Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Do unto others ...

Over the years, I have read plenty of trashy, potboiler, fiction.  I have also read a number of serious works of literature. The past few summers even included syllabi that I carefully constructed (FYI: The 2016, and 2015 lists)

Over the years, the potboiler fiction and cheap movies have pretty much disappeared from my radar.  As I have often remarked in this blog, reading great works of literature, and watching movies that are about the human condition, help me with trying to understand the "other," which is pretty much everybody other than me.  In the process, I begin to understand myself too.

I have also blogged often that my intuitive, personal-observation-based, view is that despite the fact that we are more educated than ever before, we are reading less of literature. I routinely poll  students in my classes about a few classics that I expect to appeal to young readers in particular (like Fahrenheit 451) and the response is always discouraging.  For that matter, even my faculty colleagues seem to be unfamiliar and uninterested in some of the great works.  Yet,  these very faculty can be all high and mighty defending the value of the humanities.  WTF, right?
Many humanists have difficulty in presenting their case because they are used to speaking one way among themselves and another way to outsiders. To the public at large, they still make statements about the value of great books, of the noblest things said by the most brilliant minds and of the need to know the Western heritage. Among themselves, such talk is, at best, hopelessly dated. Perhaps one reason literary scholars make an unconvincing case to outsiders is that they do not believe it themselves.
Students often come to college without having any grasp of what reading great works entails. Their AP and other exams test knowledge of facts about literature, not actually understanding it. Classes teach them to hunt for symbols, to judge writers according to current values, or to treat masterpieces as mere documents of their times. The first method makes reading into a form of puzzle solving, the second allows us to compliment ourselves on our advanced views, and the third misses the point that great literature speaks outside the context of its origin. Tolstoy is not great because he tells us about czarist Russia or the Napoleonic wars.
How unfortunate!
Here’s an alternative approach: Why not approach great literature as a source of wisdom that cannot be obtained, or obtained so well, elsewhere?
Exactly!  This is exactly what I have been talking about, and practicing, for years now.
And great writers present ethical questions with a richness and depth that make other treatments look schematic and simplistic.Moreover, great literature, experienced and taught the right way, involves practice in empathy. When we read a great novel, we identify with the heroine. We put ourselves in her place, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become our bad choices. Even when we do not like her, we may wince, suffer, put the book down for a while. The process of identification, feeling and examination of feeling may happen not just once but, in the course of a long novel, thousands of times. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as this constant practice in ethical thought or that direct sensation, felt over and over again, of being in the other person’s place.
The most important lesson novels teach is not a fact or a message but the skill of empathy and of seeing the world from other points of view. Practiced often enough, that skill can become a habit.
Seriously, isn't it tragic that these are not self-evident, and that the president of Northwestern University and his faculty colleague there have to write a commentary to remind higher education professionals about these?

Empathy does not come easily to us.  We need to learn about it, and experience it over and over.  We learn and experience empathy through the profound works of literature.  I still remember feeling devastated after reading A farewell to arms.  As I noted in a post:
Felt so empty inside when it ended that I had to wait out a couple of days before blogging this.
Hemingway simply sucked everything out of me with the anti-war story where the American protagonist signs up to serve in the medical corps of the Italian army in order to fight the good war, ends up deserting that only to have the military come after him because of his AWOL status as an officer, flees to neutral Switzerland with his British "wife" who is pregnant ... and then Hemingway lets the wife die after a difficult birth of a stillborn child. That is simply too cruel!
Empathy, dear reader, for this fictional character leads to empathy for the real ones in the real world.
What could be more important, for ethical and social understanding, than the ability to grasp what it is like to be someone from a different culture, period, social class, gender, religion or personality type? And one learns why even those broad categories won’t do, because one senses what it is like to be a particular other person. And that, too, is an important lesson: no one experiences the world in quite the same way as anyone else.
If we could more easily put ourselves in the position of others and put on a set of glasses to see the world in their way, we might very well, when those glasses are off, still not share their beliefs. But we will at least understand people better, negotiate with them more effectively, or guess what measures are likely to work. Just as important, we will have enlarged our sense of what it is to be human. No longer imprisoned in our own culture and moment, or mistaking our local and current values for only possible ones, we will recognize our beliefs as one of many possibilities -- not as something inevitable, but as a choice.



Ramesh said...

Why would it be easier to develop empathy for a literary character rather than a real life character ? If we can't feel for somebody who we can see, hear and touch, how would we feel empathy for a character only in an imagination. I suspect the basic quality of empathy is partly something you are born with and partly something which experiences in life shape.

I, for one, attach a lot of value for reading, but empathy would not feature prominently in it. I value the different experiences, the different points of view, the understanding of different scenarios, different values etc.

Yes, reading has significantly diminished, but I suspect it has been replaced by the visual and auditory mediums. Now how much of all this is consumed for value rather than mindless entertainment is a different question.

Sriram Khé said...

Reading for pleasure, or reading for intellectual stimulation, does not guarantee any bit of development of empathy ... I suspect that as kids we are all born with the capabilities to develop empathy, but we are trained out of it. Trained by our parents, our teachers, and--most importantly--by our peers. When then choose to be empathetic or not:
"Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be."

One sure way to not feel empathy is by declaring that the circumstance will never happen to us. Alcoholics on the sidewalk, a homeless person, a woman weighing whether or not to have an abortion, a Muslim woman harassed for her hijab, ... I know I will never be that person because these are all situations that can never happen to me. I can then easily carry on with my life completely apathetic. I choose empathy instead.

To be able to imagine and feel how that other person feels in a cicrumstance that is different from ours, well, we cannot afford to conduct real experiments in life. The fictional world offers us that training by presenting us scenarios after scenarios.

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