Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics


There was no word for empathy until a little over a hundred years ago, when some psychiatrists, wondering whether there might be such a thing, invented a name for it. The psychiatrists wanted to find out whether it was possible for one human being to identify so closely with another as to be able to experience life from someone else’s point of view. Their assumption, I imagine, was that for most people, most of the time, sympathy was as far as it went. They just wanted, as scientists do, to understand why and, in order to do so, they needed a name for the hypothetical state of total identification that went beyond sympathy and became – what shall we call it? – empathy!

When you name something you bring it into existence. If there is a word for it, it must exist. Whatever conclusion the scientists reached, everyone else jumped to the conclusion that empathy was both desirable and possible.

It is, of course, an illusion and a rather dangerous one. Empathy is neither desirable nor possible. If it were possible, it might be desirable, but it is not possible and to desire an impossibility is foolish. Whenever I hear the word spoken, and these days you hear it a lot, I flinch at the self-deception its use implies. Nobody nowadays talks about sympathy, which is hard enough for most people to achieve in a world where just getting on with each other is an achievement in itself. Instead, they talk about empathy, which makes understanding another person sound a lot easier than it really is. It is sentimental, glib and unrealistic. Most of us don’t know ourselves very well, let alone anybody else.

Close identification with another person is what happens when we read a novel or watch a play. The illusion of empathy is made real in fiction. It is possible only because the person with whom we identify or sympathise is not real. Only in a work of fiction can we get right inside another person’s mind. In real life, there is no narrator to tell us what the other person is thinking and feeling. In real life, our experience is wholly subjective. The way we interpret our experience, the sense we make of other people’s lives as well as our own, is itself limited by that experience. Getting inside another person’s mind is a physical and logical impossibility.

Writers are the same as everyone else, except that they have the skill and the imagination to create a parallel world in which empathy is possible. The Antony of Antony and Cleopatra, the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall, the Napoleon of War and Peace, are not the men of the same name who once lived. Nobody, least of all themselves, understood them as well in real life as they do in the stories that Shakespeare, Mantel and Tolstoy made up. They give ‘to airy nothing’, as Shakespeare put it, ‘a local habitation and a name’.

The airy nothings Theseus talks about in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are our fears and fancies –

Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

– but the phrase could as well be applied to our individual experience in general. Whatever we experience is an airy nothing until we give it a name. Once we have given it a name, we think we know what it is. But how can we be sure we are right? Most of the time, let’s face it, we fool ourselves into thinking we understand the world we live in and know the people we share it with better than we really do.

Misunderstandings are the common currency of human intercourse, as the psychiatrist R.D.Laing demonstrated in Knots. Here is one of the many knots of which the book, first published in 1970, is composed.

There must be something the matter with him
     because he would not be acting as he does
          unless there was
    therefore he is acting as he is
    because there is something the matter with him

He does not think there is anything the matter with him
    because one of the things that is
    the matter with him
    is that he does not think that there is anything
    the matter with him
    we have to help him realise that
    the fact that he does not think there is anything
   the matter with him
   is one of the things that is
   the matter with him.

Instead of talking about empathy as if it were possible we should accept the impossibility of understanding another person any better than we understand ourselves and go back to sympathy, not the sort that comes with tea, but the sort that depends on identifying with someone. In other words, starting with the premise that human beings have a lot in common and that, even if we can never claim fully to understand someone or see things through their eyes, because the way each of us sees things is determined by things that have happened to us and us alone, we can at least make the effort to see something of ourselves in them and something of them in us.

Outside fiction, none of us can do that with anything other than partial success. To pretend otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the fallibility of human nature and air-brush away the fears, fancies and failings that make humanity what it is. As an old Yorkshire farmer is reputed once to have said to the parson, “I love mankind, same as you do. It’s just folk I can’t stand.”

Or as Sartre put it, hell is other people.



The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 16 July.

The following week, on 23 July, I will be writing about Longfellow.

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This entry was posted on July 9, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , .
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