Can Lit Make the Rich More Empathetic?

Jean Georges Ferry, "Two Women Reading in an Interior"

Jean Georges Ferry, “Two Women Reading in an Interior”

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist known for his support of the downtrodden, has written a column about failures of compassion in our country and what we can do to build empathy. I was glad to see that he included reading literature among his recommendations.

First to the problem. Kristof cites various studies that suggest that those who are wealthy and isolated are less empathetic than the rest of us. Take, for instance, charitable giving:

[T]he wealthiest 20 percent of Americans give significantly less to charity as a fraction of income (1.4 percent) than the poorest 20 percent do (3.5 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That may be partly because affluence insulates us from need, so that disadvantage becomes theoretical and remote rather than a person in front of us. Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas.

Kristof cites a neurological study about how fiction increases empathy, with great fiction proving more effective than beach reading or non-fiction. (I’ve posted on that study here.) Kristof also cites Thomas Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence, which argues that the world is increasing in empathy. Pinker traces some of this back to the 18th century and expanding literacy.

Although I’ve shared Pinker’s ideas in the past (here and here), they’re worth revisiting. You can check out this excerpt for what Pinker says about fiction, but I’ll sum up his major observations.

First, he notes the power of satiric fiction such as, say, Gulliver’s Travels:

We have already seen how satirical fiction, which transports readers into a hypothetical world from which they can observe the follies of their own, may be an effective way to change people’s sensibilities without haranguing or sermonizing.

Turning then to realistic fiction, Pinker borrows a number of ideas from historian Lynn Hunt:

In [the epistolary novel] the story unfolds in a character’s own words, exposing the character’s thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely bestsellers: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Hélöise (1761). Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common. A retired military officer, writing to Rousseau, gushed: You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death must have wrung from me … Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment.”

French philosophe Denis Diderot was also a Richardson fan:

One takes, despite all precautions, a role in his works, you are thrown into conversation, you approve, you blame, you admire, you become irritated, you feel indignant. How many times did I not surprise myself, as it happens to children who have been taken to the theater for the first time, crying: “Don’t believe it, he is deceiving you.”… His characters are taken from ordinary society … the passions he depicts are those I feel in myself.

Pinker cites Hunt’s causal chain, in which “reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights.” While he rightly acknowledges that attributing the decline of violence to literature must be seen with with some skepticism, he still comes down in favor it:

But the full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. And in some cases a bestselling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led to a change in policy. Around the same time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin mobilized abolitionist sentiment in the United States, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839) opened people’s eyes to the mistreatment of children in British workhouses and orphanages, and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (1840) and Herman Melville’s White Jacket helped end the flogging of sailors. In the past century Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse- Five, Alex Haley’s Roots, Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (a novel that features female genital mutilation) all raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored.

One caution is in order. As I’ve noted in the past, if people can play upon the emotions to promote progressive causes, they can also do the same to promote reactionary ones. Here’s a passage from that blog post:

A colleague of mine, Christine Wooley, studies the sentimental novel and talks about how sentiment can be used for less than noble purposes. For instance, late 19thcentury African American novelist Charles Chestnutt was concerned that readers would bathe in novelistic scenes of pathos but not do anything about it. (As a countermeasure, he turned to realism and naturalism, providing almost scientific descriptions of the lives of African Americans.) More perniciously, Thomas Dixon in The Clansman, which D. W. Griffith turned into Birth of a Nation, used emotional scenes of brutish Blacks assaulting virginal white women to justify Jim Crow laws. Emotions can be used for reactionary as well as progressive causes, 

Perhaps a point to be made here is that we must distinguish between different levels of empathy. Great literature opens us up to our full humanity whereas lesser literature does not. For instance, Dixon may open our hearts to Little Sis as she flees from a black rapist, but he reduces us to our primal fears in his depiction of this man. For that matter, Dixon also reduces women to heavenly creatures in his melodrama. By contrast, a great author, even if he’s reactionary (say, Balzac), shows us the full range of what it means to be human.

Put another way, an author who subordinates art to an agenda cannot do justice to our capacity for empathy. Pinker is not a literary historian and so doesn’t dwell on this distinction between good and bad literature, but we can appreciate its importance. And apparently even brain scans are now picking up the difference.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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