I have always been troubled by the question of whether two individuals can really know one another. No matter how much you open yourself up to someone else, leaving yourself utterly vulnerable to life’s harshest elements—heartbreak, loss, despair—there is still a separation between the two individuals. So, how are we to cope with this apparent isolation?
On a physical level, we acknowledge that we are separate beings, bounded by skin, inhabiting a different spatial perspective on the world. I am here. You are there. On a mental level, we attempt to relate what we feel internally in terms of emotions, thoughts, and intuitive feelings through a common language, but we cannot be certain that what we feel and deem love is the same feeling that the other person feels as well. There is always an abyss of individuality, as one of my poetry professors called it, which lies between.
Giuseppe Ungaretti’s “Brothers” (“Fratelli” in the original Italian) explores the physical and metaphysical conditions of the abyss of individuality. Set in the midst of WWI, where Ungaretti fought in the Italian army, his poem is contextualized by the ultimate expression of this divide between the self and the other—war.
Posing the question “What regiment are you from / brothers?” does not simply put the subject at risk of rejection, but of death if the other person is from the opposing force. The next strophes elaborate on the significance of calling someone brother—of asserting a deep and substantial connection between the self and another—as our speaker tells us the word shuddered in the night creating a vulnerability like a “leaf barely open.” It reveals the frailty of the human condition, an isolation created by the abyss of individuality, but Ungaretti’s last line, “Brothers,” acts as a statement of connection between the speaker and the other soldiers. It acts as a resolution to the doubt and uncertainty apparent in the first assertion of brotherhood and, like so many of his other poems, Ungaretti leaves us with a hopeful moment of connection.
Perhaps this is the purpose of art: to fill in the gaps left by the insufficiencies of language in order to span the vastness between individuals, if only for a split second. This seemed to be the goal of the Symbolist painter Munch, Expressionist painters like Pollock and the Modernist Poets, like Ungaretti, who abandoned the old syntax of language to tap into something more visceral. Their works were a new form of communication between them and the other to create a true connection.
The subject of individuality is not just a philosophic mediation of the poets and artists of the past; nor is the connection their works strive to express simply an idealized condition for which there is no scientific basis. The brilliant neuroscientist, VS Ramachandran’s research has discovered what he calls empathy neurons or Gandhi neurons that actually trigger physical feeling in a person who is watching another person being touched. In essence, these neurons break down the barrier between individuals in a very real way, showing that we are not isolated within ourselves, but instead are sharing in others’ experiences—a profound and beautiful notion indeed.