Buckets of Empathy

James Wood

  • On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion by Gabriel Josipovici
    Yale, 294 pp, £18.95, October 1999, ISBN 0 300 07991 5

If innocence were a family business, a terraced saga like Buddenbrooks, our age would be the sickly generation that abandons the firm and takes up the piano. We would seem to have nothing left in the innocence bank; we are rich on suspicion. In literature, contemporary examples abound. Martin Amis, for instance, offers his own brief allegory of the writer’s modern suspicion in The Information. Richard Tull, a novelist, hears birds singing in his garden, and thinks, mournfully: ‘say birds were just parrots and learned their songs from what they heard: those trills and twitters were imitations of mountain rivulets, of dew simpering downwards through trees. Now the parrot had left its jungle and stood on a hook in a pub shouting “Bullshit!” ’

Of course, for Amis it is not only the bird that has lost its dewy innocence, but the novelist, too. The novelist no longer trills and twitters, but shouts ‘Bullshit’ a lot, something later acknowledged by Richard, when he laments his weakness as a writer, especially the fault that ‘he wasn’t innocent enough. Writers are innocent. Tolstoy was certainly innocent. Even Proust was innocent. Even Joyce was innocent.’

One of the sponsors of Amis’s pessimism, whether he knows it or not, is Schiller’s supple essay, Simple and Sentimental Poetry, written in 1795 (usually translated as Naive and Sentimental Poetry). This, for all its dialectical wariness, is one of the early statements of modern inferiority. Schiller argues that the ancient writers, especially the Greeks, were at one with nature, combining thought and feeling, while the modern writer can only seek or aspire to nature, worshipping or elegising what he no longer possesses simply. Schiller finds in the Greeks ‘a character of calm necessity. Their impatient imagination only traverses nature to pass beyond it to the drama of human life.’ The modern poet, by contrast, is always sentimental about nature, like a sick man yearning for health. Indeed, the sentimental poet idealises nature much as we (including, self-confessedly, Schiller) sentimentalise the Greeks themselves. The problem for modern literature of this loss of innocence is that, in contrast with the ancient simple poet, we never see ‘the object itself’: instead, the modern poet is always reflecting on the impressions he receives from nature, always ‘a spectator of his own emotion’. Schiller’s examples of simple poets are Homer and Shakespeare; of sentimental poets, Milton and Kleist. Goethe is judged, ambivalenly, to be something of a miraculous bridge between the two attitudes.

Schiller is too wise to fall into a general elegy for lost simplicity, since that is the modern condition he is analysing. Nevertheless, he cannot avoid the melancholy of his categories and his lament, and struggles mightily not to produce his own sentimental elegy. This is the theme, and the struggle, of Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliantly suggestive new book. Josipovici would call the simple and the sentimental ‘trust’ and ‘suspicion’, or perhaps innocence and irony, but his language, and his envy of the Greeks, remain strongly Schillerian. Like Schiller, whom he mentions, he feels that the modern writer labours under a disadvantage, which is a loss of trust in his material, his audience and his tradition. Lacking this innocence, the modern writer turns to suspicion, to Post-Modern knowingness, or to an unthinking mimicry of inherited forms.

Josipovici begins his book by confessing the personal nature of his argument. As a critic and a novelist influenced by the Nouveau Roman, he is driven to write yet feels superfluous: ‘it is somehow no longer possible to treat writing as a craft,’ and thus he is often ‘reduced to feeling it as an indulgence’. By craft, Josipovici means something like that of the stonemasons who built the great European cathedrals, or the way Shakespeare treated his own writing, or Bach his composing: as activities related to and requested by the community, often collaborative, artisanal or religious, powered by trust – ‘trust in the material, trust in our abilities, trust in the act of making itself’. He quotes Descartes, breaking with this trust at the beginning of the Discourse on Method (1637), in which he announces that individual making is purer than collective making: ‘There is often less perfection in what has been put together bit by bit, and by different masters, than in the work of a single hand. Thus we see how a building, the construction of which has been undertaken and completed by a single architect, is usually superior in beauty and regularity to those that many have tried to restore.’

