Does reading literary works enhance empathy in real life?
Current debates about arts in society and education stress their marginalised status, especially in school curricula. This has provoked debates in defence of the arts. As much as these try to reaffirm the value of the arts, they also subvert their status (Abbs 2003, 7–44, 117–130; Eisner 2002, 1–25; Fleming 2012, 8–17). In this text, I would like to discuss the claim that “reading literary works enhances empathy”, stemming from these debates. Ascribing such additional benefits to the act of reading literary works, could undermine literature’s value per se. One example for this is the iconographic “Benefits from reading books” designed by Gosia Zimniak, whose main purpose is to show the variety of ways in which reading changes people (see Appendix A). Before ascribing additional benefits to literature, reader’s interaction and emotional responses to literary texts should be understood. Hence, in this essay I will elaborate the responses of four actual readers from Macedonia. Moreover, I chose the text “Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud because the themes of racism and discrimination together with the use of the technique of magical realism and magical elements, are suitable for discussing the claim abut empathy.
Firstly, I will explain the gist of current arts debates worldwide, relevant to the Macedonian context. Secondly, I will define the reader-response theory, its key terminology and latest trends in narrative empathy (Barthes 1975, 3–14, 51–67; Barthes 1990, 3–10; Culler 2002, 131–153; Eco 1984, 3–46; Eisenberg and Strayer 1990, 3–103, 185–218; Fish 1980a, 1–27; Fish 1980b, 303–322; Iser 1974, 1–57, 257–274; Iser 1980; Keen 2013, 49–65; Keen 2008, 477–493; Keen 2007, 3–65, 121–169; Mar and Macrae 2006, 110–132; Rosenblatt 1980, 386–394; Rosenblatt 1994). Thirdly, I will give a brief overview of “Angel Levine” in order to discuss textual responses from four Macedonian readers, three female and one male student (Abramson 1994, 146–156; Benedict 1983, 28–36; Bluefarb 1964, 319–326, 335; Faris 1995, 145–163; Freedman 1966, 90–107; Slemon 1995, 407–427). The main focus of the discussion will be the empathy that readers exert or don’t exert for characters. Finally, I will stress the need for further empirical research about the influence of reading for developing empathy in real life; and the need to value textual pleasure and bliss, the aesthetic experience per se.
2. The value of literature: debates
The historical development of the arts in education can be traced through their inclusion in the curricula as well as the trends in education from the twentieth century. This brought forward the current defence of the arts in formal education (Cox 2007, 3–7; Whyte 2007, 121–143). The following trends apply to literature too:
• 1930-1950, moral values are underscored; in literature, there’s an attempt to shift the focus towards the reader whose role was still passive (Rosenblatt 1994, 1–6);
• the mid twentieth century is characterised by the emphasis on students’ authentic experience and personal expression, both social and cultural. Here, Dewey stresses the importance of the aesthetic experience which will become the driving force of Rosenblatt’s reader-response theory. She emphasizes readers’ personal and cultural backdrop (Rosenblatt 1946, 459–466; Rosenblatt 1980, 386–394; Rosenblatt 1994, 1–6, 22–71);
• globalisation and educational institutionalisation (Abbs 2003, 7–44, 117–130; ; Cox 2007, 3–7; Whyte 2007, 121–134); this trend refers to financial and political agendas masked under the appeal for overcoming rote learning, and in literature, teaching the poetic language, in today’s capitalistic society (Whyte 2007, 121–143).
An example of the last trend would be the insistence to develop creativity in education as is the case in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Arabia and Sweden, or, the call for student autonomy in France (Burnard 2007, 1175–1181). All this can have a negative effect on the arts in education, because it creates a lot of pressure for teachers and professors. These appeals stem from public needs or labour demand, as is the case with Macedonia. This resulted in the rise of debates defending the arts, which most commonly state the arts:
1. provide enjoyment and pleasure;
2. improve performance in other subjects;
3. provide future audiences
4. develop the mind/help pupils to think
5. provide future artists
6. develop imagination and creativity
7. provide insight into human situations
8. educate the emotions
9. develop physical qualities (Fleming 2012, 11).
The problem with these arguments is that they are obscure and limited. For example, 1, 3 and 8 are not separate, but part of the aesthetic experience. This division lies in the false dichotomy that sees the mind as the logical and objective reasoning as opposed to the emotions as subjective (Nussbaum 1995, 53–79). Moreover, 2 and 9 put the arts in a subservient, instrumental, position.
