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Giuseppi Marc’Antonio Baretti (1719-1789) after an affray in Haymarket was tried for murder but acquitted in 1769.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), recording a conversation that took place on October 19, 1769:

Talking of our feeling for the distresses of others;—JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, there is much noise made about it, but it is greatly exaggerated. No, Sir, we have a certain degree of feeling to prompt us to do good: more than that, Providence does not intend. It would be misery to no purpose.’ BOSWELL. ‘But suppose now, Sir, that one of your intimate friends were apprehended for an offence for which he might be hanged.’ JOHNSON. ‘I should do what I could to bail him, and give him any other assistance; but if he were once fairly hanged, I should not suffer.’ BOSWELL. ‘Would you eat your dinner that day, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; and eat it as if he were eating it with me. Why, there’s Baretti, who is to be tried for his life to-morrow, friends have risen up for him on every side; yet if he should be hanged, none of them will eat a slice of plumb-pudding the less. Sir, that sympathetic feeling goes a very little way in depressing the mind.’

I told him that I had dined lately at Foote’s, who shewed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern which he felt on account of ’This sad affair of Baretti,’ begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle-shop. JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged, and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle-man has kept Davies from sleep; nor does he know himself. And as to his not sleeping, Sir; Tom Davies is a very great man; Tom has been upon the stage, and knows how to do those things. I have not been upon the stage, and cannot do those things.’ BOSWELL. ‘I have often blamed myself, Sir, for not feeling for others as sensibly as many say they do.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, don’t be duped by them any more. You will find these very feeling people are not very ready to do you good. They pay you by feeling.’

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Mme Verdurin

À la recherche du temps perdu, Vol. VII, Le Temps Retrouvé, Chapter II, “M. de Charlus pendant la guerre; ses opinions, ses plaisirs” (ca. 1920):

These Verdurins (and then Mme Verdurin on her own, after her husband’s death) hosted dinner parties, and M. de Charlus pursued his pleasures, while hardly reflecting on the fact that the Germans—immobilized, to be sure, by a bloody barrier that was constantly being rebuilt—were only an hour’s car drive away from Paris. And yet it must be admitted that the Verdurins were indeed thinking about this because they had a political salon where the situation of not only the army but also of the navy was discussed each evening. They really were thinking about those hecatombs of annihilated regiments, of drowned ship passengers; but an inverse operation multiplies what impinges on our well-being to such an extent and divides what does not impinge on it by such a colossal figure that the death of millions of strangers is whispered to us as softly as and almost less disagreeably than a draught of air. Mme Verdurin, suffering from her migraines on account of not having a croissant to dunk in her café au lait, had obtained from Cottard a prescription that allowed her to order them at a certain restaurant of which we have spoken. This prescription had been as difficult to obtain from the authorities as the nomination of a general. She received her first croissant on the morning when the newspapers reported on the sinking of the Lusitania. As she dunked the croissant in the coffee and repeatedly flicked her newspaper to keep it spread flat without having to leave off dunking, she said: ‘How horrible! This is more horrible than the most terrible tragedy imaginable.’ But the death of all those drowning victims must not have seemed more than a billionth of its actual magnitude to her, for as she engaged in these dolorous reflections with her mouth full, the expression that was floating on the surface of her face—an expression probably brought there by the flavor of the croissant, so preciously curative of migraines—was actually one of mild satisfaction.

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George F. Kennan (1904-2005).

George F. Kennan. Memoirs—1925-1950 (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1967), p. 432.

Darkness had now fallen. Reuter left. His place was taken by dinner guests, this time from the foreign colony. I had known them before, at another post. With their arrival, talk turned to the usual foreign colony gossip and chitchat. Forgotten were the ruin and desolation outside, forgotten—the two and a half million people who lived round about in hardship and uncertainty, forgotten—the great planes whose motors could be heard overhead at exact intervals of three minutes as they swept through the rain and the gloom. I marveled at the stubborn inertia of the social habits of us Anglo-Saxons, and asked myself the despairing question: How many more catastrophes would yet have to occur, how many more cities would have to be smashed, how much more horrible and insistent would have to become the visible evidences of cruelty and suffering in this world before we could be brought to stop handing each other drinks and discussing through the long evenings the price of antiques, the inadequacies of servants, and the availability of cosmetics in the PX.

HT: Ratak Monodosico.

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One Feedback on "The Limits of Human Sympathy"

nightspore

Very nice. But aren’t we all like this?



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