Inseparable from this suspicion of craft is the collapse of religious and philosophical certainties: the disappointed hopes of the Romantics, the self-consuming ironies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, both of whom admired the stability of Greek tragedy. Josipovici quotes tellingly from Kierkegaard, who says that writing both establishes and undermines authority: ‘For though it is indeed by writing that one justifies the claim to be an author, it is also, strangely enough, by writing that one virtually renounces this claim ... To find the conclusion, it is quite necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then to feel quite vividly the lack of it.’ Clearly, Kierkegaard’s self-dissolving notion of authorial authority sounds a modern note – a suspicion of innocence. It might seem to us like the Death of the Author proposed by Barthes and Foucault: a decentred literature, undermining itself the better to enable the free play of absence, and the frolics of the contemporary hermeneut. But Kierkegaard was so acutely comprehending of modern suspicion because he felt it painfully, whereas, as far as Josipovici is concerned, Post-Modernists like Foucault and Barthes merely celebrate the happy disappearance of innocent meaning and trust in meaning. Their suspicion is too simple, and they turn what should be a felt negative into an insouciant positive. By contrast, the negative thinker, Kierkegaard warned, ‘constantly keeps the wound of the negative open, which in the bodily realm is sometimes the condition for a cure’. The Post-Modernists are not quite grave enough for Josipovici.

In order to accompany Josipovici on his large argument – and it is worth it – it is necessary to grant him, for the moment, the breadth of his terms. Certainly, it is hard to disagree with him about the collapse of craft-trust. Though he doesn’t mention it, a central example is provided by the withering of English church music. Liturgically, the great English cathedrals are still founded on religious craft traditions. Boys are sent away at seven or eight, and inducted into a mode of music-making that is professional rather than creative, and routine rather than self-conscious. This does not preclude great accomplishment; in fact it may encourage it. Every day of the year, in every large English cathedral, choral evensong is sung. The core of what the choristers perform was written at a time when these craft traditions were matched by religious belief, by composers like Tallis, Purcell, Byrd and Gibbons. (Tallis, whose work straddled Catholic and Anglican dispensations, worked both sides of the street with apparent ease.) Yet almost no music of importance has been written for English church worship since those days: the Victorian repertoire is more religiously fervent than their ancestors’, but more sentimental too, while the 20th-century work is respectable but minor (Vaughan Williams, Howells).

So the forms of the tradition have outlived the certainties that founded them, which, Josipovici would add, might also be a definition of the contemporary conventional novel – one of his frustrations. In search of a craft literature from which the modern novel might learn something, he selects Homer, Sophocles and the Hebrew Bible narratives. What he enjoys in these writers is the sense of life’s necessary continuity, its capacity to accommodate death and tragedy. Acutely, he remarks that Homeric violence in a modern novel ‘would be designed to shock; the effect in Homer is quite different. He is merely seeing things, and asking us to see them, from some perspective other than that of the individuals engaged in the action.’ Such happenings are ‘simply one aspect of life on earth’, imparting ‘a sense that we are not alone but part of a larger rhythm’. The lliad does not flinch from death, but offers ‘a double vision: a sense of life in all its goodness, happiness, abundance; and death as finality, which must be accepted as part of that abundance’. There is ‘a profound realism’ in this literature. Josipovici contrasts the attitude to death expounded by Plato and yearned for by St Paul. They welcomed it, as the abandonment of the uselessly material, but for the Greeks death brings sadness and pain.

