Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five Wounds: Modern Dystopia and Empathy

Last year I appeared in a session on ‘Modern Dystopia’ at the Melbourne Writers Festival with DBC Pierre, moderated by Justin Clemens. A recording of this session was subsequently broadcast on Radio National. It can now be downloaded as a podcast, and I have uploaded it below, along with some further thoughts on the question of empathy, which were inspired by my discussion with DBC and Justin.

[N.B. I am actually talking about Five Wounds in the session, even though the presenter mentions Pistols! Treason! Murder! in the introduction.]

Empathy is a precondition for the novel to exist. In the novel, we imagine what it is like to be somebody else. We imagine an existence other than our own; we try to make such an existence credible, and involving.

If empathy makes the novel possible, then a world without empathy is the ultimate fictional dystopia, because it removes the enabling preconception on which fiction rests. Five Wounds takes place in such a world. Its characters fall into one of two categories. Either they are autistic: that is, they find empathy to be a profoundly difficult and troubling concept; or they are solipsistic: that is, empathy is literally inconceivable for them. So, given that at least some of the characters in the novel are trying to understand the concept, perhaps it is not quite accurate to describe Five Wounds as a world without empathy. Rather, it is a world in which empathy can never be taken for granted. It is never a given; it is never natural or instinctive. It can only be created by a supreme effort of will and imagination.

To whom do we extend our empathy? This is a crucial question. By defining someone as inhuman or subhuman, we are effectively asserting that they are beyond the reach of empathy. We are under no obligation to imagine what it is like to be them. Their pain – or their joy – is no concern of ours. Animals raise an interesting test case here. For a thinker like Descartes, as for many modern scientists, vivisection did not raise ethical considerations, because the pain of animals is of less consequence than that of humans. We do not concede to animals the legal or moral status of persons, and Descartes did not concede to them the status of rational beings. But our responses are rarely so coldly logical, and in fact the pain of animals often engages us. In a fictional context, it is interesting that in Blade Runner, all the questions posed in the test to determine empathic response, and thus determine if the subject questioned is actually human, describe witnessing the pain of animals, and not the pain of another human subject.

I mention all this because all of the characters in Five Wounds are freaks. Like animals, they are test cases, who pose questions regarding the limits of the category ‘human.’ Do such freaks deserve our empathy? And how is it possible for a freak, whose experience of the world is, by definition, singular, to imagine what it is like to be someone ‘normal,’ someone like us?

I write alone, but - at the same time that I imagine the hypothetical existence of my characters - I must also imagine the existence of a hypothetical reader. As I attempt to describe my characters to that reader, I must also in some sense imagine what it is like to be that reader. And what I imagine is the reader in turn reimagining the characters.

The ‘existence other than our own’ that the novel presupposes is thus doubled.

In autobiographical narratives, this idea is sometimes presented as a problem. In other words: What makes you think that anyone is interested in reading about the minutae of your life? Why would you imagine that My Battle With Cancer or My Miserable Childhood might be compelling to someone else? Assuming that there is an audience for the unremitting chronology of your life is here evidence of a greater failure of imagination: a more far-reaching variety of solipsism. The problem is that the audience conjured into being in the writer's head in this case is an audience of poorly-conceived, two-dimensional characters who have nothing better to do than read about someone else's self-obsession. Imagining real readers - readers with their own experiences and preoccupations, whose interest has to be solicited and constantly re-engaged - requires a far greater effort, and at some level, a surrender of self (even in autobiographical narratives: perhaps especially there).*

As the writer of Five Wounds, I am obliged to make this effort, which - among other things - requires me to sublimate the autobiographical backstory to the novel. Within the story, each of the novel's autistic or solipsistic protagonists also struggles to pose these questions in a way that makes sense to him or her. Cuckoo, for example, thinks in terms of mimesis (imitation). To imagine what it is like to be someone else means taking that person’s place, literally. Magpie, by contrast, applies the notion of empathy to perverse ends by imagining what it is like to be a machine: that is, a camera, or, to be more precise, a photosensitive emulsion. Identifying with a machine frees him from the obligation of identifying with other people. Crow acknowledges no peers: for him, the category of those who are entitled to empathy is limited to himself, and since he is leprous, and therefore literally insensible, even this formula presents him with some difficulties.

The novel in general asks, What does it feel like to be someone else? Five Wounds in particular asks, What does it feel like to be unable to imagine what it feels like to be somebody else?

*This paragraph recalls the argument of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments in some respects, a text I may return to in a later post.

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