These arguments, if used carefully, could be promoted in favour of the arts. For example, when Abbs points out that modern society is losing its symbolic grasp; or when Eisner denounces the claim that “the arts are nice, but not necessary” (2003, 7–44, 117–130; 2002, 1–25). This is why aesthetic experience, the value of the arts, and literature per se should be stressed. Nussbaum suggest this when she says:
Her claim does not fragment the arguments given in favour of the arts. Although Nussbaum convincingly argues about the role of literature in making society more harmonious, her claims are theoretical. There is evidence in favour of the altruistic power of literature, but it is still difficult to generalise such claims (Keen 2007, 3–65, 121–169; Kuiken and Miall 2002, 221–241; Mackey 2011; Mar and Macrae 2006, 110–132; Mar and Oatley 2008, 173–192).
3. What reader-response theory is and some important terminology
Reader-response theory and some of its concepts are useful for practical exploration of readers’ textual responses. Since feeling for characters is considered a springboard for feeling for people in actual life, I will explain the distinction between narrative and real empathy. This will serve as the basis for the discussion of the four Macedonian readers’ responses to the short-story “Angel Levine”.
Empirical research about the behaviour of readers has been on the increase from the 1960s onwards (Cooper 1976, 77–93). Readers responses can be explored both during the reading process or after (Cooper 1976, 77–93; Iser 1974, 1–57, 257–274; Mackey 2011). Today, similar research is carried out in the field of experimental psychology and neurology, which has implications for the newly arisen field of textual interpretation called cognitive poetics (Keen 2007, 3–65, 121–169; Kuiken and Miall 2002, 221–241). Although reader-response theory was primarily purely theoretical, it can be used for exploring actual readers’ responses as in this case. What follows is an explanation of some of the more important terms introduced by Rosenblatt, Iser, Fish, Eco, Jauss and Barthes.
According to these theoreticians the literary text becomes a literary work or an event, only through readers’ interaction with the text. Hence, through reading. Then, the reader actively discovers the text and its literary techniques and stimuli. Thus, “Angel Levine” when unread would be just a regular text, while when read, it would become a short-story or a literary work.
Actual readers or readers in real life, should be differentiated from:
• informed readers, readers with great encyclopaedic knowledge;
• implied reader, which is a textual function that reveals the kind of readers the text presupposes; the actual reader activates the implied one through reading with her own aesthetic and personal experience.
Reader’s textual focus forms two types of reading, efferent (informative) and aesthetic (Rosenblatt 1994, 22–48):
• the first type of reading refers to the reading for information;
• the second refers to the reading for pleasure, living in and with the events pertaining to the world of the short-story.
The aesthetic experience is imbued with pleasure (plaisir) and bliss (juissance) from the text where the former is less intense than the letter (Barthes 1975, 3–14, 51–67).
As readers try to unravel the meaning of the text they demystify the unspoken things in it. That is to say, readers, with their knowledge and experience, fill in the gaps that the author purposefully leaves in the text (Barthes 1975, 1–57). The gaps Macedonian readers encounter in the text are not purposefully created. They develop the due to the different time frame and cultural context readers live in, as well as their knowledge of the same. Culler’s term for readers’ literary knowledge and skills is literary competence without any pejorative meaning (Culler 2002, 131–153; Nikolajeva 2010, 145–159).
At times readers act like audiences observing from afar. Readers are able to act as judges of literary events and characters, because their emotional response, although strong enough to grasp characters’ emotions, it will never reach the same intensity. This, together with their disinterested position as spectators allows them to act both judiciously and to feel for characters at the same time. Nussbaum’s term for this readerly behaviour is judicious spectator (Nussbaum 1995, 79–123). Thus, the reader as a judicious spectator can exert “empathy and external assessment” (Nussbaum 1995, 73). Hence, when the reader is identifying with characters she becomes an alien “me”, while when evaluating them, she becomes the real “me” again (Iser 1974, 1–57).
In the discussion of Macedonian readers’ responses below, all these readerly strategies can be noted. Moreover, readers show individual textual interpretation, but also coming from the same culture, they offer similar interpretations acting as a small interpretative community (Fish 1980b, 303–322). Before I move on to the reader’s responses discussion, I will overview empathy in the context of literature.
