Empathy and the Experience of Foreign Consciousness in Literary Modernism

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Meghan Marie Hammond
New York University

  1. 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0
  2. The material below will appear in a longer form in the forthcoming book Empathy and the Psychology of Literary Modernism (Edinburgh University Press).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 My talk highlights the connections between early modernist “stream-of-consciousness” narrative technique and what was then the developing concept of empathy, which arose from late nineteenth-century psychological aesthetics and was taken up by experimental psychology in the early twentieth century.[1] I take as a case study Dorothy Richardson’s work in Pilgrimage, the thirteen-volume work she started publishing in 1915. As a young woman in the late 1880s, Richardson had the opportunity to take a class on what was then the new discipline of experimental psychology (Richardson 1943: 135).[2] Years later, she reported that psychology, “with its confidence and its amazing claims, aroused, from the first, uneasy scepticism” (Richardson 1943: 136).[3] I suspect Richardson’s doubts had to do with the way early psychology assumed that observation of others could tell us about their interior experience. Major figures in the fledgling field, like Theodule-Armand Ribot, held that “[s]tates of consciousness may be considered as depending immediately upon the organism, and their study, therefore, belongs to psychophysics and physiological psychology” (Ribot 1886: 248). In other words, the body can tell us about the mind.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 That is not to say that early psychology ignored the problem of other minds. In his influential 1874 text Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Franz Brentano noted, “All that a person apprehends in inner perception and subsequently observes in memory are mental phenomena which appear within that person’s own life. Every phenomenon which does not belong to the course of the life of this individual lies outside of his sphere of knowledge” (Brentano 1874: 36). Similarly, Ernst Mach admitted in his major 1897 work The Analysis of the Sensations that the problem of the ego—that we “cannot transcend it and get away from it”—is “in principle insoluble” (Mach 1897: 358). Even E. B. Titchener, one of the greatest defenders of experimental psychology in the early twentieth century, said plainly, “it is only his own mind, the experience upon his own nervous system, that each of us knows first-hand” (Titchener 1909: 25). These caveats were not enough to stop the practitioners of early psychology from operating under the assumption that one can stand apart from a human subject, observe his body and his reactions to experiments, and come to know something about foreign consciousness from an intersubjective remove.[4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is no surprise that such a discipline could not satisfy a young Richardson, whose highly autobiographical heroine in Pilgrimage, Miriam Henderson, struggles constantly with the fact that looking at and talking to people tells her nothing about what they are thinking. As Miriam notes in Honeycomb, “saying things were sad or glad did not matter; there was something behind all the time, something inside people. That was why it was impossible to pretend to sympathise with people. You don’t have to sympathise with authors; you just get at them” (Richardson 1917: 385). It was the notion of “just getting at” another mind that guided Richardson when she started writing Pointed Roofs. She wanted to take authorial observation and the process of sympathizing by inference out of the equation for her readers. For Richardson, the inescapable problem of the novel was that the reader was always “aware of the author and applauding, or deploring, his manipulations” (Richardson 1943: 139). In other words, we know the author, or narrator, is mediating our experience with the fictional mind.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Richardson claimed that she wrote Pilgrimage on the premise that “no one else was there to describe [Miriam]” (qtd. in Fromm 1994: 66). The narrative voice of Pilgrimage is meant to be a non-entity, a hidden presence that does not advertise its acts of observation. As Kristen Bluemel argues, the narrative voice “disguise[s] itself so thoroughly in Miriam’s habits of speech and thought that we read the novel as an unmediated encounter with the consciousness of its heroine” (Bluemel 1997: 4). To read Pilgrimage is to undergo a cognitive training in which we feel ourselves into Miriam’s mind, artificially “thinking with” her as if nobody were there to describe those thoughts. This is a form of fellow feeling that is best understood as empathic rather than sympathetic, not only because Miriam herself dislikes sympathy and doubts its value, but also because sympathy depends on interpersonal distance. As Rae Greiner explains in her work on the realist novel, sympathy “denies what empathy most highly prizes, namely the fusion of self with other [. . .] sympathy as the realist novelists understood it involves a belief that our sympathy depends on an awareness that the other is other” (Greiner 2011: 418, 419). Sympathy, like experimental psychology, produces knowledge of the other while maintaining a sense of intersubjective distance. For some writers, such as Richardson, the promise of modern fiction was that it might fuse self (reader) with other (character) in a way that could get beyond sympathetic experience.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Richardson’s work in Pilgrimage, in fact, coincides with the emergence of empathy as a concept separate from sympathy.[5] In the first decade of the twentieth century, Titchener and the German scholar Theodor Lipps introduced Robert Vischer’s aesthetic theory of Einfühlung (literally “feeling oneself into”) to psychology. It was Titchener who coined the word “empathy” as a translation of Einfühlung in 1908. In his 1873 dissertation, On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics, Vischer theorized Einfühlung as a radical experience of otherness in which the observer pushes his ego into a beheld object. When we contemplate a form, Vischer suggested, we push ourselves into it and become conflated with it.