Compassion is being at one with another’s suffering.
- Davide Enia, Notes On a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope (Other Press, 2019): “Antony Shugaar’s sensitive translation is marked by restraint, as if Enia is whispering at a wake and might well have preferred silence, in the tradition of the Sicilian male for whom ‘the best word is the word you never said.’”
- William Blake, The Compassion of Pharoah's Daughter or The Finding of Moses
Film and Stage
- Wings of Desire, in which angels “are mild-mannered, all-seeing individuals poised to assist those in need”; this film explores what it means to be human
- Wit: an unsympathetic English professor learns compassion the hard way.
- Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau, 1947) and
- Beauty and the Beast (Disney, 1991): the young woman’s compassion frees a man’s soul
- Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au Coeur): a young woman, incest and her sons, who are the victims?
- Distant Voices, Still Lives: “a compassionate look at a radically dysfunctional family” with a “possibly psychotic dad who is loving one minute and physically abusive the next”
- The Secret Life of Words: a badly wounded oil rigger and a victim of brutality during the Balkan atrocities heal each other through compassion
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Martin Marais’ Pieces de Viole grew out of the composer’s unending mourning for his deceased wife. Still, the music itself sounds more like compassion, for himself perhaps, than mourning.
- 1st livre (Premier livre des pièces de viole) (1686)
- 2nd livre (Deuxième livre des pièces de viole) (1701)
- 3rd livre (Troisième livre des pièces de viole) (1711)
- 4th livre (1717)
Orlando de Lassus (Orlando de Lasso), Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St. Peter), LV 1005-1025 (1594) (approx. 51-58’) (the text is taken from a writing by Luigi Tansillo): Lassus was referring to the suffering of others, and his own. “Penitential and pessimistic in tone, the Lagrime are both an emblem of the religious severity of the Counter-Reformation and possibly a reflection ofthe composer’s realisation of his own impending death.” “The infrequently encountered works in seven parts often have a symbolic connotation. The number seven in fact symbolizes the suffering and affliction of the Virgin Mary, ‘Mother of the seven sorrows’. The number seven then became the symbol of suffering in general, and most of the compositions in seven parts, or consisting of seven sections, allude to suffering and mourning. It may be noted, too, that Lassus’ work comprises twenty-one sections, a multiple of seven . . .” Top recorded performances are conducted by Rooley in 1982, Herreweghe in 1983, van Nevel in 1993, and Crouch in 2013.
Centuries after Marais and Lassus, Mieczysław Weinberg composed an extensive body of works from the perspecitve of his Jewish-Polish heritage. Violinist Linus Roth, who displays sensibilities that are well-suited to Weinberg’s compositions for violin, has recorded Weinberg’s works for solo violin, and for violin and piano. By album title, they are:
- “Complete Sonatas and Works” for violin and piano
- “Solo Sonatas for Violin, Nos. 1-3” (hear Gidon Kremer’s performances of the same works)
- “Light in the Darkness”, including Piano Trio, Op. 24; and Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 69
- “Wartime Consolations” (works by Hartmann, Wenberg and Shostakovich
Wagner, Parsifal: the leader’s wound can be healed only by an innocent youth made wish through compassion. That youth is Parsifal, who heals Amfortas’ wound in typical melodramatic-operatic fashion just before he dies (performances conducted by Jordan, Krauss, Knappertsbusch in 1951, and Knappertsbusch in 1962).
- Ferguson, Amore Langueo (I Languish for Love), for tenor, chorus and orchestra (1956): a chorale work expressing the idea of Christ’s love for humanity
- Esposito, Violin Sonatas: in G Major, 32; in E Minor, Op. 46; in A Major, Op. 67.
