Empathy and literary fiction

Thursday, March 6, 2014

All of a sudden there are numerous articles concerning recent studies about the relationship between the cultivation of empathy and the reading of literary fiction. Sociological/psychological “studies” always carry with them a faint whiff of spuriousness, since their findings simply can’t be measured in the same manner as studies in the hard sciences. Nevertheless, some of them are suggestive, and this one particularly so, for lovers of literature first of all, but also for anyone concerned about what has been widely identified as a diminution of empathy among the privileged classes today. The findings suggest that readers of literary fiction perform better on tests of empathy than people who read only non-fiction.

Literary fiction, as opposed to nonfiction and “popular” mass-market fiction, offers extra dimensions of penetration into the human interior. Gifted writers are able to portray complex characters from the inside out, with all their inner conflicts that never surface for the world to see and, indeed, are little understood even by their closest family members. I am finally getting around to reading (very slowly) the canonical, multi-volume In Search of Lost Time by Proust, arguably the most psychologically acute novel ever written, almost certainly the most thoroughgoing — while at the same time mysterious and poetic — portrait of the inner life to be found anywhere. But these thoughts have been prompted by a small novel, a short easy read. Along with Proust I am reading less demanding books, and the one that elicited this posting is a recently published novel called The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal. I read an interesting review of it in The New York Times and immediately bought it at my local, beloved indie bookstore. I found myself swept up into the character of a middle-aged Jewish professor who returns to Vienna after the war (WW2) and finds himself bewildered by the changes. Entering into the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind of a person such as that, utterly unlike myself, placed into circumstances unknown to me, was such a privilege. Non-fiction simply can’t do that.

The often-noted fact that great movies cannot be made from great books can be accounted for along these lines. The book can tell you precisely what a character is feeling and thinking, whereas even the greatest actors can only suggest. I think The Exiles Return might make a pretty good movie, actually, but it can’t do what the book does. A movie can show the character Kanakis, a member of Vienna’s small but significant prewar Greek community, returning after the war. It can suggest his dismay at the damage to his city. It can show him going into a confectioner’s shop and buying a whole tray of pastries, but it can’t tell you why this rejuvenates him. It might try, by inventing a few sentences of dialogue, but it couldn’t possibly tell you what the purchase meant to his psyche, nor could it summon up prewar Vienna in the way that the novel does in one paragraph.

I don’t know what is to be done about the fact that people read less and less. A few parents that I know have accomplished wonders with their children by filling their houses with books and strictly limiting the use of electronic devices until the preteen years. I have met a few home-schooled children who are voracious readers. But on the whole, the overwhelming presence of social media has overwhelmed the importance of reflection and the development of the mind and spirit. If it is true that reading literary fiction helps to develop empathy, might it not be a Christian imperative to rethink the whole matter of reading habits?

The Exiles Return is a very worthwhile novel, though by no means as revelatory as another book with a somewhat similar backstory, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. Both were discovered long after the author’s deaths, though Némirovsky’s was written in far more harrowing circumstances. Both women were highly educated, upper-class, assimilated Jews, though de Waal escaped the fate of Némirovsky. Readers will be interested to know that her grandson, Edmund de Waal, wrote the well-regarded The Hare with Amber Eyes.

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