Friday, 23 July 2010

Empathy and artistic creation

Can empathy play a role in Literature ?

This morning, while reading the French journal La Croix, I came accross this interesting piece, written by the French novelist Christian Bobin

Je vois une araignée et je deviens araignée, j'entends parler une personne et je suis cette personne. Lorsque dans une journée, vous avez été une libellule, un désespéré, une page de livre, une rose étourdie de chaleur, si vous n'écrivez pas vous êtes accablé (I see a spider, I am a spider ; I hear someone talking I am this person. If you don't write the day you are a dragonfly,  a desesperate person, the page of a book, a rose stunned by the sun, you will be overpowered).
Bobin C. & Nativel C. (22/07/2010). L'oubli du temps et de soi. La Croix, p. 18.

The message is quite clear : Bobin believed he has the ability to be something or somebody else than himself, to feel and think what others feel and think, to the point of being the thing or the person himself and stop being Bobin. Writing, for Bobin, is a way to keep the extreme consequences of empathy at bay, to keep in mind that he is Bobin only and nothing else, that there is a frontier between him and the world. 

Empathy is a common topic in Literature. See for this extract of the Deuxième rêveries du promeneur solitaire : 
L’état auquel je me trouvai dans cet instant est trop singulier pour n’en pas faire ici la description. La nuit s’avançoit. J’apperçus le Ciel, quelques étoiles, & un peu de verdure. Cette premiere sensation fut un moment délicieux. Je ne me sentois encore que par là. Je naissois dans cet instant à la vie, & il me sembloit que je remplissois de ma légere existence tous les objets que j’appercevois. Tout entier au moment présent je ne me souvenois de rien ; je n’avois nulle notion distincte de mon individu, pas la moindre idée de ce qui venoit de m’arriver ; je ne savois ni qui j’étois, ni où j’étois ; je ne sentois ni mal, ni crainte, ni inquiétude.
Rousseau J-J (1782). Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire. Deuxième promenade.

This extract describes the feeling of the Rousseau after an accident, near Menilmontant, in October 1776. The sentence : "il me semblait que je remplissais de ma légère existence tous les objets que j'appercevois (literally : "it felt like I was filling every object I saw with my lightweight existence") is vague. But it is clear 1) that there is no real border between him and the world, and 2) that feelings and sensations are not linked to an delimited individual (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) who would not be supposed to share them.

Others example can be found in Literature (remember the famous : "Emma Bovary, c'est moi", by Flaubert) and others aspects can be seen as an indirect form of empathy (e.g., the bond between Nature and states of mind in the Brontë' sisters's novels). Intuitively, for me, it seems that empathy play a keyrole in Literature. But what is that role ? Psychology of Literature may be choosing the wrong path if it tries to identify and explain this role only through the sudy of classical texts of Literature. Don't laugh ! Many psychological analysis of Literature content themselves with this sort of study. After all this is what psychoanalysis of Literature was all about. But I think a more productive path would be the testing of hypothesis in the field ! From a cognitive and neurological point of view, what authors do when they write ? What happen when they include more than one speaker in their novels ? How can they make each character of a novel a individual ? What is the psychological basis of these phenomenon ? Is the psychological basis different when, in a novel, we see the world from the point of view of another species than human (as in Lassie Come Home, by Eric Wright ; or the Call of the Wild and White Fang, by Jack London) ? What cognitive abilities are they using ?

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