“Reflexes of Sympathy”

While untangling the knot of words and sentences that compose “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” I was interested to find that the author was aware of my presence as a reader and the role that I would play by completing his writings with my own experiences.

The sensitive nature of the photographs and descriptions places the author in a protective position: it is his duty to capture the degradation of these people who he has grown fond of. He is both an outsider and an insider– he is there to spy on them, capture the very embarrassments they would probably rather cover up, so that he can broadcast them amongst better-off families and spread awareness. While he wishes to change their situation by enlightening others, doing so subjects the family to shame and embarrassment. This combination of situations causes Evans and Agee to start off the work with a scolding: “others, who have picked up [the family’s] living as casually as if it were a book, and who were actuated toward this reading by various possible reflexes of sympathy, curiosity, idleness, et cetera, and almost certainly in a lack of consciousness and conscience, remotely appropriate to the enormity of what they are doing” (99). In other words: there is no way you can possibly understand their suffering, and you are unworthy even to feel pity for these people.

Despite not being the target audience for this work (as these events happened long in the past and the writings were meant to stir action) that sentence made me acutely aware that I was this “other” to whom Agee was referring, and I was simply picking up these people’s lives because digesting their stories was supposed to make me a better reader/writer. I hadn’t cracked the book out of curiosity or pity; hadn’t even begun to muster that creeping feeling of sadness and shame because I couldn’t possibly understand their suffering, which is required at such events as showings of documentaries about the Holocaust or the use of live dogs as shark bait. No, rather I intended to prosper off their long, hard days, torn clothes and bleeding feet.

That sudden consciousness caused me to approach the rest of the text warily; this writer was smart. He had sniffed out my failings and was manipulating my emotions so that they were better suited to how he wanted me to feel: inferior to his subjects for the very act of opening his book. And I thank him for it, for casting off my “read against the grain” mindset, and forcing me to take him and his project seriously.

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