- Aho, Symphony No. 2 (1970, rev. 1995)
- Arnold, Symphony No. 9, Op. 128
- Weinberg, String Quartet No. 14, Op. 122 (1978)
- Weinberg, Symphony No. 21, Op. 152, "Kaddish" (1991)
- Wayne, String Quartet No. 8
- Raga Bhairavi, a Hindustani raag with a gentle, feminine quality, ofter performed at the end of an evening of music (performances by Ali Akbar Khan, Banerjee and Khan and Banerjee together)
- Carter, Pocahontas (1939) “captures the adventuresome spirit of the settlers arriving in unknown lands and the compassion of the original Americans”.
- Jon Balke, “Siwan – Hafla”: a haunting album about an urban oasis in Egypt, called Siwa
- Wadada Leo Smith & Adam Rudolph, “Compassion” (2006) (47’): “Compassion is again a spiritual journey, starting with lonely and voiceless stuttering by the trumpet, soon joined by slight percussion, like the sounds of the night. The second piece brings us dawn, and as the sun breaks through we get the long notes of Smith's trumpet, supported by Tibetan bells and gongs of Rudolph.” The music evokes the suffering part of compassion.
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Peter Kater & Nawang Khechog, Call of Compassion
- Nawang Khechog, A Call of Compassion to Humanity
- This Adagio movement is generally attributed to Tomasso Albinoni but probably was composed in the 20th century, perhaps based on an Albinoni fragment. No matter; in the linked performance by the cellist Hauser, it evokes loving compassion and the pain of separation.
- Steve Lacy and the Riccardo Fassi Trio, Compassion
- Imee Ooi, Great Compassion Mantra
Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.
[Leonard Cohen, “Sisters of Mercy”]
Harry Wilmans! You who fell in a swamp
Near Manila, following the flag,
You were not wounded by the greatness of a dream,
Or destroyed by ineffectual work,
Or driven to madness by Satanic snags;
You were not torn by aching nerves,
Nor did you carry great wounds to your old age.
You did not starve, for the government fed you.
You did not suffer yet cry "forward"
To an army which you led
Against a foe with mocking smiles,
Sharper than bayonets. You were not smitten down
By invisible bombs. You were not rejected
By those for whom you were defeated.
You did not eat the savorless bread
Which a poor alchemy had made from ideals.
You went to Manila, Harry Wilmans,
While I enlisted in the bedraggled army
Of bright-eyed, divine youths,
Who surged forward, who were driven back and fell,
Sick, broken, crying, shorn of faith,
Following the flag of the Kingdom of Heaven.
You and I, Harry Wilmans, have fallen
In our several ways, not knowing
Good from bad, defeat from victory,
Nor what face it is that smiles
Behind the demoniac mask.
[Edgar Lee Masters, “Godwin James”]
From the dark side:
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Butch Weldy”
"Sergeant!" he cried, "don't you see that that jade is walking off! Who bade you let her go?" "I," said Madeleine. Fantine trembled at the sound of Javert's voice, and let go of the latch as a thief relinquishes the article which he has stolen. At the sound of Madeleine's voice she turned around, and from that moment forth she uttered no word, nor dared so much as to breathe freely, but her glance strayed from Madeleine to Javert, and from Javert to Madeleine in turn, according to which was speaking. It was evident that Javert must have been exasperated beyond measure before he would permit himself to apostrophize the sergeant as he had done, after the mayor's suggestion that Fantine should be set at liberty. Had he reached the point of forgetting the mayor's presence? Had he finally declared to himself that it was impossible that any "authority" should have given such an order, and that the mayor must certainly have said one thing by mistake for another, without intending it? Or, in view of the enormities of which he had been a witness for the past two hours, did he say to himself, that it was necessary to recur to supreme resolutions, that it was indispensable that the small should be made great, that the police spy should transform himself into a magistrate, that the policeman should become a dispenser of justice, and that, in this prodigious extremity, order, law, morality, government, society in its entirety, was personified in him, Javert? However that may be, when M. Madeleine uttered that word, _I_, as we have just heard, Police Inspector Javert was seen to turn toward the mayor, pale, cold, with blue lips, and a look of despair, his whole body agitated by an imperceptible quiver and an unprecedented occurrence, and say to him, with downcast eyes but a firm voice:-- "Mr. Mayor, that cannot be." "Why not?" said M. Madeleine. "This miserable woman has insulted a citizen." "Inspector Javert," replied the mayor, in a calm and conciliating tone, "listen. You are an honest man, and I feel no hesitation in explaining matters to you. Here is the