Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Elegance of Empathy

I don’t read a lot of fiction any more. I find that most contemporary fiction is fixated on realistic representation and rarely rises above the muck and mechanics of the imagined world, and, thus, ends up wallowing in sentimentality, whether that sentimentality is for the imagined world, for the characters, for the author’s lost past, for the idea of representation itself, or some combination of the above. It’s not enough for a fiction to take me to another place—it needs to take me there and give me the sense that the landscape moves and that the architecture of the landscape is alive with thought, moves my thought, changes me. What’s the point of reading a book that doesn’t change me? I want to read

Something [that] moves house inside me—yes, how else to describe it? I have the preposterous feeling that one existing inner living space has been replaced by another. Does that never happen to you? You feel things shifting around inside you, and you are quite incapable of describing just what has changed, but it is both mental and spatial, the way moving house is.

A reapportioning of space, yes (of memory/storage space?), but also a derangement of time:

When we had been good pupils we were allowed to turn [the snowglobe] upside down and hold it in the palm of our hand until the very last snowflake had fallen at the foot of the chromium-plated Eiffel Tower. I was not yet seven years old, but I already knew that the measured drift of the little cottony particles foreshadowed what the heart would feel in moments of great joy. Time slowing, expanding, a lingering graceful ballet, and when the last snowflake has come to rest, we know we have experienced a suspension of time that is the sign of great illumination. As a child I often wondered whether I would be allowed to live such moments—to inhabit the slow, majestic ballet of the snowflakes, to be released at last from the dreary frenzy of time.

Renée Michel, one of the two narrators of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2009), speaks these lines, part of her ongoing meditation throughout the book on art, intelligence, identity, language. She is an Everywoman philosopher, and she’s read not only her Marx and her Husserl but also, apparently, her Dennett and her Dawkins. If she hasn’t, in any case, Barbery certainly has (in fact, she has taught philosophy at Bourgogne and Saint-Lo).

The novel hovers around some of the central questions in current cognitive studies—What good is intelligence (or consciousness)? What is the function of art? What is the connection between language and identity? What is the role of empathy in the making of the person? Where does the individual begin and end? The book approaches all of these questions with a narrative efficiency that astounds me and that is far too complex for me to briefly describe here. Suffice it to say that it is a masterpiece of the novel of ideas genre. In many ways—in its use of innovative structure, its reliance on a subtle argumentative strategy, its combination of humor and philosophy—it is reminiscent of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, without the authorial intrusions, the fixation on the erotic, or the unlikeable characters.

Aside from the pleasure of reading the book, which includes the pleasure of seeing Barbery get away with using phrases like “dreary frenzy” (credit to translator Alison Anderson), the book repeatedly reminds me of one of the questions that I began with on this blog—what is going on in the brain when we experience that shift of mind that I find most epitomized in the short poem, but which happens in much great art—that moment where both space and time seem to alter (see the two quotes above from Hedgehog)?

The second of the two narrators, a twelve-year-old named Paloma, shares my interest in the short poem. She is a devotee of haiku and of Japanese culture in general, which she finds an elegant vessel of both Profound Thoughts and The Movement of the World. Paloma’s central goal in the book is to learn something; that is, to exercise the main function of the brain.

But there’s more than one way to learn. In addition to the cerebral approach of cognitive theory to explaining visceral and intellectual responses, there’s another response that neuroesthetics must take into account if it is to be taken seriously as a way of approaching art—the emotional response (and it does—see the past meetings of the annual Neuroesthetics conference). Paloma, here, describes a school choir concert:

Every time, it’s the same thing, I feel like crying, my throat goes all tight and I do the best I can to control myself but sometimes it gets close: I can hardly keep myself from sobbing. So when they sing a canon I look down at the ground because it’s just too much emotion at once: it’s too beautiful, and everyone singing together, this marvelous sharing. I’m no longer myself, I am just one part of a sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of being an exceptional moment, during a choir.

When the music stops, everyone applauds, their faces all lit up, the choir radiant. It is so beautiful.

In the end, I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song.

This, by the way, is also the way I feel, despite myself, every time I attend my childrens’ choir and orchestra concerts. When your own kids are involved, it’s easy to feel empathy; but it turns out that in the face of good art—well, okay, art—we’re wired to feel empathy (mirror neurons in action).

Paloma’s “true movement” refers to her attempt to discover before she dies (by suicide--she doesn't do it) whether there is anything worth living for—she conducts her search in two journals: a profound thoughts journal, where she “play[s] at being who I am”, and a Movement of the World journal, where she meditates on bodies and objects. Renée, meanwhile, has spent the last fifteen years convinced that there is no point to living and has spent most of her life in a kind of hiding, disguise, incognito. Both of these characters learn a great deal about each other, about their mutual friend Kakuro Ozu, and about themselves, primarily via empathy and via art. In this, both of them would agree with Semir Zeki when he argues that art has the same function as the brain—to acquire knowledge. If they are right, then this novel is without a doubt a work of art. One would be hard pressed not to learn anything from it; and I have no doubt that Barbery learned a great deal in the process of writing it.

Art is an empathetic experience that promotes the spread of knowledge (information).

So, another question: what’s the difference between empathy and sentiment(ality)? Is there a difference? Is the difference that empathy contains The Movement of the World? It has the potential to change the receiver, whereas sentiment(ality) merely confirms the receiver’s preconceptions? Empathy appeals to actuality (whatever that is) or truth (whatever that is) or at least the search for actuality/truth, whereas sentiment(ality) appeals to a fantasy, a (necessary) fiction? Empathy promotes the spread of information, whereas sentimentality inhibits it? Now, that’s interesting…


My friend Joe Ahearn, who is studying information systems at UT, sent me an article earlier today on information system theory and definitions of information that involve changing image systems and/or changing a receiver’s cognitive structure. That is, I would think, “moving house”, "feel[ing] as though the top of my head has been removed." More soon…

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