|Levin and Kitty, from the recent film version of Anna Karenina|
"Is there something one can learn from literature one cannot learn just as well or better elsewhere?
There is an obvious proof that the great novelists knew more about human psychology than any social scientist who ever lived. If psychologists, sociologists, or economists understood people as well as George Eliot or Tolstoy did, they could create portraits of people as believable as Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina. But no social scientist has ever come close.
Still more important: Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does, and in that respect its study remains unique among university-taught subjects.
When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while. When Anna Karenina does the wrong thing, you may see what is wrong and yet recognize that you might well have made the same mistake. And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place.
Early in Anna Karenina, there is a remarkable scene in which Levin comes to propose to Kitty, who plans to refuse him. But when she sees him, she is shaken: “And then for the first time the whole thing presented itself in a new, different aspect; only then did she realize that the question did not affect her only—with whom she would be happy, and whom she loved—but that she would that moment have to wound a man whom she liked. And to wound him cruelly.”
Kitty puts herself in his position, feels for him, suffers the pain and humiliation he is bound to feel. This is how we know she is a good person. Kitty does what the reader is constantly invited to do. Empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins.
It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.
Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values, and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender, or personality type. Those broad categories turn out to be insufficient, precisely because they are general and experienced by each person differently; and we learn not only the general but also what it is to be a different specific person. By practice, we learn what it is like to perceive, experience, and evaluate the world in various ways. This is the very opposite of measuring people in terms of our values.
To be sure, there are other disciplines that sometimes tell us we should empathize, but only literature offers constant practice in doing so. We follow the life of Dorothea Brooke or David Copperfield moment to moment, and we live with them for hundreds of hours, always living into their experience, growing along with them, approving or disapproving their choices, and perhaps changing our minds as they change theirs: This long process offers a lot of practice in empathy, enough to make it a habit. There is a big difference between inferring that someone else is humiliated or injured and knowing moment by moment what that feels like. But once we have the practice of that moment-to-moment feeling, we can infer what other people in real life are experiencing all the better."