Thursday, May 28, 2020

Compassion and Knowledge

Regarding the Pain of Others 

Regarding the Pain of Others

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do -- but who is that 'we'? -- and nothing 'they' can do either -- and who are 'they' -- then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”   ― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

I read this as I was a participant in a discussion group at The Art Institute of Chicago. Many people view Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a re-examination of or a follow-up to her previous book, On Photography; although the two works do not view photography from the same perspective. Regarding the Pain of Others, which is generally an essay about war photography, primarily covers the theme of heartlessness, with a keen interest on the inhumanity and brutality caused by war.

First off, Sontag posits that there is a problem in the way people read pictures. As much as a picture unravels real events captured on camera, it also conceals some additional details that would help in getting a more unobstructed view of the identity and history of the real moment. Therefore, the manner in which individuals interpret images becomes an extremely subjective process, since personal understandings and beliefs will largely dictate the reading of these pictures. Sontag writes,
"Images of dead civilians and smashed houses may serve to quicken hatred of the foe."

Sontag also reconsiders her earlier position about the emotional implications of horrendous images on the viewer. In On Photography, Sontag maintained that images could make the viewer sympathize with the victim. In Regarding the Pain of Others, however, she revises her position, questioning whether a photograph can truly have such an effect in the modern media’s context.

Some would call this "atrocity photography," that sort of photography whose subject is the death or misery of other people. The book was, of course, penned in the shadow of September 11, and it seems, unfortunately, to bear a slightly burdensome responsibility to comment on the importance of things. This, however, has never been a problem for Ms. Sontag. While I appreciated her earlier essay collection, On Photography, more than this photographic excursion (perhaps because it is a better essay collection) I found the insights here worth considering. Perhaps I was put off by her beginning with a reference to Virginia Woolf's book Three Guineas which I did not find persuasive. However, I still found the essays in this miniature tome challenging and thought-provoking.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Two Lives in a Shadow War

The Nightingale 

The Nightingale

“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”  ― Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

The Nightingale, both well-written and plot-driven, is a story about the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol in World War II France. Isabelle is a rebellious girl and is kicked out of many schools. When she is kicked out of one last school, she is sent to live with her father, Julien. Isabelle and her father do not have a good relationship and when the Germans invade France, Isabelle flees Paris to go to her sister's home. On the way, she meets Gaetan, her future love interest.

Vianne accepts Isabelle into her home reluctantly because she does not want her sister's rebellious attitude to influence her own daughter. Vianne is directly affected by the war when her good friend and neighbor is forced to wear a yellow star. She must also endure the presence of a Nazi officer in her home. Eventually her neighbor, Rachel, suffers a great loss when her daughter is shot and she is forced to go to a concentration camp. Vianne adopts Rachel's son, Ari, and she also begins to forge identity papers to help other Jewish children as her way of rebelling against the German occupation.

Isabelle joins the French Resistance and helps French pilots escape to Spain. Nazi soldiers are continually searching for this young woman whose efforts have earned her the sobriquet of "The Nightingale". As the war progresses both of the sisters suffer greater deprivation and more danger from the soldiers who occupy France. The denouement of the story is moving in many ways that lead me to discuss some of the themes of the book that include: love, power of women, and family.

Different aspects of love, based on romance, friendship, and familial love are explored. One example of romantic love is shown between Vianne and her husband Antoine, on whom she depends and subsequently struggles when he goes to war. Another example of Romantic love is the love between Isabelle and Gaetan. When the two meet, they are immediately attracted to one another. While this love does not flourish Gaetan proves his love for Isabelle by naming his daughter after her.

The power of women is demonstrated through the two main characters strength. Each rebels against the German army in her own way. Vianne rebels in a more subtle way by rescuing Jewish children by forging identity papers. She also takes in the son of her friend when her friend is sent to a concentration camp. Isabelle rebels more openly by joining the French Resistance. Both of these women demonstrate courage that was necessary far from the battlefields.

Each sister also fights to keep their family together, not always an easy task, in addition to helping their friends. The author's ability to demonstrate the contrasting nature of each sister was one of the best aspects of this novel. This combined with serviceable prose and an accurate depiction of the historical details made this a good read. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical novels centered on family relationships.