imaginative empathy

[apologies-- for some reason this didn't show up after I tried to post it earlier and now only the html version seems to work]

While reading 03 and the Keen article, I was struck by the imaginative quality of empathy. As Keen puts it, we feel empathetic when “we feel what we believe to be the emotion of others” (208)—that is, we imagine what another may feel while, in a sense, appropriating a form of that emotion as our own. Yet, I would like to emphasize, as Keen seems to, that the emotion the empathetic subject feels is one that is always at a distance from the other. Though feeling the pain of a loved one, on the one hand, attaches us to a sensibility and experience outside ourselves, it also emphasizes our distance from one another. We can never, not precisely at least, feel the pain, anguish, joy of even those we most love.

03 seems to illustrate this point in rather an extreme fashion. Our narrator, as far as we know, never once meets or speaks to the mentally retarded girl across the street. As a kind of extended daydream, the novella seems to muse upon their shared experiences and attitudes, beginning with “their shared morning routine” and their lives as “overprotected school child[ren]” (7). The narrator, in fact, attributes his empathy to the possibility that the ”girl and her spiky hair must apply just as much to a version of [his] own existence, an idea of what [his] life would be like if someone took it away, altogether or partly, the mental faculties that let [him] show off to adults and be rewarded for it” (15). The recognition of his vulnerabilities allows him to feel empathetic toward the girl, imagining her situation as a version or slight alteration of his own. Yet, in spite of the narrator’s prolonged musings, I couldn’t help but to sense something not quite genuine about his feeling toward the girl and, I think, this is in part attributed to empathy’s always imaginative quality. I write this with a bit of hesitation because I do, in many ways (or at least at times), want to feel the emotions of others; yet, I think what I struggle with is the question: What does empathy do? Do we alleviate the isolation of, for example, pain by appropriating another’s pain as our own? Or is there something inherently selfish about empathy? I suppose I am questioning the productive possibilities of empathy—whether or not the feeling can, in fact, bring us to both feel and influence a self outside of our own being.

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One thought on “imaginative empathy

  1. I suggest that a panel topic such as empathy and intersubjectivity: psychological, psychoanalytical and neuroscientific contributions to an understanding of the process would be interesting and helpful.
    I felt that “03″ was an example of empathic failure and worse. What factors contribute to such a failure, etc. Are questions to be addressed.
    Jerry

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