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From Mirror Neurons to Modernist Estrangement: Refamiliarizing Empathy
One of the most fascinating aspects of empathy is its ambiguous nature – how neuroscientists, psychologists and literary theorists have hotly contested its potentially beneficial or – alternatively, harmful – effects upon society. This is not surprising, given the relatively recent discovery of mirror neurons which are thought to be responsible for our automatic imitation (to varying degrees) of the actions of a present other. If this is true, then we are constantly empathizing with quite a wide variety of feelings, actions, and situations. That which we imitate, however, need not actually be present before us – simply having an absent other’s actions described to us is enough for our mirror neurons to fire. Thus words – and therefore literature – play a significant role in our ability to empathize and understand others, and the complex nature of literature suggests that it has a great potential to broaden our range of empathy.
Narratologist Suzanne Keen argues that empathy suffered particular disfavor among such modernist giants as T.S. Eliot and Bertolt Brecht (a trend that, she argues, was sustained by New Criticism, later reinforced by such literary theorists as Edward Said, and has remained strong until recently) in favor of the modernist technique of defamiliarization. Nevertheless, she points out, the task of the modernist novel, in contrast to the poetry and drama of that period, was not so much to reject empathy as to “recast the representation of consciousness and feelings as one of the primary tasks of novels rejecting conventional representation.”1 In other words, rather than continuing the Victorian novelist’s tendency to encourage within the reader sympathy and fellow feeling in an attempt to promote social change, the modernist novel sought new literary techniques that would hopefully render interiority more accurately, regardless of whether the reader would respond empathically.
This does not mean, however, that modernist novels do not inspire empathy in the reader. Following Woolf’s assertion that Joyce was “concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame that flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious [ . . . ],” I find in James Joyce’s Ulysses as well as a work that it largely inspired, Agustín Yáñez’s Al filo del agua, fertile ground for such a study of empathy. Combining a consideration of modernist aesthetics with Keen’s theory of narrative empathy, I argue that the techniques used in these works, such as the particular characterization of Bloom (in Ulysses) and Don Timoteo (in Al filo del agua), overdetermination, and, yes, even defamiliarization, have the potential to extend readers’ range of empathy in a powerful way.
1 Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, 58.
The theme of 21st annual (dis)junctions conference, hosted by UC Riverside, is “irreverent readings,” featuring keynote speakers Virginia Jackson (UC Irvine) and Constance Pendley (UC Santa Barbara). Abstracts of 250 to 300 words should be submitted via the form at www.disjunctions2014.org by February 10th, 2014.