Richard Ford and the Failure of Words

Words fail me after reading Richard Ford’s A City Beyond the Reach of Empathy in the New York Times. Well, here are some words that seem to work, taken directly from Ford’s piece: ‘wrenching’, ‘pointless’, ‘aching’, ‘painful’.

Richard Ford, if you haven’t read his books, is an ultra-dry postmodernist, an author of elegant prose with a high boiling point, somewhat in the same category as Don DeLillo or Lydia Davis. To tell you the truth, I don’t love his stuff, just as I don’t love DeLillo’s or Davis’s stuff (my favorite postmodernists have lower boiling points, like Raymond Carver or Paul Auster). But Ford grew up in New Orleans, and his New York Times article, more than anything else, is about a modern alienated intellectual’s struggle to feel emotion when something horrible happens:

“Who can write about New Orleans now? Tell us what it’s like there. Bring us near to what people are experiencing, to their loss, to what will survive. People who are close should write that. Only they’re in the city, or they’re on a bus, or they’re seeking shelter. We don’t know where they are.

It’s just a keyhole, and a small one, onto this great civic tragedy. The people who should be writing of it can’t be found. An attempt to set out a vocabulary for empathy and for reckoning is frustrated in a moment of sorest need by the plain terms of the tragedy that wants telling.”

Then, later:

“For those away from New Orleans — most all of us — in this week of tears and wrenching, words fail. Somehow our hearts reach comes short and we’ve been left with an aching, pointless inwardness.”

I don’t know what he’s talking about, and that’s why words fail me. I don’t need a vocabulary for empathy, and neither do most people I know. There’s a great skit on Saturday Night Live featuring Will Forte as a phone operator during a charity telethon. He’s supposed to be taking calls in the background as the announcer speaks, but he keeps interrupting the telecast by yelling “OHHHH NOOOO!!!”. There’s the vocabulary of empathy.

When a writer’s childhood city experiences this kind of disaster, it seems only fair that he should be permitted to write any kind of article he wants. Still, I somehow feel offended by Ford’s piece. Who cares about existential anomie at a time like this? Is it words that are failing, or is it the city, state and federal emergency management bureaucracies?

I’d like to know what you think: does the vocabulary of empathy matter at a time like this, and have you ever felt the moral displacement Richard Ford seems to be writing about?

4 Responses

  1. Maybein moments of deep pain,

    in moments of deep pain, linguisitic communication is subordinated to other forms of communication that are more powerful at that moment. And that’s fine. Words are always available.

  2. Empathy Always MattersWhen I
    Empathy Always Matters

    When I was still in my old career 10 years ago, I was going to go to New Orleans, and when I wasn’t offshore, would clerk at convenience stores or any other McJob. I’m still waiting for that choice to switch careers to pan out. Whenever I’ve seen the scenes on TV, I am so sad to see nothing happening for those American refugees–it pains me to think of babies going without formula or of Americans as refugees–and hope that something really positive will come out of it. viz., the poor will once again be thought of as people, and I am thankful that I am not one of them.

    As for morality, I’ve always opted for situation ethics as the only philosophical solution. Except for sociopaths and the extremely cynical, everyone knows the difference between right and wrong and I can’t stop thinking that if all those troops weren’t over there in Iraq, they could be helping out in New Orleans.
    As for writing, a writer who fails to create empathy, to make characters that the reader cares about, will have difficulty getting their stuff read.

  3. Yes, that makes sense. Maybe
    Yes, that makes sense. Maybe I was wanting Richard Ford to “bring us” to that communication, even if it is non-linguistic … rather than talk about his inability to bring us to it. I don’t mean to put down his expression — I’m sure he is feeling a lot of pain and loss and I do understand that he is speaking what he needs to say. Or maybe the NY Times asked him for an article and he realized this was all he was capable of saying at the moment.

  4. Kanye!At least Kanye West was

    At least Kanye West was able to express himself when he appeared with Mike Myers on TV for the New Orleans fund-raising effort. Agree with him or not, I love the fact that he got that remark in on live television.

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