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Volume 1 Issue 14 (16 August 2011)

Finch Holes: From the Attic

Fiction and Empathy

reading

“Was someone asking to see the soul?”
-Walt Whitman

A terrible fact of our humanity is our isolation from one another. Few of us have the ability Walt Whitman seemed to possess of being able to look into the soul of another person. That we cannot know one another’s thoughts is probably a good thing, but that we cannot share one another’s feelings, or even derive another person’s humanity from our own, is tragic. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that no moral law is possible that does not begin with empathy and the compassion that follows from it. Many of the crimes of the twentieth century—and of the twenty-first as well—were, are, perpetrated by those who have no conception of their victims’ personhood. After all, it isn’t the physical being of others that provides us with insight into their lives—it is an individual’s inner life that makes her what she is. Anyone who has nursed a sick or dying person knows that long after the body has decayed the real individual—the emoting, feeling, thinking person—struggles to keep living. The inexpressible and genuine part of us exists in silence, just as Wittgenstein noted in the Tractacus.

Despite this melancholy fact of our isolation, art in general, and literature in particular, can provide us with a glimpse of what it feels like to be someone else. The mystery of consciousness hasn’t been solved—I frankly doubt it ever will be—but literature—the novel—comes as close as is possible to making the inner lives of human beings manifest.

And why should fiction’s ability to open up the inner lives of imaginary people matter? Why do novels please or move us? I would argue that it is precisely because good books allow us vicarious insights into the inner lives of other human beings that we feel pleasure when we read. We want to know what others think and feel so that we can make sense of what we think and feel. Recall that the Greek word pathos means ‘experience‘ as well as ‘emotion.’ To have empathy is to move within range of another’s experience—to share in their humanity. A person who cares about the real lives of other persons can do no better than to read good books; real people withhold themselves from us, but fictional figures are, by definition, vulnerable—their creators deliberately open their characters up to our inspection so that we can, during the time that we read and perhaps (in the case of great books) forever afterward have a sense of what it feels like to be this someone created out of the rich fabric of language.

Consider, for example, the following passage:

 

“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. It was at this point, however, that she remained; changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once–she had tried it–the sense of the slippery and of the sticky. She had looked at the sallow prints on the walls and at the lonely magazine, a year old, that combined, with a small lamp in coloured glass and a knitted white centre-piece wanting in freshness, to enhance the effect of the purplish cloth on the principal table; she had above all from time to time taken a brief stand on the small balcony to which the pair of long windows gave access. The vulgar little street, in this view, offered scant relief from the vulgar little room […] Each time she turned in again, each time, in her impatience, she gave him up, it was to sound to a deeper depth, while she tasted the faint flat emanation of things, the failure of fortune and of honour. If she continued to wait it was really in a manner that she mightn’t add the shame of fear, of individual, of personal collapse, to all the other shames. To feel the street, to feel the room, to feel the table-cloth and the centre-piece and the lamp, gave her a small salutary sense at least of neither shirking nor lying. This whole vision was the worst thing yet–as including in particular the interview to which she had braced herself; and for what had she come but for the worst? She tried to be sad so as not to be angry, but it made her angry that she couldn’t be sad. And yet where was misery, misery too beaten for blame and chalk-marked by fate like a “lot” at a common auction, if not in these merciless signs of mere mean stale feelings?”

 

This paragraph, somewhat amended, opens Henry James’ late novel, The Wings of the Dove (1902). Few writers of English display a surer grasp of the psychology of their characters. James’ own life was rather circumscribed. He lived mostly in England, outside of London, and while he did visit friends and acquaintances, his overwhelming preoccupation was storytelling; he created a world of imaginary lives from his quiet, domestic existence.

Despite his unworldliness, James was a master at evoking moods and suggesting the inner lives of his characters. Note the quiet shifts of tone and mood in this paragraph. Kate Croy, a not very laudable person, waits for a father for whom she feels a mixture of affection and exasperation. Imagine a lesser artist’s rendition of the scene: “Kate was angry at her father for keeping her waiting.  She had important things to do!” James renders the scene with a subtlety comparable to, but greater than, that of Vermeer’s great painting “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.” (A letter plays an important role in Wings of the Dove as well.)

