Re: David Foster on Empathy

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of literature is its access to all those extra minds (and feelings). My freshman teacher asked why I wanted to major in English. Because I like people, I said, then paused. I don’t really like people – many are irritating and frankly I can be a bitch. The real reason then – and now – was they fascinate.

I loved critic’s insights – though not as much as narratives. So, if the following is bitter, remember I’m more jilted lover than fair observer. When I was young, we spoke openly of our passion for our discipline, but now the academy discourages such talk, understandably fearing sentimentality. But is cynicism all that attractive? It is brittle. And thin. For isn’t “strange” as Gopnik privileges it, a superficial criteria? He condemns Gottschall, a literary critic who is breaking new ground in literary theory, as a “popularizer;” Gopnik speaks from his regular gig at The New Yorker as an academic and he’s probably right. More’s the pity.

David Foster comments that empathy includes both our ability to understand others and what we do with that understanding. We recognize that maturity comes from broadening sympathies but we’ve all known con men (and, if unlucky, psychopaths) who read us rather well. But the generative subset of bio-criticism in which Gottschall works include “Theory of Mind” studies, especially Lisa Zunshine’s. It analyzes one literary signal of empathy: our ability to “think” as another. asking what does he think, what does she think he thinks, what does he think she thinks he thinks? But empathy is also part of a fiction writers’ ability. We take it for granted, though a genre with a bad reputation for wooden characters and contrived plots is “the novel of ideas.” Authors don’t make works “live” since characters are means rather than ends. Perhaps that happens when we professionalize our reading as well – the ideas we seek dominate our understanding of character. David posits “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.” Critics shouldn’t “lose themselves in a good story” but keep their antennae up.

Still academia has become brittle – no wonder many think it is likely to break. Perhaps it is the treasure hunt for ideas. Or, perhaps, a strong man who appears heroic attracts readers of heroic literature. Or perhaps the increasingly protected and cocooned life within academia intensifies the vicarious thrill of men acting – breaking a few eggs. And, as Stalin understood, our sympathy is better engaged by a limited few. To some extent that isn’t bad – our responsibility is to those nearest, a more specific sympathy is more active than a broader one. Still, by the end of the twentieth century, communism managed to kill a hundred million people; England pulled out of its colonies and America left the Marshall Plan in its wake in Europe when it won and the Khmer Rouge in its wake when it didn’t. For years, in academic circles, Stalin was admired, then Mao; many adore Che Guevera. Marx retains his admirers. Indeed, academics condemn McCarthy more often than the Gulags. All may not share my fly-over chauvinism, but the hundred million dead remain, a silenced reminder of what is wrong with a system that so misreads human nature and natural law. And surely it isn’t empathy that led so many astray?

A phony empathy, perhaps: sympathy for the masses demonstrated by “caring” and giving the finger to bourgeois businessmen. This week, I and my friends received a flurry of e-mails about current heresies in the Catholic church. A link complained in passing of Foucault’s unhealthy influence on lit crit and mentioned Foucault frequented bathhouses long after he knew he had AIDS. A friend went through graduate school a generation or two after I, immersing herself in theory. But she was shocked. While I remember reading articles about Foucault’s personal life by neo-cons in NYRB (we subscribed before Bush bashing became tedious); however, it wasn’t mentioned in her classes. Understandable. Such anecdotes strain objective appreciation of theories of power. What is the greatest of irresposible powers (as Frederick Douglass would note) – the ability to control, to end another’s life with no ramifications to the self? But Foucault’s naked exercise of this great power tells much about him, perhaps much about his theory. Of course, if we have mastered the aesthetic of the strange and are immured in, say, The Naked Lunch, we might see edginess. Or not. Because to do so is to see others not as individuals but as the “other.”

Perhaps academic ennui comes from the extraordinary effort to balance cognitive dissonance. Critical thinking seems bifurcated: modern narrators are disproportionately the victimized rather than the heroic but academic political sympathies are with the violent, the bully. Our sympathy for Macbeth is real – in some ways more intense because we know him better, but in the real world should our advocacy be for him or those who’ve died at his hand? Our natural sympathy might be tempered and complex, but generally wouldn’t our policy restrain rather than enable an older man who seduces a girl not yet able to consent? Nabokov supports Planned Parenthood? Depends on how he’s read, but probably not; his Lolita is victim but the “educated” reader Gopnik evokes identifies with Humbert. We can see, however, modern aesthetics far more complex but also often twisted.