In a wonderful reading of the Biblical stories of David, and of Esau and Jacob, Josipovici rightly emphasises the theological restraint – what might be called the thematic restraint – of these stories, which do not exist to incarnate moral lessons so much as to present complex and contradictory characters moving through corridors of surprise and reversal. These are stories whose power lies not in what is revealed but in what unfolds. They are not harlots to interpretation, always soliciting for hermeneutics, but tales. ‘Like the heroes and heroines of Homeric and Greek tragedy, the men and women of the Hebrew Bible are essentially light in spirit, for they trust the traditions into which they are born even when they are led to subvert them and walk their own way. With St Paul, as with Plato, the quality of trust has gone. Perpetual vigilance is now required, perpetual self-questioning and self-examination.’ One might say that the Homeric and Biblical characters are pre-modern in that they ‘have no view of the self’.

There follow several marvellous analyses of Shakespeare in terms of trust and suspicion. Josipovici is less nostalgic than Schiller. He sees Shakespeare as a ‘simple’ poet who nevertheless consciously dramatised the clash between the simple and the sentimental, or trust and suspicion. Shakespeare trusted in his craft, but saw that an epoch was shifting. Josipovici’s categories yield brilliantly inflected insights. For instance, he reads Othello as the pollution of trust by suspicion. Othello, a Homeric figure, trusts in deeds, and the relating of deeds; lago, a suspicious modern novelist or hermeneut, wants to submit narrative to interpretation, always pressing Othello to enquire about the meaning of what he sees, so that Othello finally succumbs to the snake of suspicion.

Similarly, Wittgenstein’s lack of understanding of Shakespeare’s greatness, often klaxoned by Post-Modernists and cultural materialists as proof that Shakespeare was not very great after all, takes on a different colouring in Josipovici’s hands. Wittgenstein complained that while one could speak of ‘Beethoven’s great heart’ no one could talk about ‘Shakespeare’s great heart’. He doubted that Shakespeare ‘would have been able to reflect on “the lot of the poet” ’. But as Josipovici properly remarks, Wittgenstein was a product of Fin-de-Siècle and late Romantic Vienna, and could not conceive of an unreflective craft artist (in the sense that Bach and Haydn were craft composers but Beethoven was not), and could not see how Shakespeare might be great and not resemble Beethoven.

It is here that Josipovici’s argument becomes complicated by his own search for narrative alternatives to the classic and modern novel. For his book, in its quiet way, is a manifesto, and it dares the deformations of the polemic. Josipovici explicitly proposes the Greeks as proof that ‘there are other ways of writing narrative than those of the classic novel.’ There are moments of obvious artifice in Shakespeare, he maintains, when we see that ‘non-naturalistic theatre, by stressing its theatricality, can do things that the naturalist theatre never can.’ He attacks our love of those ‘simple’ or innocent artists, Verdi and Dickens, who lived in an age that gave them no right, he believes, to that simplicity (Rachmaninov composing in the age of Stravinsky might be a musical example): ‘I think our love affair with the tremendous unselfconsciousness of the great mid-19th-century artists ... is merely an index of our society’s nostalgia and innate conservatism and – to put it in blunt Nietzschean terms – of its basic ill-health.’ The art of Dickens, with its bathos and sentimentality, ‘is an impoverished art, all the poorer, Kierkegaard would say, for its failure to understand just how poor it is, in spite of its tremendous energy’.

It becomes clear, as Josipovici discusses the Romantics, that contemporary empathy, the reader’s identification with fictional characters, is part of the problem of modern suspicion. One recalls that what he admires in Homer is the sense that characters are being seen ‘from some perspective other than that of the individuals engaged in the action’. He blames the 19th century. For, as he sees it, the Romantics acutely sensed the crisis in trust that was upon them, but responded by redoubling the fervency of their trust. Yet this fervency was necessarily nostalgic or sentimental, since the original trust had disappeared, and the result was the cult of character and empathy with character – seen most powerfully in the rage for biography, for memoir, and for the classic novel and its rounded characters. Josipovici might argue, had he the analogy in mind, that just as the classic novel represents conservative fervency, so Victorian church music represents an enthusiastic attempt to bypass the erosion of trust by making louder trusting noises. We are still post-Romantics in this respect.

