Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Literature and Empathy

In 2013, two social scientists from the New School published the results of a study suggesting that reading literary fiction made people more empathetic. A recent study has failed to find the same correlation.


When I read the original story, I cringed. In the first place, there is no need to pinpoint a value to reading beyond the pleasure people get from the reading itself. It also struck me that such a study would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out with true scientific rigor.

It would not be sufficient simply to compare the responses of readers and non-readers to a bank of questions designed to identify empathetic characteristics. That might "prove" that readers were more empathetic, but not that the reading itself made them so. A more likely explanation would be that empathetic people naturally take pleasure in the emotional content of books, whereas those who aren't empathetic have little desire to share the daily ups and downs of characters who, after all, don't really exist.

To prove the point scientifically would require an large, undifferentiated pool of people who had never read anything. Half would be given novels. The other half would be deprived of them. Years later, tests would be given to see where the greater empathy lay.

I seriously doubt if the studies in question were actually conducted along those lines.

Then again, we ought to ask ourselves: Is empathy always a good thing? Where does it rank on the hierarchy of qualities in comparison to honesty, perspicacity, ingenuity, drive, and tact, for example? Are there situations in which empathy would be out of place—a war tribunal, for example? Can empathy be harmful to the individual who feels it?

Is it appropriate to become annoyed if a friend wants to share our pain when we're doing our best to forget about it?

As I ponder these issues, I'm reminded of the surveys that crop up here and there in the sketchbooks of the Swiss novelist and playwright Max Frisch. Opening the volume from 1966 to 1971 I hit immediately on a questionnaire about hope, which I've shortened for the present purpose:

1. How often must a particular hope (say, a political one) fail to materialize before you give it up. And can you do this without immediately forming another hope?

2. Do you sometimes envy other living creatures who seem to be able to live without hope (for example, fish in an aquarium)?

3. When some private hope is at last realized, how long as a rule do you feel it was a valid hope, that is, that its realization has brought you as much as you had been expecting from it all these years?

4. What hope have you now given up?

5. In regard to the world situation, do you hope:
a. that reason will prevail?
b. that a miracle will occur?
c. that everything will go on as before?

6. What fills you with hope:
a. nature?
b. art?
c. science?
d. the history of mankind?

7. Assuming that you distinguish between your own hopes and those that others (parents, teachers, friends, lovers) place in you, when are you more depressed: when the former or when the latter are not fulfilled?

8. What do you hope to gain from travel?

9. When you know that someone is incurably ill, do you arouse hopes in him that you know to be false?

But we're getting off the track here. The thing about literature, I think, is that it expands our horizons and allows us to experience all manner of things without really suffering the consequences personally. The most important lesson we take from it, perhaps, is the one I got from Jack Burden in freshman English while reading All the King's Men: "Whatever you live, it's life."

In other words, as far as life is concerned, there are no models or standards. Each one of us cuts a new path, good or bad, light or dark, most likely dappled but perhaps with a cool breeze blowing through it.

And it just might be that reading Lord Jim or My Antonia has helped us find a better and a more worthy one.

To which Max Frisch might ask: "Worthy? How so?"  

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