Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Does good fiction give us empathy?

Neil Gaiman says good fiction gives us empathy, but if so, why does the gap between rich and poor continue to grow? Is it that we simply don't have enough good fiction about the need to share? In Road to Wigan Pier, written in the 1930s, George Orwell argues that there haven't been any truly great socialist writers. I look at the success of Webber's Les Miserables and laugh bitterly—millions for its producers, but life in the trickle-up economy doesn't change.

Similarly, I doubt bad art makes anyone indifferent to suffering. Either you have a gut reaction against writers like Ayn Rand, or you love them because they validate your solipsism.

Bookstores are filled with secret religions. All powerful stories are sacred texts that tell their readers how to think about the world. But the question remains: does a religion change you, or do you find a religion that resonates with you? In bookstores, we learn how to seek the stories we will want to know.

My only conclusion for now is that even if good fiction only preaches to the choir, sometimes, the choir needs preaching in order to keep singing.

11 comments:

  1. I think good fiction helps us understand the world from the point of view of others, which, in essence, makes us more empathetic. The growing gap between rich and poor is because of systemic issues having to do with the final stages of capitalism; it has nothing whatever to do with anyone's wishes, or sympathies, or ideologies. When falling off a cliff, my understanding of gravity and desire to not reach the ground matter very little.

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    1. But who controls capitalism? Or in this case, who decides whether there'll be a safety net by the cliff?

      The favorite books of Presidents always fascinate me. I had ludicrously high hopes for Clinton because his favorite book was 100 Years of Solitude. That optimism lasted until he wimped out on gays in the military.

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  2. The whole point, I think, is that no one controls capitalism. No one can control it. It runs according to it's own laws, with anarchy a considerable factor. I hope we can destroy and replace it, but no one controls it.

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    1. Well, if you're saying people tend to be the product of their class, I can't disagree with that.

      And I would add that "empathy" doesn't necessarily mean people will do anything more than walk around thinking occasionally, "Gosh, it's too bad poor folks got it rough."

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    2. Also, are you suggesting that socialist parties and artists are wasting their time? Well, if they're doing it for anything more than fun, anyway?

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  3. Let me try it this way: Capitalism at this stage presents itself as a huge concentration of wealth in a very few hands while millions are destitute. Anyone who isn't morally bankrupt must feel that this is wrong. It then becomes easy to say, "So, we'll just convince all those rich dudes that the right thing to do is surrender their wealth."

    I argue that this is the wrong approach. Second, because you'll never convince them, but first, because the problem doesn't lie in the minds of those individuals who hold the wealth, but in the system that created the problem.

    I would argue that it is the task of the working class to free itself, and that the job of a socialist party is to help make the working class conscious of that task, and to guide it strategically and tactically through the process of the transformation of society.

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    1. No time now for a proper response, but I agree with your first two paragraphs and may quibble with the third eventually.

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  4. Sadly, the Neil Gaiman blog entry I get when I click that link seems to be basically an ad for BlackBerry, speaking of capitalism, with some remarks about twitter and how awesome his fans are or something.

    I am not convinced that good fiction gives us empathy. Empathy is something pretty deep, a powerful sensation of what it is like to be in the other person's shoes, to live that life. Good fiction may reveal much about another life, but it's not at all clear to me that words or pictures can connect at the level of actual empathy. At least not consistently, there may be flashes and moments of connection, but I am not buying it as anything more than a primarily intellectual experience.

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    1. Yup, that's where Neil says it.

      My current take is that stories can give us information that may direct empathy--which is why propaganda works.

      Hmm. Now I'm tempted to argue that all art is propaganda.

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    2. Oh, but it is, it is! You have to be a bit loose about what "propaganda" means, but we've all got agendas, don't we?

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    3. Ah, we agree! Now let's see if anyone shows up claiming there can be art that's purely for entertainment, as if somehow entertainment can exist without any implications.

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