Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story

A Course on Empathy

To generate discussion on the role of empathy in the creative practice, here are some questions based on both the talk itself and the three responses to it.

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I. “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story”

  1. Much of the source material for the talk references animals and other parts of the natural world. Coetzee and Pollan debate the ethics of eating animals. Lopez is awed by a bear. Even the title, which comes from Nabokov (for whom Nature leads the way for the writer), highlights our fascination with stories about animals. This leads me to ask: does the subject of animals or Nature otherwise in its non-human complexity reveal yet another limitation of relying on empathy in our moral or creative lives? Since empathy seems to depend on our ability to identify or relate with the object of our concern (and also perform our empathy for them), what good is it when the object — an oyster, say, or a landscape, and probably even a bat — is impossible to identify with and often seemingly unconcerned with our performances?
  2. Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy argues that reason should shape our moral lives. Michael Pollan has argued that reason (and consciousness generally) is just another tool, albeit a useful one, we’ve evolved to negotiate our success as one species among many; he’s also written that healing the planet may require abandoning that tool now and again to imagine nature from the plant or animal’s point of view. Cormac McCarthy asserts that the moral life — like much in our lives that involves problem solving — is subject to the unconscious (or at least that the “unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us”). When thinking about the relationship between morality and creativity — if there is such a relationship — what role does (or should) reason play in the work we do? How reasonable is art? Is Bloom wrong about empathy? As a tool to solve problems, is it, as I say, “eminently reasonable”?

 

II. “The Arrogance of Empathy”

  1. In his response, Paul Bloom comes out as a fiction skeptic and suggests that fiction writers exhibit a kind of arrogance when purporting to imagine the inner lives of other people, “(perhaps even someone imaginary),” he adds. If that’s not enough, Bloom highlights philosopher Laurie Paul’s claim that we don’t even have the capacity really to imagine our own future selves. Nevertheless, he continues, readers of fiction tend to believe the unbelievable: as readers “we are naturally compelled to … lose ourselves in the minds of others.” Bloom says we love to read this way, “imagining ourselves (or better, foolishly believing that we are imagining ourselves) as Anna Karenina or Tony Soprano or Nabokov’s own Humbert Humbert,” despite Nabokov’s suggestions that we do no such thing. But is Bloom right? Who would want to imagine himself as Humbert Humbert, say, who spends the bulk of the novel Lolita raping his adolescent step-daughter? Isn’t Lolita all Nabokov needs to support why his way of reading — with critical distance, not identification — is preferable? It may be, as Bloom says, that “We like our cake,” and Humbert’s words are often sweeter, and surely richer, than anything else written in English. But should we also “be left alone to enjoy it”? Or should critical distance keep us company and protect us from ourselves? Do readers need something like a second self just as much as writers do?

 

III. “Nothing But the Writing”

  1. William Gatewood, who heard the talk when it was originally presented in June 2017, extends the critique of empathy to include the much-discussed idea of the “flow state,” an idea often associated with the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi has argued that the “optimal experience” associated with the state of consciousness known as flow — what Gatewood describes as a sort of single-minded focus and isolation — can lead to happiness. Other “happiness studies” link the loner with unhappiness; indeed, social isolation is often identified as the greatest obstacle to happiness. Has William identified the basis — the truth — behind the cliché of the unhappy artist? Can the writer be happy? Or does the second-self, as discussed in “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass,” provide the writer enough company to find happiness in the flow?

 

IV. “Can Empathy Lead to Theft?”

  1. Daniel Raeburn’s response at first raises the possibility that the arguments raised in “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass” run the risk of being semantic — isn’t the confusion between empathy and sympathy worth paying attention to, clarifying? Does a distinction matter? What really is the difference? Given the confusion, what Raeburn adds about narcissism seems key, both for how his clarification provides an antidote to the semantic problem and, perhaps more importantly, for what it may have to say about the problem of cultural appropriation. Does Raeburn’s guiding question about empathy and theft — can one lead to the other? — hinge on what degrees of narcissism are involved in one’s creative work? One central complaint in Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy is that empathy shines a spotlight on those closest to us — those, in other words, who most resemble us, whom we can see ourselves (and so love ourselves) in most easily. Is this also what’s at issue, one’s own narcissism, when the artist fails (or is perceived to fail — remember Dana Schutz?) in representing the other?