And forget tyrants don’t consider themselves tyrants. Scratch a dictator and you’ll hear his tales of victimization and righteous representing of justice for the oppressed – the slaughter may be of kulaks or Jews, Armenians or Tsutsis, Swamp people or landowners, but the slayer is righteous. Isn’t power an unstable criteria, applied to others, applied to ourselves? This isn’t a new problem. Still, wouldn’t sympathy for homosexuals lead to revulsion at those who would choose, from nihilism or hedonism, personal pleasure over another’s life? While sympathy for Che Guevera or Black Panthers as fellow humans is a theoretical goal, surely policy (and Crit Race Theory) would be prompted by sympathy for the tortured Cuban farmer or victim trapped in a culture rather than valorizing the rapist and murderer. Obscuring who kills whom and who rapes whom does victims little real good. Academics, too often, side not with victim or even with life, but with death.

And this charming man in the White House. What does he think? His heart goes out to immigrants, so he hobbles together a plan that ensures uncertainty – the enemy of peace for illegals. He who governs least may govern best, but he who governs in a predictable manner – he who enforces a rule of laws and not of whims – is a better leader than one who doesn’t. And one who respects those who vote for him. Obama hearts women – that is sentimentalizes, then infantilizes. And, clearly, he thinks leaks endangering those who battle tyranny are just fine if they continue his own reign. And not if they don’t. So, who is the victim – hundreds killed in Mexico or the president who faces a critical reporter? A Pakistani doctor who begins a 33 year term or Eric Holder? Obama understands cognitive dissonance – he lives it. When people have said he is academic they have meant neither his scholarship nor depth; they have meant his attitude. And they have meant it as a compliment. More’s the pity.

I shouldn’t praise Gottschall; he probably doesn’t agree & it does him little good. However, insights inspired by familial feeling and implied natural law usefully counter the tenets of Marx & Foucault. Such critical theory values real empathy – one that rounds out characters, draws us to narrative, and leads us to cherish life – seeing in others, if not the divine, then the remarkably fascinating and human.

And Whittle, as with so much else, does Fast and Furious well.

3 thoughts on “Re: David Foster on Empathy”

  1. Andre Maurois suggested that people who are intelligent but not in any way creative tend to eagerly adopt predefined systems of thought. Writing specifically about Sir Robert Peel, he said:

    “Like all intelligent men who are not in any way creative, Sir Robert Peel was dangerously sympathetic towards the creations of others. Incapable of formulating a system, he threw himself voraciously on those he came across, and applied them more vigorously than would their inventors.”

    I don’t know enough about Sir Robert to know whether or not this is a fair critique in his case, but I think it’s pretty valid on the whole, though I would change the formulation a bit. Those who tend to be excessively devoted to particular intellectual systems, IMO, are those who *concretize abstractions*..who think that some conceptual model, which may be useful under particular circumstances, is actually something real and tangible.

    I think that the concretization of abstractions, and the excessive devotion to particular theoretical systems, is probably especially strong among academics, but it also seems to be a common product of getting an advanced degree, whether that degree is a PhD in English or an MBA or even a PhD in computer science. I’ve know MBAs to whom the imagined position of a business on the BCG Growth/Share Matrix (dogs, stars, cows, question marks) was far more real than the actual specifics of the particular business.

  2. Along the lines of Foucault – and “Theory” – and writing as one who toyed with pursuing an academic career in English Literature — I turned away from that path largely because I saw I would be expected to fashion my aesthetic appreciation for writing, and whatever edification I, or anyone, derived from that – into a mere coarse, clumsy bludgeon serving entirely political purposes and no other. I’d have to become a barbarian.

    Foucault and today’s progressive Liberals share this: they are not critics of power, they are connoisseurs. It is a right deadly distinction.

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