Vermeer’s picture begs us to ask what is in the mind of the girl. Her facial expression is ambiguous—is she sad or pensive? The detail of the tipped fruit bowl perhaps offers a clue to her feelings—she is too upset, or too elated, to tidy the room. So much is suggested, and so much is held back! James, working with tools of language that are at once less “realistic” (since we know the world most intimately through our eyes) and more evocative, is able to deepen our sense of Kate’s feelings. Listen to James again: “Each time she turned in again, each time, in her impatience, she gave [her father] up, it was to sound to a deeper depth . . . She tried to be sad so as not to be angry, but it made her angry that she couldn’t be sad.” All the resources of the novelist’s art are compressed into these lines, and into this passage. The closely observed surroundings, “vulgar,” “narrow,” “low,” are made to reflect Kate’s state of mind, as do the “sallow prints on the walls”—“sallow”—how perfect a word, “sallow,” drained of color and life—you can imagine yourself the shabby room, its furnishings annoying, tasteless, but magnified in their melancholy by the fact that the person seeing them, the person trapped in the room, is disinclined to think well of anything in her state of “mean stale feelings.”

With James, as with Vermeer, we are eavesdropping on an unguarded moment: the inner life of Kate Croy cannot be reduced to a simple formula such as “happy” or “angry.”  Vermeer’s girl is wholly focused on the words before her—they are, we feel, stirring her in some way; but how? It’s impossible to know—she remains closed to us. On the other hand, we know that Kate Croy is irritated, sad, ashamed, bored, and miserable—she doesn’t quite know what she feels. And this emotional ambivalence is to determine Kate’s fate; it is the point of the book and is captured in the opening scenes—we watch it all unfold. Kate does not know how she feels and therefore lacks the one thing most needed—a fully-formed moral self.

James’s real interest in this novel is Milly Theale, a young, dying woman who is offstage for most of the book. James wrote in his preface to Wings of the Dove that “…the case [of the novel] prescribed for its central figure a sick young woman, at the whole course of whose disintegration and the whole ordeal of whose consciousness one would have quite honestly to assist.” [My italics] James is quite clear—he is the midwife who assists in bringing the consciousness of his characters into being; he “focuses his image” of Milly and Kate and the rest of the figures who people his books. And we are there as well—the reader—vicariously living out the last days of the life of a tubercular girl and her tormentors.

I want to be very clear, for there is a serious philosophical point: it is the mind of Henry James that we come to know, for there is no ‘mind’ of Kate Croy or Milly Theale. The complexity of fiction is nowhere more evident than when we seek to untangle the relations among author, character, and reader. James creates the inner lives of two young women, and then we recreate their lives after our own fashion, according to our won proclivities. When I think about Kate Croy I imagine a demure female social climber and a stout male perfectionist genius the two are forever conflated in my mind, and my empathy, my sharing of experience, extends to both.

The novelist David Foster Wallace reminds us that it is the writer’s mind to which we gain access, via the characters that he or she creates:

 

“[T]here is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall in a certain way. But that’s just the first level, because the idea of mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that’s set up through art by the writer. There’s another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. . . There’s a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody [the writer] at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone–intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.”

 

The greatest literary example known to me of the laying open of an inner life is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust’s million-and-a-half–word exploration of his inner life, a life which, like that of James, was both sedentary and melancholy, was intended by the author to be universal. Proust wrote that “Every reader would recognize his own self in what [the novel] says.” The particulars of the novel—dinner parties, love affairs, and long conversations over tea—would seem to have nothing to do with most of our lives, and yet Marcel’s sensibility, his acute powers of observation, and most of all his remembrance of his past life, evoke precisely that empathetic shock of recognition that makes literature so useful in developing a feeling for the inner lives of other human beings. One comes away from your months of immersion in Proust’s novel not only with a deep understanding of the narrator (Proust himself) but with a heightened sympathy for the richness and complexity of any person’s inner life. Proust shows us not only what is in his mind, but the process whereby a reflective person uncovers and brings to light the subconscious material of memory. In Search of Lost Time is a case study demonstrating the extent to which we are the memories of our past; it is a reminder that each of us carries within his mind a world that is as real as the material one which we inhabit—the place where the authentic self resides.

There is another way in which great fiction creates, extends, or enriches our empathy. Fiction extends our sympathy for other human beings by reminding us, in a way that philosophy and theology do not, that human lives are messy affairs—that passions rule our moral choices as much if not more than Kant’s “good will” or any utilitarian sense of fair play. Emma Bovary seems a spoiled, narcissistic romantic—which she is—who must be prevented from reading novels because they provide her with an inner life. Humbert Humbert’s tormented obsession with Lolita appears both criminal and demented (it’s both). At the same time Madame Bovary and Lolita open the inner world of flawed humanity for our inspection, and if we can’t approve of their characters’ moral choices we should at least be moved to broaden our own sense of what an inner life looks like. The late philosopher Bernard Williams thought that sympathy is a far better foundation for an ethical system than any normative rules or essentialist view of “human nature.”  We can’t say what “all people” are like, and we cannot know what the “good” is in every case; but we can deepen our ability to feel compassion by getting to know other beings—real persons and profound fictional creations.

