"There's nothing to be gained from passive observance, the simple documenting of conditions, because, at its core, it sets a bad example. Every time something is observed and not fixed, or when one has a chance to give in some way and does not, there is a lie being told, the same lie we all know by heart but which needn't be reiterated." --Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity
In her landmark text, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Martha Nussbaum points to the authority of the arts to play a vital role in cultivating the powers of the imagination essential to citizenship. She specifies, however, that literature is the most effective mode of aesthetic representation, arguing that its ability to illustrate the specific circumstances and problems of people in the world makes literature an especially rich contribution to the "curriculum for world citizenship." She explains: "This is so because of the way in which literary imagining both inspires intense concern with the fate of characters and defines those characters as containing a rich inner life ... in the process, the reader learns to have respect for the hidden contents of that inner world, seeing its importance in defining a creature as fully human."
Perhaps one of the most esteemed authors of contemporary American literature, Dave Eggers has devoted his career to producing texts of this quality. Although he is known for producing stories that illustrate human conditions such as love, loss, and fear, he is equally concerned with highlighting the power of literature to bring about social and political change. Eggers' stories bring together stylistic freedom and social consciousness by experimenting with narrative construction to achieve a profound meta-dialogue on contemporary conflicts and concerns.
In 2002, Eggers' released his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, a fictional account of two friends' journey around the world. Velocity is, on one level, about a young American man who has received what he calls an "embarrassing" amount of money and uses the funds to travel the world trying to give it away. The trip is motivated by the recent violent death of the narrator's childhood friend and his inability to deal with that loss.
Throughout Velocity, a simple plan -- traveling around the world in six days and giving away money -- is shown to be anything but that, partly because the characters believe they should always be able to reasonably identify who deserves their money. It's not always comfortable watching those decisions, however, and they are increasingly forced to question the assumptions that American culture has projected onto people of other nationalities.
In an interview with The New Yorker shortly before the release of Velocity, Eggers describes the burden of witnessing the appalling living conditions of homeless people as he commuted around San Francisco as his inspiration for the story. "It's a terrible thing," Eggers said, "because every one of those people needs your help, so as drivers we do all kinds of things to justify our driving through, our not giving. We tell ourselves that maybe they'll spend it on booze or drugs, or maybe that guy's not really a [veteran] ... our heads race as we try to avoid looking at them, try to process the inequity and our own inaction."
We are all familiar with the uncomfortable emotions experienced when encountering impoverished individuals, ranging from indifference to outrage, from guilt to repulsion, from suspicion to even fear. Eggers is not immune to such incongruous identifications; rather than continuing to avert his gaze and drive away, however, he chose to confront the confusing and often painful truths about the disparity he saw in his community. While some people have appraised Velocity as whimsical and Eggers' writing style as melodramatic, thoughtful reflection can discern the underlying profundity that circulates throughout the story and the author's intense concern with cultivating the capacities of judgment and sensitivity that Nussbaum champions as necessary for global citizenship.
Throughout the story, Will demonstrates an obsessive need to encounter the people he "helps" in tangible and tactile ways. These encounters often bewilder Will, who, under the influence of Hand, devises questionable methodologies for disseminating his funds -- including taping paper bills to the underbelly of a sheep or shoving them into the loose hands of Senegalese prostitutes. Eggers suggests that this feeling of frustration is symptomatic of American civic endeavors: "A lot of people over-intellectualize philanthropy, and we question our purest instinct, which is to just jump out of the car and do everything we can to bring that person ... to the same level of comfort we enjoy ourselves. And that we can't or won't always do that creates a horrible cognitive dissonance, which we bury in all kinds of specious and ultimately patronizing notions of what's best for those who need the help."
Eggers uses imagined conversations in Will's head as a vehicle for his philanthropic musings, helping him "work through problems, solving things, reaching conclusions final, edifying and even, occasionally, mutually agreeable." In Velocity, the dash represents the physical space devoted to such mental exercises. It signals a temporary departure from the present and often interjects in the middle of conversations with deliberations on the ethics or morality of a challenging situation.
In the following excerpt, Will attempts to justify his choice to give one boy a huge amount of cash but not offer any to his younger brother; he realizes, however, that he cannot explain away the inherent injustice of his denial:
-- [Boy:] You do more harm than good by choosing the recipients this way. It cannot be fair.
-- [Will:] How ever is it fair?
-- You owe me.
-- We don't.
-- This is wrong.
-- This is not wrong.
-- You're not sure. You're confused.
-- Yes I am confused.
-- It's all wrong.
He stepped out and closed the door. We got back on the road ...
