Empathy – A Belated Response to Foster

David Foster’s thoughtful “Fiction and Empathy” notes Keith Oatley’s research on reading fiction and empathy. Surely a writer’s empathy is important – Dreiser didn’t seem to like his characters, why would we? Literature often celebrates the sacred or unifies a people. Some is marginalizes the other. Surely, whether fiction leads to empathy or not is complex.

This belated riff is prompted by Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. In a cutesy (his shtick) and dismissive review, Adam Gopnik simplifies Gottschall’s argument, using the ever popular straw man of academia. Well, no, these professional consumers of story are seldom moral exemplars. Indeed, some display an unusual inability to empathize.

Gopnick’s instinctive perspective is academic and theoretical. But literature belongs to all, as does our obsessive need for narrative, connecting and making sense by structuring and patterning. Gopnik does like one study, Robin Dunbar’s of primitive species and gossip. Such gossip is, tellingly, “a way of exchanging social information—who grooms who for how long tells who’s up and who’s down.” So, he sees a theory that, he summarizes, concerns status. We aren’t surprised by a New Yorker writer’s values.

Gottschall’s energy (and synergy) is countered by Gopnik’s ennui and pointsmanship, one characterizing the mid-twentieth century. Here, for instance, is Gopnik

Good stories are strange. What strong scientific theories, even those crafted in pop form, have in common with good stories is not some specious universality. It’s that they make claims so astonishing that they seem instantly very different from all the other stories we’ve ever heard. Good stories are startling. A sensitive, educated man is mad with lust for an eleven-year-old girl! Yikes! (Or, Yuck! Which is the same reaction with a slightly different sound.)

Well, we’ve moved into the 21st century. Perhaps we could move on.

Such an aesthetic only works so long – the frisson of the liminal must then be topped by the stranger, then stranger. Art becomes peripheral to our experience, indeed, to our culture and our values. And the “sensitive, educated” critic may empathize with the “sensitive, educated” character – limits are no less restraining because the speaker doesn’t consider himself bourgeois.

Gopnik chooses one of the great “yuck” themes. We consider pedophilia strange, but it is not the strangeness of Humbert Humbert that makes the novel work but its depiction of human nature. Gopnik has a point, great literature surprises – with wordplay, with the art wrung from conventions, with wit & insight. But, recognition remains important. The audience watching Sophocles knows Oedipus’ fate, but giving themselves over to the experience, are awed but also recognize kinship. Shakespeare’s plots are not original but the muscular, beautiful (and understandable) life he adds to those skeletons is. Surely, adultery is not strange. But The Scarlet Letter is a “good story.” Are the conclusions of great works strange? Surprising, perhaps, if we have been entangled –as surely the author wants us to be – in emotions, but, pausing, we recognize inevitability.

If the principle virtue of art is its strangeness, its shelf life is less than one that probes human nature, playing itself out in surprising ways we feel with a jolt are inevitable. Gottschall takes that nature as starting point – how does narrative reveal it, how does narrative characterize it? Gopnik values looking at art as art. That is useful. But isn’t ignoring human nature how we ended up in a cul de sac – assuming only uniqueness, only strangeness? And isn’t that most likely to hinder our ability to empathize, to feel kinship?

Gottschall senses natural law lies beneath responses from different cultures and times. In “The Moral of the Story,” he uses Jonathan Haidt’s work. “Imagining the Unimaginable” defines the limits of empathy (and respect, even, of believability). It would be strange – indeed, “Unimaginable” – if Oedipus never found out his wife was his mother; but our mind would rebel even more if, learning it, he was unconcerned. One is the inevitability of plot as well as life (the other shoe must drop or the story isn’t over). This is the example Haidt sets & Gottschall quotes. The “yuck” factor comes from our revulsion – one likely to arise when natural law is violated.

Those like Gottschall see their theories battling religion; still, he recognizes the elephant in the room: the central & sacred nature of religious narrative: “Religion is a human universal, present – in one form or another. . . .Even now, in this brave age of brain science and genomics, God is not dead, dying, or really even ailing.” And these narratives remain (as they always have) the fount of others. His may be popularized literary criticism but it is not silly and it is honest. He understands he is dealing with the big issues. And one of the biggest may be that literature does not belong to literature departments.

Our dreams are personal narratives. Our sacred ones are communal. But reading fiction in our separate rooms, narratives connect us on a human level. Entering that inky world, we aren’t alone. Separate consciousnesses (defined and strengthened by reading itself) and fallen egoes rent us from one another, but, in reading, literature joins dispersed readers, creators, and inky people in a human if not a sacred community. And in that joining comes a kind of empathy, though how it transfers depends on the inky characters, the readers, the narrative.

6 thoughts on “Empathy – A Belated Response to Foster”

  1. I read great literature in college (back when it was still taught) but my preference in fiction is more popular. There are something like 40 plots in all of fiction. They were mostly written 2000 years ago. Everything since is a variation of old themes. A more recent plot is “The Prisoner of Zenda.” It was written in the 19th century but the plot has been reused several times, such as in the movie “Dave.” Daphne Du Maurier used much the same plot in “The Scapegoat.”

    My personal preference is fiction that teaches me something. Examples are two favorite writers. One is WEB Griffin although his work is declining as he ages and his son writes quite a bit of it. He teaches his reader stories that are true with interesting characters that the readers, mostly men I’m sure, get interested in them. His books are mostly in series that continue the characters, There are about 6 or 8 series.

    My other favorite is Neville Shute whose books are all in print 50 years after he died. Again he makes interesting characters. He traveled all over the world in search of material and his stories are based on his own experiences, which were wide ranging. Such as flying his small plane from England to Australia and back. He was an engineer and his novels are wonderful for engineers and for conservatives as he was very conservative. He emigrated to Australia in 1950 to escape the Socialists and tells the story in a novel.

    Another favorite, whose books are badly dated now, is Helen MacInnes. The stories are WWII and Cold War tales but the novels are great travelogues. I have spent many hours finding her locations in Europe.

  2. When talking about empathy, I think it’s important to distinguish between the *ability to understand* another individual’s emotions (which I’ll call Empathy 1) and the *tendency to care* about that individual’s emotions and well-being (Empathy 2). A good con man will have a lot of Empathy 1, but little or no empathy 2, while a well-meaning but clueless person may have a lot of Empathy 2 but insufficient Empathy 1.

    The question of why the fiction-readers in university departments of English do not generally have tremendous Empathy 1 and/or Empathy 2 in their daily work lives is interesting. I’d observe that:

    a)The career pressure in academia seem to be toward a very clinical, theoretical, and even cold approach to subjects…indeed, I wonder about the ratio of actual fiction-reading to the reading of other academic papers ABOUT fiction.

    b)Gopnik makes the simplistic mistake of single-variable analysis. It’s possible that fiction-reading contributes 37 empathy points (however measured) in the average individual, but that other factors which frequently occur in academics (status anxiety, perhaps, coupled with a feeling of alienation from one’s society) contribute *negative 48* empathy points.

  3. I read some of the “fiction” my daughter was assigned in her freshman English course at U of Arizona. One series of “stories” was John and Mary. I guess the story is called “Happy Endings”, which of course are not there. Fortunately, she decided to go back to junior college for her lower division stuff and is now back at U of A majoring in French. She wants to live in France.

    It’s no wonder kids don’t read with that stuff assigned.

  4. This is what stood out for me:

    Gopnik is quoted as writing:

    “Good stories are strange. What strong scientific theories, even those crafted in pop form, have in common with good stories is not some specious universality. It’s that they make claims so astonishing that they seem instantly very different from all the other stories we’ve ever heard.”

    Well, no. In fact not even close. Strong scientific theories have great power to explain the natural world, ans they are very rarely, if ever, “astonishing.” The reaction to great theories is usually, skepticism, followed by testing, and more or less gradual acceptance.

    Understanding his ignorance of science helps to understand his ignorance of literature, and why “serious” authors are rarely, if ever, commercially successful (aside from the vagaries of the publishing business). We like literature that explains our humanity to us.

  5. Michael,

    Sad commentary on the U of A but all of my kids took every class they could at Pima CC too whenever they had the option, only going to the U of A campus when there was no choice … like the required course my daughter suffered through on campus on the positive influence of the communist party on blacks in northern Alabama during the depression.

    I suspect that is not merely a Tucson deal – probably the case in every university in America when the kids have a junior college option.

  6. I suspect the concept of “serious” is flawed – a romanticization of both artist and art. Popularity may not precisely correlate with good for the sentimental does evoke an immediate and intense reaction. But, in the long run, I doubt the good & the popular are as opposed as Gopnik implies – and Gottschall is right, the differences are in degree rather than kind. Shakespeare was not unpopular nor was the King James version of the Bible; my students are moved by John Donne and Nathaniel Hawthorne; I’m not a big fan of Dickens but he is considered a major writer and masses waited with held breath for his concluding chapters. And Sophocles may have gotten second prize for Oedipus, but, it did win.

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