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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

A Question of Critical Empathy

Monday, April 15, 2013

A phrase in a review of J. Hillis Miller's new book has caught my eye. At the start of Miller's book on Thomas Hardy, Miller apparently writes that:
Literary criticism is language about language, or, to put it another way, a re-creating in the mind of the critic of the consciousness inscribed in the texts studied, generated there by the words.
This caught my attention because I had just been writing a first-year lecture on poetry, in which I explain that the art of poetic analysis is the art of occupying the mind of the writer. Whilst formalistic analysis of poetry may seem daunting, the great pleasure waiting at the end of the exercise is that one is able to understand intimately the thought-processes that went into its making. Why did the poet choose this word and not another? Why did they opt to write a sonnet and not a villanelle? Was this break in the iambic pentameter deliberate or coincidental? How did the writer think when they wrote?

The act of criticism - or at least the act of formal or stylistic criticism as opposed to historicist criticism - is an act of empathy. We try to imagine ourselves back behind the eyes of the poet or writer looking out onto their work, in order to see the finished text from its originally intended perspective.

This in turn led me to wonder about whether to be a good critic one must possess a particular degree of empathy with the writer (as well as with the characters and events he or she writes about).

There has been a lot of work done on the reading of literary texts and empathy, via the cognitive sciences and psychology  (see the excellent On Fiction blog). The rough thesis is that reading literature requires us to enter into the minds of the characters depicted on the page, and thus it equips and improves our own empathetic capacities that we enact in daily life. Readers of literature are better readers of other people - a kind of old-school Arnoldian humanism varnished by the sciences of mind. There is lots of interesting work going on in this field, although one has to remain sceptical about the directionality of studies which test the link between reading and empathy: are those who read more literary fiction more empathetic because of their reading, or are those who have greater empathy in the first place also those who have a predilection for reading more?

Yet I wonder to what extent the act of criticism, as opposed to "ordinary" reading practices, also inculcates empathy. If according to Miller's construction the aim of criticism is to recreate in the mind of the critic the consciousness of the original author, then criticism is a deeply empathetic engagement. Has anyone ever tested whether critics are better empathists by virtue of the mechanism of criticism, as well as or by virtue of the fact that they read more?

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Posted by Alistair at 11:39 am


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