true state of the case: I was passing through the square just as you were leading this woman away; there were still groups of people standing about, and I made inquiries and learned everything; it was the townsman who was in the wrong and who should have been arrested by properly conducted police." Javert retorted:-- "This wretch has just insulted Monsieur le Maire." "That concerns me," said M. Madeleine. "My own insult belongs to me, I think. I can do what I please about it." "I beg Monsieur le Maire's pardon. The insult is not to him but to the law." "Inspector Javert," replied M. Madeleine, "the highest law is conscience. I have heard this woman; I know what I am doing." "And I, Mr. Mayor, do not know what I see." "Then content yourself with obeying." "I am obeying my duty. My duty demands that this woman shall serve six months in prison." M. Madeleine replied gently:-- "Heed this well; she will not serve a single day." At this decisive word, Javert ventured to fix a searching look on the mayor and to say, but in a tone of voice that was still profoundly respectful:-- "I am sorry to oppose Monsieur le Maire; it is for the first time in my life, but he will permit me to remark that I am within the bounds of my authority. I confine myself, since Monsieur le Maire desires it, to the question of the gentleman. I was present. This woman flung herself on Monsieur Bamatabnois, who is an elector and the proprietor of that handsome house with a balcony, which forms the corner of the esplanade, three stories high and entirely of cut stone. Such things as there are in the world! In any case, Monsieur le Maire, this is a question of police regulations in the streets, and concerns me, and I shall detain this woman Fantine." Then M. Madeleine folded his arms, and said in a severe voice which no one in the town had heard hitherto:-- "The matter to which you refer is one connected with the municipal police. According to the terms of articles nine, eleven, fifteen, and sixty-six of the code of criminal examination, I am the judge. I order that this woman shall be set at liberty." Javert ventured to make a final effort. "But, Mr. Mayor--" "I refer you to article eighty-one of the law of the 13th of December, 1799, in regard to arbitrary detention." "Monsieur le Maire, permit me--" "Not another word." "But--" "Leave the room," said M. Madeleine. Javert received the blow erect, full in the face, in his breast, like a Russian soldier. He bowed to the very earth before the mayor and left the room. Fantine stood aside from the door and stared at him in amazement as he passed. Nevertheless, she also was the prey to a strange confusion. She had just seen herself a subject of dispute between two opposing powers. She had seen two men who held in their hands her liberty, her life, her soul, her child, in combat before her very eyes; one of these men was drawing her towards darkness, the other was leading her back towards the light. In this conflict, viewed through the exaggerations of terror, these two men had appeared to her like two giants; the one spoke like her demon, the other like her good angel. The angel had conquered the demon, and, strange to say, that which made her shudder from head to foot was the fact that this angel, this liberator, was the very man whom she abhorred, that mayor whom she had so long regarded as the author of all her woes, that Madeleine! And at the very moment when she had insulted him in so hideous a fashion, he had saved her! Had she, then, been mistaken? Must she change her whole soul? She did not know; she trembled. She listened in bewilderment, she looked on in affright, and at every word uttered by M. Madeleine she felt the frightful shades of hatred crumble and melt within her, and something warm and ineffable, indescribable, which was both joy, confidence and love, dawn in her heart. When Javert had taken his departure, M. Madeleine turned to her and said to her in a deliberate voice, like a serious man who does not wish to weep and who finds some difficulty in speaking:-- "I have heard you. I knew nothing about what you have mentioned. I believe that it is true, and I feel that it is true. I was even ignorant of the fact that you had left my shop. Why did you not apply to me? But here; I will pay your debts, I will send for your child, or you shall go to her. You shall live here, in Paris, or where you please. I undertake the care of your child and yourself. You shall not work any longer if you do not like. I will give all the money you require. You shall be honest and happy once more. And listen! I declare to you that if all is as you say,--and I do not doubt it,--you have never ceased to be virtuous and holy in the sight of God. Oh! poor woman." [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Fifth – The Descent Begins, Chapter XIII, The Solution of Some Questions in Connection with the Municipal Police.]
- Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist or The Parish Boy’s Progress (1839).
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852).
- Daniel Magariel, One of the Boys: A Novel (Scribner, 2017): “Magariel’s gripping and heartfelt debut is a blunt reminder that the boldest assertion of manhood is not violence stemming from fear. It is tenderness stemming from compassion.”
- Colum McCann, Apeirogon: A Novel (Random House, 2020): “This novel, divided into 1,001 fragmentary chapters — a number alluding to 'The Thousand and One Arabian Nights' — reflects the infinite complications that underlie the girls’ deaths, and the unending grief that follows.”
- Sanaë Lemoine, The Margot Affair: A Novel (Hogarth, 2020): “Though the book seems to be about an absent father, it’s more about a tricky mother, and about motherhood in general.” The 17-year-old protagonist is confused but the author treats her with compassion.
- Samar Yazbek, Planet of Clay (World Editions, 2021): “The young, mute narrator of this compassionate novel by the author of The Crossing becomes a poignant emblem of the Syrian women confined by war”.
- Aamina Ahmad, The Return of Faraz Ali: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2022): “Ahmad’s compassion and deep care for the psychological and emotional nuances of her characters never wavers, no matter how monstrous or self-interested or defeated they become.”
- Frances Hardinge, Unraveller: A Novel (Harry N. Abrams, 2023): “Kellen is an Unraveller — someone who can undo curses. Nettle is a girl who was cursed to be a heron until Kellen unraveled her back into her human form. . . The . . . novel’s power springs from the wilderness in its heart: intuitive and compassionate, as intricate as knot work.”
From the dark side:
A little before the sale commenced, a short, broad, muscular man, in a checked shirt considerably open at the bosom, and pantaloons much the worse for dirt and wear, elbowed his way through the crowd, like one who is going actively into a business; and, coming up to the group, began to examine them systematically. From the moment that Tom saw him approaching, he felt an immediate and revolting horror at him, that increased as he came near. He was evidently, though short, of gigantic strength. His round, bullet head, large, light-gray eyes, with their shaggy, sandy eyebrows, and stiff, wiry, sun-burned hair, were rather unprepossessing items, it is to be confessed; his large, coarse mouth was distended with tobacco, the juice of which, from time to time, he ejected from him with great decision and explosive force; his hands were immensely large, hairy, sun-burned, freckled, and very dirty, and garnished with long nails, in a very foul condition. This man proceeded to a very free personal examination of the lot. He seized Tom by the jaw, and pulled open his mouth to inspect his teeth; made him strip up his sleeve, to show his muscle; turned him round, made him jump and spring, to show his paces.
“Where was you raised?” he added, briefly, to these investigations.
“In Kintuck, Mas’r,” said Tom, looking about, as if for deliverance.
“What have you done?”
“Had care of Mas’r’s farm,” said Tom.
“Likely story!” said the other, shortly, as he passed on. He paused a moment before Dolph; then spitting a discharge of tobacco-juice on his well-blacked boots, and giving a contemptuous umph, he walked on. Again he stopped before Susan and Emmeline. He put out his heavy, dirty hand, and drew the girl towards him; passed it over her neck and bust, felt her arms, looked at her teeth, and then pushed her back against her mother, whose patient face showed the suffering she had been going through at every motion of the hideous stranger.
The girl was frightened, and began to cry.
“Stop that, you minx!” said the salesman; “no whimpering here,—the sale is going to begin.” And accordingly the sale begun.
[Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852), Volume II, Chapter 30, “The Slave Warehouse”.]