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The Heart of Reading

Avishek Parui ( teaches English at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

A deep engagement with literature calls for imagination underpinned by empathy.

In an article titled “Only Love and then Oblivion” published in the Guardian on 15 September 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, the British novelist Ian McEwan argued that, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality. The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith and dehumanizing hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination.”

McEwan’s equation of empathy with imagination is increasingly corroborated by the claims of cognitive psychologists such as Jean Decety and Philip Jackson, who state that imagining how others perceive pain holds the key to the neural mechanism of empathy.

First introduced as a term in 1909 by the British psychologist Edward Titchener, empathy etymologically emerged from the German word “Einfühlung” (“feeling into”), thus denoting an intersubjective economy of emotions in which one human subject perceives another through a cognitive as well as affective entanglement of association and imagination.

In his study of torture, the psycho­logist Paul Gilbert further differentiates between two levels of empathy: shallow empathy, which is merely a cognitive ability whereby we simply “put ourselves in the shoes of other people” and which actually facilitates the mechanism of effective torture, and deep empathy, whereby such cognitive association is accompanied by the affective ability to feel the pain of the other, a state that Gilbert argues makes torture impossible.

Empathy as an affective ability inhabits the interface between philosophy and morality, intriguing and examined by thinking minds for centuries, with extensive treatises on it in Judeo–Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain texts. It has received a substantial neuroscientific fillip after the 1980s with controversial research on mirror neurons, supposedly a subset of neurons in the premotor cortex that determine the scale of mimetic sophistication, namely the ability to mimic the action of another subject.

Although the mirror neuron debate is still an ongoing one among neuroscientists and neuro-philosophers, there is little doubt that empathy as a neural mechanism and an existential phenomenon is embodied as well as extended, private as well as collective. Empathy emerges as a key feature in literary imagination as well as in the experience of reading fiction, whereby human minds form creative affiliations, moved by the de-familiarisation and semantic depth of literary language.

At the end of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the prota­gonist Holden Caulfield—a modernised hollowed-out cynical version of the archetypal adventurer–storyteller—warns the reader against the empathetic entanglement of remembering and the storytelling process. “Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody,” Holden cautions, ironically enough after exhausting his own life narrative, thus foregrounding the complex cognitive relationship between empathy, remembering and storytelling.

One of the most immediately distinguishing features of the literary experience, one that marks the creation of characters as well as their reception by readers, is the play between empathy and the storytelling imagination. We root for, are moved by and associate ourselves with fiction and fictional characters. For fiction is an asymmetric entanglement between reality and fantasy; between what happens, had happened, could have happened and may happen.

A literary narrative is a record as well as a representation, mixing recognisable realities with fantastic possibilities, often demanding a liberation from logic and a willing suspension of disbelief. Empathy in literature and in the reading of literature is an exercise in imagination, navigating across affective associations. Literary language is coded with metaphoric possibilities and a self-reflexive energy that demand an exercise in empathy.

Empathy operates at the level of writerly recreation of realities, whereby the writer produces imagined characters with lifelike attributes. It also operates at the level of readerly reception, which often incorporates affective kinship in which we mourn when purely fictional characters die, rejoice at their triumph, and suffer when they go through pain. Empathy may thus be
considered as a quotient for readerly engagement with works of fiction.

All works of great literature reflect their contemporary human, historical and cultural conditions, but what makes them different from mere passive records of events is the entanglement of human complexities, emotions and ambivalences, which extend and enrich our imaginative inwardness, our associations with written words, and our empathy with human stories. In a world where globalisation and polarisation are often paradoxically fuelled by similar economic and political principles, the role of literature as an activity in empathy can hardly be overestimated.


Updated On : 31st Jan, 2018


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