Dr Johnson, Josipovici writes with considerable persuasiveness, was more like Aristotle than Coleridge in his treatment of Shakespeare’s characters. He did not seek to see himself in the character of Lear, but saw the play as ‘a mythos, a pattern of events, whose changes of fortune grip us’. For Johnson, ‘the innermost recesses of man’s life are not what is important about him. What is important are his actions, how he has conducted himself in the course of his life in the community of men.’ So Johnson can disapprove of Falstaff, but also find him pleasing as a character, because he sees the contradictions of character. Coleridge, by contrast, either turns Hamlet into Shakespeare’s mind, or sees himself in Hamlet. Such identification with characters is better than no identification, Josipovici warns, but ‘to identify totally with them is to risk turning them into versions of ourselves’. He goes on to attack the ‘assumptions of modern biography, of the classic novel, and of autobiography’, especially ‘the Romantic notion that we can enter into the life of another and live it, through imaginative empathy’.

Josipovoci’s hostility to empathy, and his determination to see it as a kind of bad faith about trust, is peculiar. First of all, is it only a ‘Romantic notion’ that ‘we can enter into the life’ of someone else? Such a hope is the cornerstone of Adam Smith’s somewhat un-Romantic Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759. Smith writes that our fellow-feeling with a sufferer arises from our ‘conceiving what we should ourselves feel in the like situation ... By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation ... we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him.’ Second, does empathy as it is practised both by the Romantics and by most contemporary readers necessarily involve turning fictional characters into versions of ourselves? Surely it is more often a travelling out of ourselves. This is the case with Coleridge, who invented the delightful verb-form, ‘othered’. Coleridge did not feel that Shakespeare’s characters were simply shards of the poet: on the contrary, he revered the way Shakespeare impersonated his characters, became them, and then disappeared as a poet himself. Coleridge had a sense quite as acute as Johnson’s of the Homeric or Biblical contradictoriness of Shakespeare’s characters. In one of his 1818 lectures, he writes that ‘as in Homer all the deities are in armour, even Venus, so in Shakespeare all the characters are strong.’ By ‘strong’ he means that Shakespeare often uses foolish or mistaken characters as embodiments of wisdom. His habitual example was Polonius, whom he felt was misrepresented on stage as a buffoon. In fact, Coleridge said, Polonius ‘is the personified memory of wisdom no longer possessed’. He is past his best, yet his recollections are ‘full of wisdom’ and show a knowledge of human nature. It would be easy, Coleridge felt, for Shakespeare to invent a fool, and have him act as one. How much greater to invent a character who seems to be a fool but is not. In this way, Shakespeare’s characters, ‘like those in real life, are to be inferred by the reader’. You have to construct your sense of these characters from all the evidence of the play; only then may you feel you ‘know whether you have in fact discovered the poet’s own idea’.

This is an empathy which would seem compatible with Homeric or Biblical narrative, and therefore suggests that a ‘modern’ or Romantic approach to character is also compatible with earlier types of narrative. Josipovici concedes, in effect, that such a combination might be possible, in a fine chapter on Proust, in which he praises Proust’s genius for creating full, contradictory, self-surprising characters, and also argues, compellingly, that Proust’s massive narrative has a medieval or pre-modern rhythm, an accommodation of the way things are. But a more obvious writer suggests himself: Josipovici does not mention Tolstoy, but he is a kind of negative centre of this book, since he is both Homeric and modern, while undoubtedly a master of the ‘classic novel’.