[6] Vischer’s understanding of Einfühlung challenges the notion that we can gain the most productive knowledge of outside objects and minds through careful observation and inference. He explains that in the process of in-feeling, subject and object get confused: “Thus I project my own life into the lifeless form, just as I quite justifiably do with another living person. Only ostensibly do I keep my own identity [. . .] I am mysteriously transplanted and magically transformed into this Other” (Vischer 1873: 104). The in-feeler projects his ‘own life’ but undergoes a transformative experience, losing purchase on his sense of identity. What begins as a dominant act in fact carries the promise of subjective confusion and loss for the person who “feels into” an object.[7]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Vischer’s concept of Einfühlung gained international currency, especially in Anglo-American psychology, through Lipps.[8] It was he who saw the potential benefit of importing the concept of Einfühlung into other fields of inquiry, writing in 1907, “The concept of empathy has now become a fundamental concept especially of aesthetics. But it must also become a fundamental concept of psychology, and it must furthermore become the fundamental concept of sociology” (qtd. in Pigman 1995: 242). Lipps, retaining Vischer’s idea of projection, called empathy “objectivated self-enjoyment” (Lipps 1905: 403). Empathy originates in the self, but is experienced as if in the other. Lipps explains that in watching another person move, “through projecting myself into it I feel myself striving and performing this same movement [. . .] I am now with my feeling of activity entirely and wholly in the moving figure [. . .] I am transported into it. I am, so far as my consciousness is concerned, entirely and wholly identical with it” (Lipps 1903: 375). Empathic experience has a built-in forgetting that makes its origin in the self unclear, thus preventing us from apprehending the foreignness of the foreign object. This built-in forgetting is a clear point of connection to Richardson’s novels, in which we are meant to forget that a narrative agent is describing Miriam and that we vivify her through our act of reading. According to Lipps, our grasp of others’ interior states through empathy “happens immediately and simultaneously with the perception, and that does not mean that we see it or apprehend it by means of the senses. We cannot do that, since anger, friendliness, or sadness cannot be perceived through the senses. We can only experience this kind of thing in ourselves” (qtd. in Jahoda 2005: 156).[9] The empathizing mind, as Lipps conceives it, does not observe and infer. Rather, it provides an immediate experience of otherness. Such immediacy is crucial to understanding Richardson’s fiction.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Indeed, for critics in the first half of the twentieth century, the value of Pilgrimage was to be found in its immediacy and in the way it forced the reader to merge with Miriam. As Harvey Eagleson wrote in 1934, “[Miriam’s] thoughts are recorded as our own might be, without explanation” (Eagleson 1934: 44). Many early readers of Pilgrimage figured Richardson’s method in graphic terms of “getting inside” of Miriam. One of her earliest champions, J. D. Beresford, wrote, “Miss Richardson is, I think, the first novelist who has taken the final plunge, who has neither floated nor waded, but gone ahead under and become a very part of the human element she has described” (Beresford 1921: vii). A. A. Mendilow similarly explained that Richardson approaches time in Pilgrimage “in depth, vertically, by sinking a deep and narrow shaft into the present moment of feeling and sensation” (Mendilow 1952: 84). This “plunge” into Miriam’s sensory and cognitive processes is aided by the fact that Miriam, who is so resistant to sympathy, proves to be particularly empathic. Richardson figures her mind as a mobile entity that can leave her body. For example, it goes “feeling out along the road” and “slide[s] out” to contemplate distant cliffs and the sea (Richardson 1916: 194, 316). As Miriam ages, she acquires an involuntary ability to imbue the objects around her with her “own life.” In one particularly stressful social situation, we read, “[h]er delight and horror and astonishment seemed to flow all over the table. Desperately she tried to gather in all her emotions behind an easy appreciative smile. She felt astonishment and dismay coming out of her hair, swelling her hands, making her clumsy with her knife and fork” (Richardson 1919: 168). Such a porous, empathic, mind is receptive to readerly in-feeling.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Lipps is careful to point out that when empathizing with another person, we do not experience the world as that person would. He warns that the “sensuous manifestations” of empathy “are not the ‘man’, they are not the strange personality with his psychological equipment, his ideas, his feelings, his will, etc.” (qtd. in Hunsdahl 1967: 184). The understanding of another mind that we grasp in the act of empathy is in fact a hybrid of that person’s “strange personality” and our own. For Lipps, all acts of empathy produce this hybridity: “The object as it exists for me, is, as is commonly said, the resultant or product of two factors, that is, something sensuously given and my own activity” (Lipps 1905: 407). It is particularly in this notion of hybridity that we see the connections between empathy and early stream-of-consciousness narration.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Richardson’s particular “stream-of-consciousness” narration is in fact third-person narration that makes liberal use of free indirect style and free direct thought.[10] Both of these devices provide the hybridity Lipps discusses—the narrative voice overcomes the objective distance between itself and the mind it examines, feeling its way into a character’s interior space. Free indirect style has been most pithily described as that with two focalizers—narrator and character (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 110). Pointed Roofs, for example, ends with a quick move from choppy third-person narration to a bit of free indirect style as Miriam leaves Germany on a train:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Groups passed by smiling and waving.
