On compassion as co-feeling

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. — Fyodor Tyutchev [/feature_headline]

In 1978 my father, Sergey Maslov, started a small underground (samizdat) magazine in St.Petersburg (then Leningrad), called ‘Summa’ (‘The Sum’). It was a really small affair: only eight copies ‘printed’ (meaning ‘typewritten’), four for Leningrad and four for Moscow.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death's eternal cold
Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas

Typewritten copies, sometimes barely readable: that’s the form our most interesting reading took in those days. That’s how I first read Orwell’s “1984”, and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and even something as seemingly apolitical and innocent as Nabokov’s “The Gift”. Since the copies were so scarce, one often had to read really fast (it wasn’t unusual to get a book for one night only). Both production and distribution of these uncensored texts were punishable offences, because they were deemed, by virtue of being uncensored, “anti-Soviet” (the reading of them, remarkably, wasn’t illegal).

My father started “The Sum” because he painfully felt the chasm between two schools of free (uncensored) political thought: atheist, Europe-oriented liberals and orthodox, conservative, anti-Western “Slavophils”. This chasm began when Peter the Great first tried to “westernise” his empire in the beginning of the eighteenth century, and then kept reemerging whenever a brief period of even limited political freedom occurred in the Russian history. As crippled as the freedom was in the seventies, it was still a freedom compared with Stalin’s times — and the chasm was there again. “The Sum” was an attempt to heal it, to inspire mutual understanding, and my father used the Russian word for compassion to describe the only path to it he saw.

Although I translated the Russian word he used (сочувствие) correctly just now, it has a broader semantic range than the English ‘compassion’. At one point in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Milan Kundera halts the story to make a similar linguistic point. Here is what he says:

“All languages that derive from Latin form the word ‘compassion’ by combining the prefix meaning ‘with’ (com-) and the root meaning ‘suffering’ (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance — this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means ‘feeling’ (Czech sou-cit, Polish współ-czucie, German Mit-gefühl, Swedish med-känsla). In languages that derive from Latin, ‘compassion’ means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathise with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, ‘pity’, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer (French, pitié; Italian, pieta; etc.). ‘To take pity on a woman’ means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

That is why the word ‘compassion’ generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.

In languages that form the word ‘compassion’ not from the root ‘suffering’ but from the root for ‘feeling’, the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion — joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, Polish współczucie, German Mitgefühl, Swedish medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”

Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915.
Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915. 80.5×99.5 cm.

English, of course, doesn’t (strictly speaking) derive from Latin, but it has a long-standing habit of borrowing words without translating them part-by-part, and that’s how Middle English borrowed the word ‘compassion’ from Old French. Its inner structure has had no power over its meaning, since the word ‘suffer’, albeit also originally from Latin, had been borrowed even earlier, via the Anglo-Norman route. I suppose ‘compassion’ could have linked itself to the word ‘passion’ in the course of language evolution, but it didn’t — so for the sake of Kundera’s sweeping comparison, English belongs with French and Italian.

I am not completely sure Kundera is right about all languages that created this word by translating its components (as with-feeling, or co-feeling); the secret power of word’s inner structure doesn’t necessarily work in the same way even in similar circumstances. But, obviously, he is right about Czech — except he also felt the need to make this point within his novel, which, after all, was written in Czech. Come to think about it, one doesn’t go into lengthy linguistic asides for every word one uses in a novel, unless there is a certain semantic fluidity, maybe a not fully realised potential, some intrinsic variability in the word’s meaning (I wrote about this potential for instability in words describing inner experiences in an earlier post).

Or maybe this thought crossed my mind just because I feel this instability in Russian. Its word for ‘compassion’ has the same inner structure as in Czech or German, translated part-by-part from Greek, as co-feeling, so the structure exerts a similar pressure on its meaning. Since the structure is quite transparent, the word would connect itself — quite literally, on the neural level — to feeling with in each new brain where it is ‘replicated’ in childhood. My own version of this word is certainly inherited from my father, but I am not sure this particular ‘mutation’ of its meaning has ever been common among the speakers of Russian. I remember he used to separate the prefix from the root by a hyphen in writing, со-чувствие, as though he wanted to re-awaken this inner structure and its semantic potential in his readers’ minds.

Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628.
Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628. Oil on oak panel. 72×55 cm.

The meaning he had in mind was, I believe, close to Kundera’s ‘emotional telepathy’, but more intellectual than romantic: it was co-feeling as a path to understanding another’s thoughts, truly understanding them; a path that lies through feeling another’s feelings: the feelings that fuel thoughts, and the feelings invoked by thoughts. A synthesis between co-feeling and co-thinking. At least that’s how I understood him.

This variation on the theme of compassion can be traced back to a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, a nineteenth century Russian poet. He wrote: We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. Like the word ‘grace’ points to the experience of unity with the divine, so ‘compassion’, in this sense of co-feeling, points to the experience of unity with other human beings.

Both Kundera’s experience of the supreme form of romantic love, and my father’s experience of the supreme form of intellectual communion — both these experiences certainly exist, which is to say, they are possible. But I am afraid they don’t really have names, not even in Czech and Russian, respectively, because these meanings are hidden – drowned, as it were, in the semantic pond of compassion. In his linguistic aside, Kundera tells us that the words for co-feeling are used “in approximately the same way” as their French (and English) counterparts (and if they are used in approximately the same way, then, mutatis mutandis, they have approximately the same meaning).   