The mere existence of a Tolstoy does not explode Josipovici’s chronology of the decline of trust or innocence, any more than Goethe’s existence ruined Schiller’s similar argument. Such writers are freakish exceptions. Still, the way Tolstoy combines the various elements of his novels does, I think, offer some resistance to Josipovici’s certainty that the measure of our contemporary suspicion is that ‘classic’ novelistic narrative can no longer be written. For Tolstoy manages to be at once Homeric and, for want of a better word, empathetic. On the one hand, he sees his characters, or many of them, ‘from some perspective other than that of the individuals engaged in the action’. On the other hand, he enters into the lives of his heroes and heroines, and invites the reader to do the same, so that his characters, in very un-Homeric and modern fashion, are seen as the possessors of rich fantasies and leaping inner lives. And this is true not only of Tolstoy, but of Chekhov and the great peasant stories of Giovanni Verga, whom D.H. Lawrence rightly called Homeric. Such writers see life as their characters would, yet combine a proximity to them with a detachment from them. Perhaps the most obstructive fact for Josipovici’s argument is not that such combinations can be achieved, but that a modern inheritor of the Chekhovian or Vergan approach, such as Pavese’s beautiful novel The Moon and the Bonfire, is so much more affecting than any of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s laboratory feats.

The difficulty for Josipovici’s book is that he is making a simple argument complexly, or arguing for simplicity sentimentally. Like Schiller, he admits this, but cannot afford to admit it too loudly. In the very subtle accounts of Proust, Kafka and Beckett that close his book, he makes clear that the only modern writers who seem to him to have found an artistic solution to the erosion of trust are those who, a little like Shakespeare, continue to trust while thoroughly imbued with suspicion. Proust, Kafka and Beckett are writers who recognise the crisis we are in, who sense, as Kierkegaard did, that writing both founds and dissolves its own authority, and whose styles, in their self-questioning and self-consciousness, alert us to this. Yet such writers, while modernly suspicious of innocence, still have that kind of innocence for which Martin Amis’s character yearned. They are not Post-Modern ironists. They are too grave for that. Their art, you might say, is suspicious of itself, while gravely confident of its suspicions.

In other words, Josipovici wants his modern models to be both simple and complex, trusting and suspicious: indeed, he feels that, as moderns, they could not be anything else, and he would think little of any contemporary writer who tried to be one without the other. He is not only convincing but moving in his chapters on these writers. His own erudite gravity is a felt pressure in this book. Nevertheless, one persists with the feeling that his hostility to the ‘classic novel’ crowds his argument into something of a corner. For again, this kind of suspicious innocence does not seem incompatible with an empathetic approach to character: Joyce is the great example, if Josipovici, for his own reasons, will not have Proust.

More acutely, the danger with proposing a suspicious innocence is that the suspicion will ultimately infect the innocence and kill it off. This did not happen with the great modern writers Josipovici loves and discusses, but many would argue that it did happen with the Nouveau Roman, which took a suspicious Flaubertian aestheticism and then suspiciously stripped it of Flaubert’s more innocent commitment to individual character. Josipovici’s manifesto might work for him, but it is a risky proposal to let loose on less talented writers, since it would seem likely to produce more suspicion than trust, suspicion being easier to do as a writer than innocence.

One cannot help suggesting that, character and an empathetic approach to character (broadly defined) might act as the bridge between innocence and suspicion, so that the two categories of feeling are not thus sundered. For just as Schiller ran the risk of producing an elegy about the poverty of modern elegy, so Josipovici runs the risk of alienating himself from trust to the extent that he becomes more suspicious of it than he means to be. And this alienation threatens because he finds it so hard to see trust in those forms that are nearest to him – those of the classic novel – and feels that he must journey instead to the Greeks, and to Shakespeare, for his models.

Josipovici ends by saying that he is not sure that he has made clear exactly what he wants to say, and he is sure that he has barely helped himself answer the question with which he started: how to sit down and write in a manner that is new yet trusting. But he has powerfully announced a malaise, and described it more suggestively and more intelligently than any writer I can think of. If one argues with what seem to be his cures, it is partly because, as he knows, it is not clear what the cures should be. It is only clear that some great artists have, probably instinctively, medicated themselves.