Point of view: a dance of sympathy


One of the most fundamental guiding principles of literary creation is the question of point of view, writes Safrean Silke Heiss.

It is a question that possibly hammers most loudly on the door of a fiction writer’s awareness; but no writer, whether poet, novelist, journalist, polemicist, technical or academic, can avoid its importance.

Point of view refers in the first instance quite simply to the eyes out of which you are looking when writing. However, for a writer well-honed in her or his craft, the implication is that you are simultaneously looking at the eyes out of which you are looking.

This ‘witnessing’ of what you are doing even as you are doing it is what is generally referred to as critical distance; you could also conceive it as an awareness of the minds and hearts of your readership.

It is helpful to conceptualise point of view as a ‘mask’, behind which you are free to play the role of – anybody, really. So when Mark Knopfler writes in Baloney again –

We don’t eat in no white restaurant

We’re eatin’ in the car

Baloney again, baloney again

We don’t sleep in no white hotel bed

We’re sleepin’ in the car, baloney again

– he is wearing the ‘mask’ of someone (or someones, the “we” in the song) he is not, yet whom he can feel from the inside with his heart, or, to use a less clichéd expression, with his sympathetic human understanding.

The freedom of the creative writer is to offer her- or himself up to this Einfühlungsvermögen – the German word for ‘empathy’ would literally be translated as ‘capacity to feel into’ – and thus to render verbally what we could call the living experience of an other or others.

Judgment is absent in such an instance; even a white racist would be able to feel the excludedness and the discomfort in what is described in simply human terms by Knopfler. 

Compare the above lyrics to the following

She’s going shopping shopping for shoes

She wants them in magenta and Caribbean blue

Platinum and buttercup lilac and black

They fill a bucket up and laugh behind her back

Imelda baby Imelda baby what to do

All the poor people saying they gotta quit paying for you

Here the point of view comes from a pair of eyes watching, but not ‘feeling into’ or empathising – a documentation or reportage of events is taking place. The song is, you could say, pure journalism in its faithful rendering of facts. How objective are those facts? Looking at the words more closely it transpires that there are 3 vantage points belonging to:

  1. the narrator, who is doing the reportage;
  2. the poor people, who are saying they gotta quit paying; and
  3. Imelda (Marcos, wife of Philippino dictator Ferdinand Marcos)

Now Imelda is the only point of view that is shown only from the outside; in other words, who is not given opportunity to have her say. We see her buying shoes by the dozen, but we don’t know why she needs that many. There is a sense of potential sympathy in the second-last line, but it may well be, and probably is, satirical in tone – mocking rather than warm.

This is the difference between a point of view that is and one that is not the other.

Without having to express any emotion, Knopfler’s song capitalises on pre-existent emotion – emotion that is ‘out there’, donated or created by history, by politics – in order to give voice to the barefoot or badly shod poor in a specific dictatorship. It could be any dictatorship, really, for the typicality of the pattern.

Imagine how much work it would cost for you as a writer to integrate the point of view of the figure of Imelda into the song, by giving voice to what is in her heart and mind, while simultaneously preserving the points of view of the poor as well as of the narrator. Impossible, you might say. Yet that is exactly what Shakespeare does with the character of Iago in Othello – showing the workings from the inside of a nature that is, at its root, pained by the joy of another.

Being partisan is unavoidable. At every point in time we cannot not occupy a moral position of one kind or another. But to be able to ‘feel into’ contrasting, indeed, contradictory viewpoints – that is the preserve of those with so selfless an inner make-up as to lay aside judgment in order to show the ‘bigger picture’.

The best opinion pieces belong to that same ilk of writing in that even while the writer will occupy a moral position, that position is not imposed to the exclusion of others, but is placed as balance into a natural collaboration (for better or for worse) of viewpoints.

Helena Rosenblatt’s article – Liberal Democracy is in crisis. But … do we know what it is? – is a case in point. In essence the article presents a variety of points of view on the practice and experience of democracy and thus easily demonstrates that these points of view are in fundamental disagreement with one another.

Assimilating a balance of points of view is a calling good writers are beholden to follow – whether composing poems, fiction, or recording facts ‘out there’ – for the sake of shipping humanity in its entirety on to a better understanding of ourselves and our world. And active appreciation of what it feels like to be the other – no matter how objectionable we might find them – is in effect a dance of sympathy for the sake of the greater good.

About the author

Silke Heiss is a published poet who has earned her living as a freelancer creating educational materials and editing a variety of texts for close on three decades. Occasionally she depends on her art (ceramics and intaglio) to supplement her income. She lives and works in Hogsback, in the Amathola Mountains of the Eastern Cape. She is preparing her first solo book of poems for publication. To learn more about Silke, please visit her website, sign up to her newsletter and connect with her on TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn.

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