The Dangers of Emotional Identification

Wilhelm Amberg, Reading the Sorrows of Young Werther


Zambian-American novelist Namwali Serpell recently wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books that challenges, among other things, some key assumptions of this blog. Criticizing those who laud novels for helping us sympathize with people unlike ourselves, she goes after George Eliot for asserting that, “if Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

Given that I see enlarging sympathies as one of literature’s strengths, it behooves me to examine Serpell’s arguments.

Just because we feel sympathy for a literary character, she says, doesn’t mean that we will then work to end oppression. For one thing, feeling doesn’t necessarily lead to action. As Rousseau warned, we may just remain within our private sphere, sympathizing without doing anything:

In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give anything more of ourselves; whereas unfortunate people in person would require attention from us, relief, consolation, and work, which would involve us in their pains and would require at least the sacrifice of our indolence.

Serpell notes that, because narrative art is such an “incredible vehicle for virtual experience—we think and feel with characters,” we think that it stimulates empathy. Instead, however, it just simulates empathy. Furthermore, because literary characters are not real people, the simulation misleads us. Quoting philosopher Candice Vogler, Serpell writes that

fictional characters lack two qualities fundamental to humans: a capacity for change and a resistance to being known. In fact, she argues, “I will be making an ethical mistake if I take myself to have the kind of grasp of a person that fiction makes available to me in my engagements with imaginary people… No human being will be knowable in the way that any literary character worth repeated readings is knowable.”

Doubling down on this point, Serpell observes,

Whenever we rail against tokenism, objectification, or stereotype in our accounts of real people, we are saying that they ought not be reduced to a single imaginary fabrication. The very idea of readers using fiction as a guide for life is mocked in classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Many of our best fictions of recent decades, like Nabokov’s Lolita and Morrison’s Beloved, make a moral case against their characters overidentifying with others (Humbert with Dolores; Sethe with her children) lest they usurp them.

These attacks on sentimental sympathy are not new, and as I was reading Serpell’s piece, I figured it was only a matter of time before she got mentioned Bertolt Brecht. The German playwright excoriated 19th century sentimental drama, believing that it allowed cathartic venting (say, the death of Little Eva in the Tom shows) without further action. And sure enough, Brecht makes an appearance:

Brecht was against the catharsis of emotion that Aristotle once postulated as the purpose of dramatic art—to be moved to pity and fear in the theater so as to expunge those dangerous feelings. Brecht didn’t want audience members cleansed of emotions. He wanted them to leave the theater ready to start a riot. Art should not be a release valve, but a combustion engine. One of Brecht’s aesthetic innovations was to disrupt immersion—that characteristic “dissolve” of the line between audience and players. By highlighting the apparatus—the stage, the props, the set changes—this “estrangement effect” continually makes the audience aware of the artifice of the play. For Brecht, as for Arendt, the receptive experience should entail a measure of distance, not an emotional mind-meld.

I agree with Serpell and Brecht that mindless emotional identification does not further social justice. Great works like Middlemarch, however, are more than emotional baths. They are tough assessments of the truth, speaking to us an a rational and spiritual plain as well as an emotional one. Brecht targeted the bourgeois sentimental theater of his day, but those plays shouldn’t be blended with literature’s masterworks.

When it comes to truth, Serpell and I are on the same page, as is Hannah Arendt, whose idea of “representative thinking” Serpell praises. As Arendt sees it, one shouldn’t emotionally meld with characters but rather “train[ ] one’s imagination to go visiting.” You should do more than simply visit people who are not like you (emotional tourism) but not attempt to totally occupy them (assimilation). Rather, “you make an active, imaginative effort to travel outside of your circumstances and to stay a while, where you’re welcome.”

I also agree with Serpell and Arendt that, the truer the work of literature, the more you will learn from engaging with it:

It’s no surprise that when Arendt turns to literature, she sees it as rooted in the “disinterested pursuit of truth”: “The political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.” Arendt does not mean “acceptance” as a form of political quietism. She means “truthfulness,” as opposed to propaganda, which is partial—biased, incomplete information.

Then Serpell reports on a wonderful example provided by Arendt:

She traces the tradition of literary political representation to “the moment when Homer chose to sing the deeds of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector, the foe and the defeated man, no less than the glory of Achilles, the hero of his kinfolk. This had happened nowhere before; no other civilization, however splendid, had been able to look with equal eyes upon friend and foe, upon success and defeat.” This is…offering a broader view of humanity, while maintaining a keen awareness of who is friend and who is foe. This is what Keats praised in Shakespeare as “negative capability.” To be sure, authors often feel the need to imagine themselves into others. But that act of empathy is instrumental, not ethical as such—writers are not historically renowned for being good people—and ideally, it is in the name of a greater impartiality and equality.

In the end, Serpell’s article is a useful warning not to treat literature as just an emotional bath. Don’t think that being emotionally moved will automatically make you a better person is a mistake. But this is hardly a new observation. In addition to the authors that Serpell mentions, I would add Jane Austen.  Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey must learn to engage with Anne Radcliffe’s gothics intellectually as well as emotionally, and Marianne in Northanger Abbey learns that there’s more to life than being swept along by the poetry of William Cowper. Goethe, meanwhile, warns against excessive emotionalism in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

It’s interesting that Serpell should quote Rousseau’s reservations about empathy given that he was responsible as anyone for “the age of sensibility.” Yet the seeming contraction makes sense. Even as the 18th century was enthralled by unleashed emotions, it immediately saw the dangers involved.

If we shouldn’t overemphasize emotional engagement, however, we shouldn’t underemphasize it either. Reading literature is a cold enterprise if in involves only our intellects. “We murder to dissect,” as Wordsworth warned. In my own classes, I advocate a three-step process: immerse, reflect, act. Give yourself over to the work, then step back, and finally figure out what productive use you can make of the experience.

My dream is that both sympathies and intellect will be enlarged and that a better world will emerge.

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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.

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