The Poetics of History

There was an interesting subject under discussion at Cliopatria yesterday and this morning – history as defamiliarization, poetics and history, the difference between history and fiction. The whole subject touches on a lot of difficult, knotty questions – other minds; the reliability or otherwise of testimony, autobiography, narrative – of what people recount about their own experiences; empathy; imagination; the general and the particular, the abstract and the concrete – and so on. Meta-questions.

I wondered about the much-discussed idea that fiction can teach empathy in a way that more earth-bound, or factual, or evidence-tethered fields cannot. That novelists have a special imaginative faculty which enables them to show what it’s like to be Someone Else so compellingly that we learn to be tolerant, sympathetic, forgiving, understanding etc. in the act of reading. Cf. Martha Nussbaum in Poetic Justice for example. It seems plausible, up to a point, but…only up to a point. For one thing there are so many novels that are full of empathy for one character but none for all the others; and there are so many that have empathy for the wrong people and none for their victims (cf. Gone With the Wind); and there are so many mediocre and bad novels, and the aesthetic quality of a novel has little or nothing to do with its level of empathy-inducement.

I think there are a couple of background ideas at work here, that could do with being dragged into the light. One is that all novelists, all fiction-writers have this ability to teach empathy – that there is something about the very act of telling a story that produces character-sympathy, and that character-sympathy translates into sympathy for people in general as opposed to sympathy for one particular character. But anybody can set up as a novelist, including selfish, unreflective, egotistical people. There is no guarantee that telling a story has anything to do with empathy. And then there is a second idea, that what novelists imagine about other minds is somehow reliable. But why should that be true? Especially why should it be true of all novelists? At least, why should it be any more true than it is of the rest of us? We can all imagine what’s going on in other minds – and we can all be entirely wrong. Or not. It may be that particularly brilliant novelists are better at imagining what’s going on in other minds – at guessing the truth – but particularly brilliant novelists are a rare breed, and in any case, nobody knows for sure whether they have it right or not. We think they do, it sounds right, but we don’t know. All it is, after all, is the imagining of one novelist. Lizzy Bennett and Isabel Archer and Julien Sorel may tell us what it’s like to be someone else – or they may not. We simply don’t know.

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