the rigorous m

bits and bobs, quotes and catching up

distance, pity

Posted by rigorousm on May 10, 2010

Critics who castigate Coover for his lack of pity seem to me to misunderstand the nature of his pity. They are quite correct that we are not invited to feel pity. But then pity allows the pitier to feel superior to the pitied. Pity enforces a distance, because we who pity are aware that we do not suffer as the protagonist is suffering. Vonnegut is a master at inducing pity. It feels so good to join him in his low-keyed, sophisticated indignation. We feel flattered at our own moral wisdom. His objects are entirely worthy, his causes just, and his own response may be deeply felt. But his creations do invite facile sympathy, or even sardonic pity toward his fantastically exaggerated victims….

Coover does not allow us the luxury of such pity. The anesthetic quality of some of his violence may indeed be prompted by a desire to discourage pity…. electrocuted bodies are reduced to jerky, mechanical things. As bodies, their vulnerability is all too apparent. But the response evoked is partly miserable whimpers of laughter. Bergsonian reification makes the jerking marionettes funny as well as sickening, even while forcing us to acknowledge that we too are just as vulnerable to death through our bodies…. Pity may be Coover’s ultimate weapon, for in a way, pity degrades the recipient.

We prefer our sympathies to be played upon. That process makes us less aware of our own weaknesses. But Coover prefers to batter us, even violate us, rather than allow us to hide from the same awareness of nakedness that his characters have to face.

– Hume, Kathryn. Pp. 145-148 in “Robert Coover’s Fiction: The Naked and the Mythic,” 1979.  NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction  12(2):127-148.

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