Miriam sat down.
She leaped up, to lean from the window.
The platform had disappeared.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Clearly, the final sentence is not merely a narrator’s report. The platform’s disappearance depends on Miriam’s subjective point of view. Narrator and character meld here into one voice, which, as Lipps says of empathic experience, is “the resultant or product of two factors” (Lipps 1905: 407). They are joined, we might say, in empathic confusion. And in turn the reader’s mind joins Miriam’s in a similar confusion—the reader and Miriam simultaneously learn that the platform had disappeared. We might even say three entities (Miriam, narrator, reader) are all “thinking” the same thought (“the platform had disappeared”) in a treble cognitive overlap. Of course, free indirect style was hardly new in 1915. But what is new in Pointed Roofs is the extent to which empathic strategies saturate the narrative, ensuring that the reader spends most of her time “feeling into” Miriam’s mind in order to achieve moments of “thinking with” her.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 3 It is crucial to note that throughout Pilgrimage, we experience cognitive consonance with Miriam’s mind even if we simultaneously feel emotional dissonance. When Miriam first arrives at the German school where she is to teach, we spend pages reading her thoughts before and after getting her hair washed by the housekeeper, an incident that she finds boggling and humiliating:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Then her amazed ears caught the sharp bump—crack—of an eggshell against the rim of the basin, followed by a further brisk crackling just above her. She shuddered from head to foot as the egg descended with a cold slither upon her incredulous skull. Tears came to her eyes as she gave beneath the onslaught of two hugely enveloping, vigorously drubbing hands—‘sh—ham—poo’ gasped her mind. (Richardson 1915: 60-1)

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 We see here how Miriam’s internal voice reflects the bodily experience, breaking up mid-word in response to the rhythmic movement of the housekeeper’s hands. When we read the broken up “sh—ham—poo,” the cadence of our thought falls into step with the cadence of Miriam’s thought. This cadence-matching promotes the illusion that rather than observing her actions and making inferences about her interior state, we feel our way into her interior rhythms.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Miriam’s predicament is unlikely to arouse our sympathies. But our experience of readerly empathy does not require that we “feel for” her. The success of Richardson’s technique is that it does not depend on our ability to identify with her protagonist’s struggles, or even care about them. No matter what we think of her, we are frequently thinking with her. One of the most salient aspects of Lipps’s empathy, and the one most likely to be disregarded today, is the fact that it can be both pleasant and unpleasant. We may feel ourselves into any object. It is our reaction to that empathic action, in Lipps’s understanding, that tells us whether or not we enjoy the object we “get inside.” Sometimes empathy will result in a feeling of harmony, at other times it will result in a feeling of conflict, or negative empathy: “The feeling of harmony then is precisely a feeling of pleasure in the object, and the feeling of conflict is a feeling of displeasure in it” (Lipps 1905: 408).

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 I’d like to close by suggesting that the connections between Richardson’s work and early models of Einfühlung help explain why “empathy,” still an esoteric term in 1915, was coming into wide use at the end of the modernist era. The stream-of-consciousness narrative that Richardson and others developed in the 1910s and 1920s, and which I identify with empathic structures, had taken a prominent place in contemporary literature by the 1930s. So while psychology provided the name for a new way of thinking and feeling with others, one might argue that fiction primed the public to understand it.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Notes
[1]. It is important to note that empathy encompasses both the cognitive process known as ‘thinking with’ others and the affective process known as ‘feeling with’ others. Each of these processes, the cognitive and the affective, is in turn referred to in discourses of empathy as a form of “feeling into.”
[2]. Both the opening of Wilhelm Wundt’s psychological laboratory at Leipzig in 1879 and the publication of Franz Brentano’s Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint in 1874 mark the beginning of psychology as a discipline in its own right. It was also during the 1870s that William James started offering classes on psychology at Harvard; the first American doctorate in psychology was awarded there to G. Stanley Hall under James’s direction in 1878. In Britain the first psychological laboratories opened in 1897 at Cambridge and University College London (Rylance 2000: 5).
