The Look of Distance

Reflections on Suffering and Sympathy in Modern Literature—Auden to Agee, Whitman to Woolf

Walter J. Slatoff


Modern Literature
309 pp.

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Professor Slatoff is concerned with the question whether the reading and teaching of literature can be considered decent occupations in a world so much ordered by suffering as the one we inhabit; and his book explores this question by examining in detail a variety of responses to suffering—by authors, readers, and fictional characters. He is particularly interested in such issues as the relative merits of too much compassion as against too little; the relations between compassion and self-crucifixion; the appropriate distances between humans, between humans and other animals, and even between gods and men; the possibilities of human connection and the curious ways people have found to remain simultaneously together and apart; and “what might be called ‘moral aerodynamics’: the motions of highfliers like Icarus, Jesus, Vittorio Mussolini, and James Joyce, and the impacts of all sorts of things—from boys to bombs to violets—that can fall from the sky.” He has important things to say too about what he calls “the lonely embraces of artists” and how these generate and shape literary creations.

In a work that covers a remarkable range of major writers, and in which “fiction and reality have not been able to keep their usual distances,’ Professor Slatoff brings into a series of illuminating conjunctions a variety of writers and literary forms (stories, novels, poems, plays, essays, even songs) not usually brought together. He does so in an unconventionally personal voice and manner that he hopes will close to some extent what he regards as an uncomfortable gap between conventional modes of discourse about literature itself, a gap he finds “not only uncomfortable but indecent” when the subject is suffering and sympathy

Professor Slatoff sees his book as “the exposure of a way of responding to literature, a way that offers the reader some of the freedoms and opportunities afforded by current modes of criticism but without depriving the text of its more traditional powers and integrity. It is a way that enables a reader to exercise his sympathies, allows a story to become . . . ‘an occasion for coexistence imaginatively with a fictional person’s way of feeling’; it allows one to be educated or angered by a text, to let a text speak for one, to quarrel with it or simply to be in awe of it—in short, to respond in all the ways a live individual reader, as opposed to a theoretical one, might wish to respond to a text. It allows, finally, . . . the act of reading and writing to be a way of bearing witness, or, to use the language of Martin Buber, . . . a way of being ‘attentive’ and presenting ourselves with less than our usual armor.”

Walter J. Slatoff is professor of English at Cornell University and the author of two previous books: Quest for Failure: A Study of William Faulkner and With Respect to Readers: Dimensions of Literary Response.