-- "I don't feel bad about that," Hand said.
-- "I hated that fucker."
But nothing else in the world had changed.
Nussbaum unwittingly captures the significance of Egger's imaginary dialogue between Will and the people he encounters when describing another celebrated American author, Walt Whitman: "The imagining he demands promotes a respect for the voices and the rights of others, reminding us that the other has both agency and complexity, is neither a mere object nor a passive recipient of benefits and satisfactions." Although the dialogues that Will participates in are not always grounded in reality or probability, the compositional rendering of the intense mental effort necessary to generate sympathetic, reflective conversations reveals a level of literary sophistication that is truly remarkable.
Following the publication of Velocity, Eggers shifted his focus from his own ethical deliberations to crafting stories with altruistic endeavors that would impact communities at home and abroad. These works include What is the What, Zeitoun, and the more recent compositions produced under the "Voice of Witness" series. In each of these stories, Eggers acts as a mediator and translator of the oral histories of individuals that have been oppressed or unrepresented in contemporary society.
At the root of these stories are intense and moving accounts of real human suffering, which is captured and conveyed with a sense of immediacy and urgency that is meant to galvanize reading audiences to compassionate action. While the storytelling and literary structures that propel the plot of the story are notable, what is most remarkable about these works is the literal transaction that occurs when the book is sold. Not only has Eggers' achieved affective social activism through his convincing renderings of social injustices, one hundred percent of the profits from these books are donated to the individuals and their communities across the globe. This kind of community service, manifested through both rhetorical and economic transactions, is simply breathtaking.
Recently, as I was composing this essay, I drove a few blocks down to the 24-hour Wendy's at the end of my street. It was a little before two in the morning; the roads were quiet, and the neon glow of the red and yellow sign washed over me as I rolled into the drive through lane. As I turned the corner to place my order, I saw a man leaning against the rail around the patio. I rolled down my window and proceeded around the next bend, watching the man rouse himself and quickly stumble in the opposite direction behind the restaurant.
When I arrived at the window to pay, he was standing there, waiting. The cashier inside could not see him standing there; but I could, and he was looking right at me. The man lifted his hand, bending his fingers as if holding a baseball or, in my rough approximation, a cheeseburger, touching his fingers to lips. I cringed. The cashier handed me my greasy sack and the window banged shut. The man dropped his hands to his side. I could see tufts of gray fuzz peeking out from underneath his blue beanie. He gazed at me for a second, and I looked away.
I drove maybe two blocks back toward my home. Although I am ashamed to admit that I left, I am so grateful for that moment of uncertainty. I realized that it didn't matter how he had gotten to that place or where he came from; he was just an old man, he was hungry, and he was asking for my help.
I flipped the car around and rolled back into the parking lot. The man had returned to his post, but was sitting down with his legs stretched out in front of him. A four-legged cane leaned against the curb beside him. I pulled up next to him and stupidly said, "Are you hungry?" I took his request and went back through the drive through, ordering several items off of the value menu.
When I came around to where he was sitting, he stood. Now that I was closer to him I could see that he was missing three of his front teeth. But he was smiling. "I'm gonna go lay down now," he said.
As I was driving home, I kept hearing him say that in my head. It made me happy to think that through a simple act I had given this man rest, that for this night, our night, we both felt whole and human for encountering each other. And even though he didn't tell me his story, I have heard it before. I have heard it in the voice of unfortunate Jo, sweeping the streets in Charles Dickens' Bleak House. I have heard it in the lovely lyrics of Richard Wright's Black Boy. I have heard it in the southern twang of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
Despite the enduring humanist belief in and longing for the concept of a universal humanity that connects us across national and cultural divides, I have come to the realization that cultural and economic differences shape not only people's lifestyles but also their inner thoughts, desires, and perspectives of the world. Adding dimensions to one's life view and challenging one's value system can be a painful endeavor, and at times we are so blinded by our own visions of ourselves and the national contexts we grew up in that images of the other become obscured.
What one can see, however, is how the needs of another are enacted by their circumstances and even how one's own being can affect the circumstances, positively or negatively, of another's existence. As Nussbaum concludes, "One of the things imagining reveals to us is that we are not all brothers under the skin, that circumstances of oppression form desire and emotion and aspiration ... A society that wants to foster the just treatment of all its members has strong reasons to foster an exercise of the compassionate imagination that crosses social boundaries, or tries to."
And that means caring about literature.
The HuffPost College Thesis Project gives students a chance to share with a wide audience the fruit of their hard academic work. The project is launching with about a dozen partner schools, which comprise students from public and private, two- and four-year colleges. To read all posts in the series, visit here.