[3]. We learn early in Pointed Roofs that the protagonist Miriam Henderson, like her creator, studied at her progressive late nineteenth-century school “the beginning of psychology—that strange, new subject” (Richardson 1915: 79). In this first volume of the largely autobiographical Pilgrimage, Miriam teaches at a girls’ school in Germany. Richardson lived in Germany in 1891, when the great psychological laboratories were gaining influence and the theory of Einfühlung in psychological aesthetics was widely discussed by German scholars. No doubt her skepticism about psychology remained when she started writing Pilgrimage in 1913; at that time, the experimental psychology of researchers like Oswald Külpe and E. B. Titchener was still the dominant “new psychology.”
[4]. Mach held that we must move beyond the “problem of the Ego,” for “Whoever cannot get rid of the conception of the Ego as a reality which underlies everything, will also not be able to avoid drawing a fundamental distinction between my sensations and your sensations” (Mach 1897: 360). For his own part, Titchener was sure that, as with different human bodies, “the resemblances [between minds] are more fundamental than the differences” (Titchener 1909: 26).
[5]. The history of empathy, and its relation to and differences from sympathy, is a rich and complicated one. See in particular Wispé 1986; Wispé 1987; Chismar; and Burdett.
[6]. As Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou explain, for Vischer, empathy meant a “radical and thoroughgoing transference of our personal ego, one in which our whole personality (consciously or unconsciously) merges with the object. In essence, we fill out the appearance with the content of our soul” (Mallgrave and Ikonomou 1993: 25).
[7]. While Vischer’s empathy depends on the imagination, it is also deeply connected to the body. We have a tendency, Vischer says, to assign sensations that we know to forms that we contemplate. Thus the act of projection through which we understand the world has physical effects on us. For example, when one contemplates a cliff, it “appears to stand at attention and squarely face us” (Vischer 1873: 105). At the same time, one’s body might stiffen in empathic interaction with the cliff. The imagination facilitates aesthetic interaction with the image by projecting human qualities onto it and by leading us to believe that we are taking on the qualities of the object.
[8]. Lipps opened more than a decade of work on empathy with the 1897 volume Raumästhetik. While he was the most prominent turn-of-the-century theorizer of empathy, he was far from alone. As Lauren Wispé writes in an excellent overview of the history of empathy, “By about the first part of the twentieth century the idea of Einfühlung/empathy was—intellectually speaking, everywhere. Although it was called by different names and utilized in different contexts and in different fields of the social sciences, the question of empathy—how one knows the consciousness of another—was current” (Wispé 1987: 24). Johannes Volkelt, Antonin Prandtl, Theodor Meyer, and Max Deri are among the other important German scholars to discuss Einfühlung in the late nineteenth century.
[9]. What we know about mirror neurons today both vindicates and contradicts Lipps. They help us apprehend the emotional states of others faster than we could by reasoning, but they do not fire without input from our senses.
[10]. It was May Sinclair, a reader of William James, who famously used the term “stream of consciousness” to describe the evolving modernist technique in her 1918 article “The Novels of Dorothy Richardson” writing that Pilgrimage “is Miriam Henderson’s stream of consciousness going on and on” (Sinclair 1918: 93). We should note, however, that Richardson’s fiction is not precisely we would call stream-of-consciousness narrative after the developments of late twentieth-century narratology. Mieke Bal, for example, holds that stream-of-consciousness literature “limits itself to the reproduction of the contents of consciousness” (Bal 1997: 87). For Seymour Chatman, it is “the random ordering of thoughts and impressions” (Chatman 1978: 188). Richardson’s novels are closer to what Lawrence Bowling described in his influential 1950 article “What is the Stream of Consciousness Technique”—a combination interior monologue, which he understood as thoughts already verbalized, and the sensory impression of the “vast amount of mental activity which our minds never translate into language” (Bowling 1950: 337). Yet all of these descriptions preclude a third-person narrator, which Pilgrimage has, spare though it is. Richardson’s overall method comes closest to Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s understanding of focalization, which he calls “cognitive, emotive, and ideological orientation” (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 71).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Bibliography
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—. [1905] (1965), “Empathy and Aesthetic Pleasure”, trans. Karl Aschenbrenner, in Aesthetic Theories: Studies in the Philosophy of Art, eds Karl Aschenbrenner and Arnold Isenberg, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, pp. 403-12.
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— [1916] (1976). Backwater, Pilgrimage 1, New York: Popular Library, pp. 189-346.
— [1917] (1976), Honeycomb, Pilgrimage 1, New York: Popular Library, pp. 349-490.
— [1919] (1976), The Tunnel, Pilgrimage 2, New York: Popular Library, pp. 11-287.
— [1943] (1989), “Data For a Spanish Publisher,” Journey to Paradise: Short Stories and Autobiographical Sketches, London: Virago, pp. 132-40.
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