Empathy, Enough for All


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If we are engaged in what happens to the fictional human beings in Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, we will have emotional reactions to them: we will simulate their experiences.  But will we have empathy for them, feel affinity with them?  If we are non-African Americans, will we expand our understanding of and compassion for African Americans if we read Toni Morrison?  If we are African Americans, likewise?  We cannot ignore what we have learned and experienced in our lifetimes about black Americans when we open a Morrison novel on our laps, but we can develop new insights and new structures of feelings that pertain to empathy in a universal sense.

You don’t have to be an empath

“The fundamental source of nonegoistic emotion . . . is almost necessarily the sensitivity to emotion expressions of others.”⁠1    Our mirroring capacities (‘this could happen to me’) can lead us to a more ethical view of human beings: we are more alike, and thus equal, not unjustly stratified, as social and political hierarchies have maintained.  Literature is so bound up with emotions that we might indeed be inclined to believe that, with multiple reading experiences, we will become more emotionally intelligent.  

Emotional intelligence, or EI can be defines as: “the competence to identify and express emotions, understand emotions, assimilate emotions in thought, and regulate both positive and negative emotions in the self and in others.”⁠2   Let’s turn to the materials in Jazz that concern Joe Trace’s feelings and pronouncements pertaining to Dorcas (see “My Virginia Joe Trace”: Emotional Encoding if you need a refresher):

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Responses Invitations: reflect, write, post

—How are you going to factor in Joe’s younger emotional experiences as Morrison has presented them when you respond to, and reflect on,  Joe’s  avowedly unpremeditated shooting of Dorcas at a blues party/dance on New Year’s in Harlem?  Write about this, looking at  all the scenes you can find, with some guidance if you choose from the following questions:

~Why did Joe name himself “trace”?

~What does Joe mean when he states he’s “changed six times”?

~How much control did he have over these changes?

~If the woman called “Wild” is his mother, how does Joe handle that? (He looked for her three times)

~What are some of Joe’s best qualities?  worst?

~Consider his wife, Violet, also an orphan.  How does her secretive affection for “Golden Gray” parallel Joe’s needing to have his mother acknowledge him?

When you have explored your feelings about Joe Trace, consider summarizing them in a short post to the blog.

Ready for a new blog cluster?  Go to the first blog in the Time and Memory series, Making Time.

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1 Patrick Hogan, What Literature Teaches Us About Emotions (62).

2 Emotional Intelligence: Science & Myth.  Eds. G. Matthews, N. Zeiden, R. Roberts, p. 5

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