Thursday, March 15, 2007

Pathetic Fallacy

All right, I'm actually not going to discuss pathetic fallacy as a literary trope. It's just a catchy title in a blog that I want to write to point out something that bothers me. I use the word pathetic in my mind a lot more than I use it in real life. That's because the meaning most people ascribe to it is not the meaning I struggle for, but can't seem to express easily in our language in this era. Check it out.

pa·thet·ic /p?'??t?k/ –adjective
1. causing or evoking pity, sympathetic sadness, sorrow, etc.; pitiful; pitiable
2. affecting or moving the feelings.
3. pertaining to or caused by the feelings.
4. miserably or contemptibly inadequate

Hmm, there in the first definition, there's another word. Pitiful.

pit·i·ful /'p?t?f?l/ –adjective
1. evoking or deserving pity
2. evoking or deserving contempt by smallness, poor quality, etc.

That summarizes my unease in a nutshell. The first two definitions of "pitiful" are identicle in form, but so widely different. Pity vs. contempt. These have to be opposites. There are people, I imagine, who would have only contempt for people that I pity. Going back to the first defintion, there are things that move me to sympathy that some heartless bastard probably finds contemptibly inadequate.

There's an evocative quote from one of my favorite novels:

"Pity, Jane, from some people is a noxious and insulting sort of tribute, which one is justified in hurling back in the teeth of those who offer it; but that is the sort of pity native to callous, selfish hearts; it is a hybrid, egotistical pain at hearing of woes, crossed with ignorant contempt for those who have endured them. But that is not your pity, Jane; it is not the feeling of which your whole face is full at this moment--with which your eyes are now almost overflowing--with which your heart is heaving--with which your hand is trembling in mine. Your pity, my darling, is the suffering mother of love: its anguish is the very natal pang of the divine passion. I accept it, Jane; let the daughter have free advent--my arms wait to receive her."

So the words have many meanings. Lots of words have many meanings. What is it that bothers me? I think it's related to my tenuous theory that we as a society privelege objective reason over subjective emotion. I won't go into details, but we glorify feeling in ways that romanticize it, make it exotic. It's the idyll, not real life. In real life, is it smallness and inadequacy to be deserving of someone's feelings, someone's pity? I feel in real life. And I don't feel contempt nearly as often as I feel... just... feel. Empathy, sympathy, are they gifts, or are they skills that require practice?

I believe that most of the people I am priveleged to know are not heartless bastards. But I used the word "pathetic" the other day and immediately felt uncomfortable that I would be misunderstood. That I was insulting when I had no intention of being so. When I felt tenderness and compassion, friendship, and the wish that I could do something, anything to help. And when I knew there was nothing I could do, and nothing was wanted from or asked of me.

Is it that we don't want to feel tenderness and compassion, and must harden it into contempt? Or is it that we push away any tenderness and compassion that we see in others, as indicating a weakness in ourselves that we would deny? Do we prefer that people find us contemptible rather than moving to sorrow? I'm very proud, myself. But I don't think I'm that proud yet.

I don't really understand at all where I meant this to go. Maybe not to go anywhere, but to present the questions in my mind so that other people could also think of them with me. Maybe I just like questions better than answers. I always did like a challenge!
And I'm a word nerd. I always do wonder how meaning finds its way into those odd, beautiful little boxes of sound and line that we call words.

No comments: