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.