3.1. Empathy: real or narrative?
The argument that reading literary works makes us more empathetic with other people in real life is inspiring. However, if it is presented carelessly in the media, as is the case with the iconographic “Benefits from reading books” (see appendix A), it leaves the impression that reading literary works is not self-sufficient, so we have to add to its value with other “benefits”. Additionally, it’s hard to establish that literature makes us more empathetic or more humane, because the influence of education, upbringing, culture, ethnicity, historical context readers live in, is difficult to exclude. This said, literary works can still have a transformative influence over reader’s emotions (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990, 3–103, 185–218; Keen 2008, 477–493; Keen 2013, 49–65; Nussbaum 2010, 95–121). For example, a group of readers experienced a significantly higher emotional transformation after reading a short-story by Chekhov, than a group that read an informative text with a similar content (Mar and Macrae 2006, 110–132).
During reading, readers’ emotions and empathy is directed towards characters in the story. Hence, they exert narrative empathy, as opposed to real one. Narrative empathy encompasses readers’ cognitive and emotional responses. Narrative empathy occurs when readers identify with characters’ emotional state, although they themselves can’t quite comprehend them or haven’t gone through similar experiences. Sometimes, empathy can occur with lesser intensity when readers identify with characters by means of comparison (Keen 2007, 3–65, 121–169; Keen 2008, 477–493).
The short-story “Angel Levine” and Malamud’s work in general, appeals to readers with strategic empathy. This type of empathy is driven by the author’s intention to influence readers’ emotions in favour of a visible, but responsibly crafted political interest. Malamud often talks about this in his interviews. For example, he says “I feel the writer’s task is to cry havoc, because silence can’t trigger understanding or mercy” (Benedict 1983, 28–36). Of course, “the author’s response should not be taken as a valid argument in textual interpretation, but rather with the purpose to show the incompatibilities that may occur between authorial and textual intention” (Танески). Sometimes reading is inevitably accompanied by empathetic inaccuracies. Then, readers identify with characters, but driven by an inaccurate interpretation of emotions. Conversely, authors sometimes purposefully aim for the effect of shock, alienation, disgust, and the use of irony can often discourage the occurrence of narrative empathy (Keen 2007, 3–65, 121–169; Keen 2008, 2477–493).
Strategic empathy can be bound, ambassadorial, and broadcast (Keen 2008, 477–493).
• Bound empathy is directed to a certain groups of people (readers); thus, it is limited by their identities and experience.
• Ambassadorial empathy is directed to a certain audience with the purpose to trigger empathy tied to readers’ specific historical context.
• Broadcast empathy relies on human nature’s universal characteristics in order to appeal to as many readers as possible (Keen 2008, 477–493).
These trends from narrative empathy have enriched the reader-response theory which takes readers’ cultural baggage and experience into consideration. Here, Suzanne Keen suggests an approach which would take into consideration readers’ multiple identities (gender, ethnicity, class etc.) which condition the variety of responses to texts that intend to trigger empathy (intersectional narratology) (2013, 50). Thus, the earlier desire to educate and teach the naive youth about democracy, has now shifted the spotlight to narrative empathy and its potential to influence youth and their social awareness, engagement with the community and real empathy (Keen 2007, 3–65, 121–169; Nussbaum 1995, 1–53; Nussbaum 2010, 1–27, 95–121). In the next section I will state the content and main characteristics of the story “Angel Levine”, as well as the actual readers’ discussion accompanied by excerpts from their responses.
4. Discussion of readers’ responses: “Angel Levine”
“Angel Levine” is about Manischewitz, a Jewish American tailor who lives with his sick wife. Manischewitz is portrayed as a character who’s suffered a lot in his life and he has outlived his own children. This is achieved through an exaggerated rendition of the archetypal Job and his sufferings, which borderlines caricature at times. The short-story problematizes the theme of temptation which lies at the core of belief. This is conveyed through the non-stereotypical introduction of an angel who is both African-American and Jewish. The whole text centres around Manischewitz’s psychological and moral tempting. Through his transformative journey he manages to overcome his own prejudices about religion and race by accepting Angel Levine as an angel of God.
The use of an angel in this manner is a technique of magical realism which since its first appearance has become known for portraying marginal cultures. It has been brought forward as a form of resistance to the canonical literary practice, but it is has now almost merged with the same today (Slemon 1995, 407–427). Major characteristics of magical realism are:
1. unchangeable magical element
2. a strong presence of a surreal world
3. events portrayed from conflicting points of view
4. putting together different worlds
5. destroying the unity of time, space and identity (Faris 1995, 145–163).
