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.”
“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?