I am afraid these experiences belong to what Hannah Arendt calls, following René Char, “inheritance with no will-and-testament”, a treasure occasionally found by some, but lost again and again — because there is no name, no “tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is” (Hannah Arendt “Between Past and Future”). And that’s a pity, because these are glorious treasures, aren’t they?

But what can one do? No one can create a tradition by themselves (it requires a multitude by definition), but anyone can contribute. It’s always like this with languages: no single speaker can change a language, but everyone can add to a language change — just by talking in a certain way, and thereby influencing others. It’s a peculiar process, language change: with few exceptions, it’s impossible to pinpoint its beginning, because a novel usage would pop up here and there, sometimes for a long time, without any apparent long-term effect. And then, out of the blue, it takes off and spreads — and the change is complete in what seems like no time, as though it has always been that way.      

Isn’t that what Milan Kundera was doing with his aside about a particular meaning of soucit — willing the experience into the future? And my father with his consistent use of сo-чувствие — both in “The Sum”, and in other writings, and in talking? It certainly feels like an inheritance, willed to me in the most primal sense — I’ve always known where this treasure is, and its worth (even if it took me some time to realise it). Finding it, though — ay, there is the rub.

 

On the miracle of mutual understanding

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””]…one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. [/feature_headline]

Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.
Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.

Have you ever wondered what a miracle it is that we are able to understand one another at all, even if imperfectly, when we talk about inner, invisible things, about the contents of consciousness?
I used the word thing in the previous sentence, even though these inner states and events are not really things at all, and herein lies one aspect of this mystery. The words of our languages are well-adapted to point to something in the outer world (and, come to think about it, we ourselves are well-adapted to orient ourselves in this world). But when the mind turns upon itself, it all quickly grows increasingly confusing.

Consider how a child learns a word like table or tree. In understanding the meanings of these words, she is helped along by all the tables and trees she sees around her; she only has to understand that that is what the adults are “pointing to” with these particular words (and children are really good at it, that is how we are able to acquire our native languages so easily). And so these words are able to re-create themselves in newly arriving brains with a high degree of what geneticists call fidelity of replication: you can be fairly sure that the word table in your child’s brain is a good, faithful copy of the same word in your own brain.

But what about love, or shame, or courage? The faculty of language acquisition we are born with ensures that a child would guess that there is an inner state such a word must point to, and try to identify this hypothetical state with something she feels in herself. Nowadays, parents are often advised to try and understand what their child is feeling and name these feelings for them. I am not sure how many parents actually try to do that, and how accurately they are able to identify their child’s feeling even if they do. But it certainly wasn’t a common parenting practice over the course of our languages’ evolution; most children are, and have always been, on their own in this daunting task.

It doesn’t help that some states of mind are supposed to be experienced much later in life, when the normal age of language acquisition is long since over, and we have lost the childhood’s natural ability to acquire language as though by osmosis. How many times was a youngster’s question about love answered with something like “You’ll know it when it happens”? (And then, when she finally believes that she knows, she is quite likely to be told that what she feels cannot be “real love”…)

And languages differ wildly in what a child is supposed to be able to understand and experience. In Russian, for instance, the word for conscience was borrowed very long ago from Greek by translating its components, as co-knowledge (Russian, со-весть) and belongs by now to a very basic vocabulary: generally, a Russian child is supposed to infer, at a very early age, that she is expected to have something within that is able to tell right from wrong (and in exactly the same way, I might add, that it does within her parents, because, obviously, the word is most often mentioned when a child misbehaves in one way or another). And if she doesn’t feel that she has it? Well, it’s just too bad to even think about.

But there is more: the faculty of language acquisition works in such a way that a child must believe that different words must point to different things; it really helps in learning words like apple and pear; in the domain of mental states, this leads one to the unconscious assumption that there are as many distinct feelings, states of mind, mental faculties, etc. as there are words in one’s native language for them. Can this be true, in view of how widely languages vary even in size (let alone the details) of their mental and emotional vocabularies? Frankly, I am not sure.

It’s no wonder, perhaps, that there is now a new word, alexithymia, for inability to name one’s own emotions — a personality trait supposed to characterise about ten percent of the general population (it would be interesting to learn whether this percentage depends on the native language). All in all, it seems stranger that most of us somehow succeed in this seemingly hopeless endeavour of establishing a correspondence between the words of our languages and our own states of mind, at least enough to go through life believing that we actually do have shared meanings for these words (in spite of constant misunderstandings and failures of communication).

But even if we do succeed, it seems clear that the fidelity of replication must be much, much lower for mental and emotional vocabulary: one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. I ran into this problem the other day, when I was trying to write about Titian’s “Man with a glove” (it was the original plan for this day’s post). I knew that the word compassion is a key to my relationship with this painting, but suddenly realised that I might have a completely idiosyncratic variant of this word living in my head.

It’s partly a matter of language interference (two languages coexisting in one brain make things even more complicated than they normally are), but not quite: at least as much, I believe, this particular mutation of meaning is part of my life’s story, and it may be more essential for the whole “Sonnets in colour” project than I understood before. And so I’ve decided to spend some time exploring the very concept of compassion, and my own mutated version of it.

I would so much like to know whether this means I also have a mutated experience of compassion, but that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? We have very limited ability of comparing our experiences directly, without the mediation of words. Or art…