In “Angel Levine” the reader has to accept the angel on three levels: real, fantastical and allegorical (Bluefarb 1964, 319–326, 335). The main obstacles for the three readers who had no previous experience with magical realism was their inability for suspension of disbelief, the resistance to accept the character of the angel. Although Macedonian readers come from a different historical context and culture than the one in the story, as a one small interpretative community, they still managed to act as a part of the audience the text presupposes (Rabinowitz 1998, 15–42).
As I mentioned earlier, Malamud’s intention is to trigger strategic empathy and in his works the Jewish identity becomes a metaphor of human suffering. For example, Philip Roth says that Malamud writes about what it means to be human and to act humanely and that his Jews are not the Jews of Chicago (2001, 127). Hence, the reader will not come across a lot of details about Judaism, or Jewish culture (Abramson 1994, 146–156). Still, Malamud uses ambassadorial empathy as well, by appealing to the audience from the twentieth century America. However, the broadcast empathy is by far the most commonly used in “Angel Levine”, the author’s intention to appeal to as many possible readers by evoking the universal in human nature. In the following paragraphs, I am discussing the responses of the readers, who I have decided to refer to with the pseudonyms Irena, Elena, Yane and Nina.
The readers found Manischewitz and Levine’s first encounter very interesting:
Nina: Levine is timeless, which is especially visible in his language that is too official and refined. This is comical. He is like an all-knowing figure which manipulates Manischewitz in a good way. This tells that he is experienced connoisseur of people’s emotions or he know that he can’t achieve things by being assertive. He’s tactful and keeps his emotion to himself.
Although Irena says that the reader can’t be sure if Levine is an angel, she has subconsciously accepted this fact. This is perhaps due to the navigation through the text led by Manischewitz, which is evident when she says “I can’t tell if Levine exists or what he is really like, because I see him from Manischewitz’s perspective”. This is enhanced by the resistance to accept the technique of magical realism, that is, there is a lack of suspension of disbelief which is the basic condition for entering the world of the text. Consequently, she is in search for facts about Levine’s existence, which renders her experience of the angel thinner. However, she enjoys the magical elements, stating they make the text more exciting. The other reader, Nina, is more insightful, and here she take on the role of judicious spectator emphasising Levine’s timelessness, part of the magical realism effect. When asked about her experience of Manischewitz’s inner state and feelings before his confession about Levine’s divine nature, Nina does not talk about herself first. She analyses Manischewitz’s state and takes his previous thoughts and actions into consideration, acting as a judicious spectator.
Similarly, Elena is moved by this scene, which she describes as “real and touching”. However, she also fails to exert a suspension of disbelief. She confesses “honestly, I find it hard to believe that a half-drunk Negro could be an angel, because this is not the way they’re usually portrayed”. Unfortunately, this makes her aesthetic experience thinner. Yet, the reader is aware that her resistance is rooted in society’s artificially created image about angels’ appearance.
All readers identified a religious hypocrisy in Manischewitz’s behaviour and world views. They paralleled this to Macedonian society. Although they don’t identify with Manischewitz, they are able to understand him based on their previous experience and culture. Thus, they are able to empathise with him. For example, Irena says “I am frustrated by this type of religious behaviour, but I can understand it at the same time”. This is an example when readers use their knowledge in order to fill in the gaps in the text. However, as Iser points out, as long as we don’t put our knowledge aside, we won’t be able to delve deeper in the text and grasp characters’ identity. Still, in this case, this is eased by the metaphorical use of the Jews. Malamud reveals little about Judaism and Jews, and much more about mankind and humaneness. Irena is thrilled by the way in which the text brings together “Jewish and black people” which, according to her, reveals externally forced prejudices even in people from marginalised groups.
Regarding the formal aspects of the text, Elena, as opposed to Irena, thinks the style of narration is complex and hard to follow at times. For Irena, the style comes off as clear, and she finds the use of slang in Harlem especially “beautiful”. Psychologists relying on formalist concepts such as the beauty of defamiliarization in texts, state that literary techniques could be one of the major reasons for reader’s focus shift from efferent (informative) to aesthetic reading (Kuiken and Miall 2002, 221–241).