[E]ach of us carries within his mind a world that is as real as the material one which we inhabit—the place where the authentic self resides.

The philosopher Richard Rorty also addressed the issue of morality and fiction. Like Williams, Rorty was impatient with philosophy’s awkward attempts to derive normative rules of conduct from the mystery of ‘human nature’ and preferred the empathetic approach that novelists take in deciphering the inner lives of persons. In Rorty’s view, reading fiction keeps us from committing the acts of cruelty that come so easily when we keep ourselves at an empathetic distance from others. The historian John Dower writes in his book The Cultures of War that “[c]reating havoc and suffering from a safe distance stunts the imagination. Morality as well as sensitivity to the psychology of others becomes dulled.” Think of the use of the drone to deliver ‘shock and awe’ on unsuspecting victims—a form of disengagement taken to its logical extreme.

Rorty says of physical torture that “the best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them seem futile, obsolete, and powerless. The best way to avoid hurting others in this way is to enter into their fantasies.”  Since we value our own “fantasies,” our own dreams and hopes, we are more likely to respect the dreams and hopes of others if we can realize in a non-trivial way what it feels like to be them, whether “they” are expatriate Americans (in James), Russian Counts (in Tolstoy), or Iraqi citizens.

I’d like to close with a final example. In John Williams’ novel Stoner, the aptly named main character lives a life of stoic forbearance. His marriage is unhappy, his only child is an alcoholic, and his professional life is unrewarding. All his hopes and dreams appear to have been thwarted. Then, at mid-life, briefly, he falls in love and has an affair that both he and the reader know is doomed from the start. Despite the fact that Stoner has to abandon the only woman he has ever loved, his internal life, as rendered by Williams, never reflects futility or powerlessness. Indeed, Stoner is ennobled by his resignation, and redeemed by having known love:

 

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being which, if one were lucky, one might access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

 

Williams’ novel is rich testimony to fiction’s power to allow us a glimpse into a person’s mind and heart—to me, William Stoner feels like a living man.  And Williams’ description of love also works as a description of fiction itself—a human act of becoming, both for the writer and the reader, a condition mirroring human life that is modified line by line and page by page by the reader’s will and intelligence and heart.

James Wood, the literary critic, writes in his recent book How Fiction Works: “Of course the novel does not provide philosophical answers (as Chekhov said, it only needs to ask the right questions). Instead, [novels do] what Bernard Williams wanted moral philosophy to do—to give the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric.” Wood ends his discussion of fiction’s moral power by citing a justly famous passage from War and Peace in which Pierre, once a shallow, cynical young man, has a life-changing epiphany: “There was a new feature in Pierre’s relations […] with all the people he now met, which gained for him the general good will. This was his acknowledgment of the impossibility of changing a man’s convictions by words, and his recognition of the possibility of everyone thinking, feeling, and seeing things each from his own point of view.” For Pierre and for us, this recognition is the first step on the path from empathy to compassion to wisdom.

 

 

Photo Source: InfoBarrel
Art: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer, 1657. Public Domain.

4 Responses to Fiction and Empathy

  1. Richard Martin August 18, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    Yes. Fiction teaches love.

    “… His acknowledgment of the impossibility of changing a man’s convictions by words, and his recognition of the possibility of everyone thinking, feeling, and seeing things each from his own point of view … gained for him the general good will.” (James Wood)

    That’s one of the the hardest actions in life for me–to accept fully that another person sees life completely differently than I do & that he is from his side true & justified. That’s the beginning of that flood of “general good will,” of truly loving another as he or she is, not as I want him or her to be. Fiction teaches that. Thank you, George.

  2. Brent Robison August 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    This essay captures perfectly my own thoughts about fiction, and a big part of why I feel called to labor in that often thankless field. So I just had to pass it along via my own blog (see the link).

    And I appreciate Richard Martin’s succinct truth: fiction teaches love.

    Thanks George, Richard, Dan, Katrina, and all you empathetic fictionistas!

  3. michael c. keith July 26, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    This is a brilliant essay!

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