John Darnielle and the Radical Power of Empathy

the-power-of-empathy-1

About a quarter of the way into Wolf in White Van, narrator and protagonist Sean shares a cigarette with some teenagers in a strip mall liquor store parking lot. They ask to see his grotesquely scarred face, reconstructed after the childhood act of self-destruction that undergirds the whole novel. He obliges. As they stick their faces close to his, Sean offers that he looks like a tire tread. “Woah,” they both say.

The best piece of new fiction I’ve read in years, Wolf is a book-length exploration of empathy, taking a deep dive into Sean’s psyche, the voice of the present recounting the past with surprising calm and levity. By the end of the book you so firmly understand Sean and his worldview, so absorb his metaphors and turns of phrase, that you almost feel distraught at no longer spending time with him. I picked through the book slowly, with 200 pages spread across many afternoons and evenings. I almost didn’t want to give it up.

In Darnielle’s writing, as well as in that of his peers like John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, there is a surprising well of feeling, a conviction that by feeling for these characters we grow as people, especially in our ability to perceive the struggles of others.

Of course, for years author John Darnielle has been constructing characters just like Sean and setting them to music as The Mountain Goats. His discography reads like a career-length exploration of the empathic value of music, forcing us to confront people quite unlike ourselves. A song like “Fall of the High School Running Back” turns a character many would probably joke about while watching the local news into a genuinely tragic figure, trapped by the peer group expectations of high school and the expectations of his parents until he makes some particularly bad choices. Whether self-destructive like the Alpha Couple or manipulated by outside forces like the narrator of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” Darnielle stands on their side. He makes us not only see but inhabit and understand these characters. By our engagement, they become real.

Wolf in the White Van
Wolf in the White Van

In Darnielle’s writing, as well as in that of his peers like John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, there is a surprising well of feeling, a conviction that by feeling for these characters we grow as people, especially in our ability to perceive the struggles of others. One of my favorite of Samson’s songs comes off his 2012 solo album, Provincial, entitled “Letter in Icelandic From the Ninette San.” A man uses the metaphor of an Icelandic legend to describe his battles with Leukemia, the death of a warrior analogous to his x-ray burns. It’s a painful, pretty song, one that convinces you of its realness. It reminds you: suffering comes to everyone, so don’t ignore it in others when for the moment it passes you by. These are songs that open our world, broaden our compassion. Art of the soberest character.

I started considering all of this while listening to the new self-titled EP by Bloomington “queer-friendly pop-punk” band High Dive. The group quietly released a fantastic 2011 debut full of plain-spoken and kick ass punk rock, the sort of music hardly anyone listens to but means the world to those who do. There are grateful songs, angry songs, songs that mix their messages like any human does. Side 2 features a run of fantastic songs spanning experiences but still rooted in singer Toby Driver’s personal life: “Tennessee” touches on the struggles of expressing yourself when the people around you impede it; “Clean” the quagmire of identity politics; “Thank You” the bonds that hold people together. In “Restless” he declares he “doesn’t want to see you in the second person.” He might as well be asking the same of us.

On its newest record the band expands on these ideas musically and lyrically, filling out the lineup with extra guitar and keys and sharpening the anger until it positively gleams. When Driver exhorts us to “stop saying shit on the internet,” he’s less an old man yelling at a cloud than someone frustrated at seeing gains undone by divisiveness. He subscribes to the maxim that if a song makes someone feel less alone, then its job is done, and these songs hit hard. The catharsis is palpable.

These are songs that open our world, broaden our compassion. Art of the soberest character.

This is not a new concept in music or literature, of course. Steinbeck’s great love for his characters led him to humanize murderers, wage laborers, and the homeless for millions of readers. When Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, “we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them,” he demandswe reconsider our basic morality and our posture toward others, and their lives in turn. Nina Simone’s “Four Women” is possibly the greatest song-length exploration of empathy ever put to acetate. Though some derided the song in its time as full of racist stereotyping, Simone’s cardinal accomplishment is to transcend the mental and ideological blocks between people and make these four characters real and sad and angry. Powered by an off-kilter solo in the middle, the song is resentful and bitter but by its very existence hopeful. If an audience forty or fifty years past can see into the lives of these characters, they might carry that into their interactions with others as well.

What all of this art shares is the belief that by forcing the listener or the reader to understand the life of another we are broadened in how we consider those around us. Empathy thus is the base of all good things, of compassion and charity and righteousness. We cannot exist outside those around us. What a glorious thought that is.

Robert Rubsam
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Robert Rubsam

Rob is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has been published at Roads & Kingdoms, Crux, and Flavorwire, among others. He is Features Editor at Noted.
Robert Rubsam
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