All readers, even those with a lesser literary competence, found the magical dimension in the text beautiful, interesting, mysterious, and an element that keeps driving them to continue to read the text and unravel the story. When readers’ read aesthetically, they can become more insightful about the given topic, like social discrimination. For example, Elena says that she was personally surprised by her own resistance to believe in Levine. She says “I realised that I also have a lot of misconceptions about the ways angels are supposed to look like”. She explains that in Macedonia there’s a stereotype that al Albanians are Muslim and all Macedonians, Christian. Since she comes from orthodox Christianity as the dominant religion in our society, she says she would feel strange, if for example, hypothetically speaking, she were to meet an Albanian speaking angel. Furthermore, she locates the reason for this is the perception of Islam in our society. This is a specific example from her experience when she felt biased:
As opposed to Elena, the reader Yane, says that he can’t connect with the text on a personal level or with his own experiences, because he’s not religious. However, Elena herself is not religious, while Irena believes in spirituality and Hinduism. Yane exerts a point-blank resistance to narrative empathy, because he believes that experience is individual and can’t be replicated. Although Nina exerts narrative empathy, she concurs with Jane to an extent:
However, here Nina still compares the text to some of her real life experiences, while Yane’s resistance continues throughout. It’s notable that female readers identify with characters, while Yane says that “the focus of the story is not directed towards characters”. In relation to this, there’s a study that claims that female readers are more keen on characters and their emotional state, while male readers are more interested in the plot (Keen 2013, 49–65). Concerning Manischewitz’s strange feeling about Levine and his looks, Yane says that “in nine situations out of ten, the real experience will differ from the imagined one”. Hence, he himself thinks that he can’t have narrative empathy. Yet, this reader has a very limited conception of empathy. Research shows that emotions triggered by reading and real emotions can overlap, but the former are less intense than the letter (Djikic et al. 2009, 24–29). Furthermore, he states that when “people are desperate they lose common sense”, but this evaluation testifies about the lack of accepting magical realism, that is, a suspension of disbelief. Thus, his aesthetic experience is inhibited from the start.
Like Elena, Nina connects the text with personal experience and empathises with Manischewitz:
Broadcast empathy has left the strongest mark on Nina who says:
The discussion shows that narrative empathy can be analysed more readily than real one. One of the reasons readers are more open to narrative empathy is because the fear of negative consequences does not exist in the literary world (Keen 2007, 3–65, 121–169). This is in favour of the main argument of this essay, that it is dangerous to advocate that reading literary works turns readers into more humane human beings, without giving credit to literature per se or disregarding existing empirical research in the field. After all, the rules of the game are different in the world of the literary work and in real life.
Narrative empathy, the empathy readers exert towards characters in literary works is hard to predict and it depends on readers’ multiple identities. Moreover, it should not be mistaken for real empathy. Debates that try to reaffirm the marginalised position of the arts, including literature, bring forward arguments that can be limited and obscure, as is the case with the empathy claim. Additionally, these claims are not empirically supported. All this can devalue existing empirical research in the field of neurology and experimental psychology which shows that literature can have a transformative effect on readers’ emotions. Furthermore, such claims, can instrumentalize literary works which are worthy of research and reading exactly because of the textual bliss and pleasure, the aesthetic experience itself (Barthes 1975, 3–14, 51–67; Iser 1974, 1–57, 257–274; Rosenblatt 1994, 6–48, 71–101).
The discussion of readers’ responses shows that strategic empathy has had the strongest influence on readers, allowing them to identify with culturally and historically distant characters. Moreover, readers’ focus changes during reading triggered by the presence of magical elements that enrich the aesthetic experience. Malamud had in mind a “timeless audience” because he thought that the task of the writer is to save civilisation from self-destruction” (1983). One of the most common questions about Malamud’s work, is to what extent the universal dimension of Jewish suffering is damaging the individuality of Jewish culture and identity. This is why Malamud refuses to be labelled as a Jewish author, but rather as an author of humankind. This is a case of authorial intention to trigger broadcast empathy, which does not devalue the artistry of Malamud’s work. Finally, the reader-response theory offers an excellent foundation for empirical exploration of readers’ responses, but it would not be sufficient to understand narrative empathy and fully grasp reading strategies. Therefore, future empirical studies would have to take into account the new trends in narratology, especially the proposed approach of intersectional narratology and research in cognitive poetics.
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