Some thoughts on empathy and feeling.

Months ago, I wrote down “Empathy ≠ Feeling. Gormenghast the Opera.”


This is my attempt to work out what I meant by that.


In short, I was struck by the difference between work that tries to make you understand someone else’s feelings (empathy), and work that tries to make you feel someone else’s feelings (feeling).


For example, when we see Lear howling on the heath, does the production try to make you

  1. feel like a deposed king with singularly ungrateful children? (feeling-like)

  2. understand the feelings of that deposed king without necessarily sharing them? (understanding feelings)

  3. feel pity for Lear? (feeling-for)


(As I write this, I realise that others have got here first. Which is probably why I had these thoughts. I’d guess that number one can be associated with American Method Acting and associated schools of realism, number two with Brechtian theatre-as-politico-social-critique and the Verfremdungseffekt, and number three with… well, a lot of things.)


Writing-out what exactly I meant by “Empathy ≠ Feeling” has helped me realise:


1. Although in Lear both empathy and feeling are good options, feel-like is more of an issue in socially-engaged work. When audiences claim that a piece has makes them share the feelings of a marginalised group of refugees, sexual assault victims, or any other suffering people, the audience seems to ignore the unique horrors/problems of that experience of suffering.


This caution of mine possibly stems from working with texts from the Holocaust, where there is a thriving discussion around using those texts to form ‘redemptive narratives’. (pg. 4 of the first, pg. 5 of the second). One aspect of this conversation relates to work that allows us to diminish ourselves from the unique horror of what happened by false attempts to explore ‘how would I feel/act in Auschwitz?’ You can’t know unless you were there.

The performance history of the Terezín cabarets is a useful starting-point for discussions of redemptive narratives. Another time, hopefully.

2. Some people disagree with criticism of redemptive narratives, saying they’re the best/only way to get people to understand the horrors of what happened. I think this works on an assumption that empathy is not enough - I have to feel like, not just feel for.


There are colours of feeling I’ll never experience - my poster paints have lots of shades of blue, as do your watercolours, but I’ll never get to use your shades of blue. And that’s fine - I can still care about watercolours.


In my work, I’m generally more interested in feeling for - roles are often not well-rounded naturalistic characters, but archetypes or clowns. Most of the time I want a mix of Number 3 pity for them and than Number 2 analytical understanding.


3. I’ve made a lot of work where I’ve wanted to achieve Number 2 analytical understanding, and I’m pretty sure I’ve failed. Partly that’s because my usual audience comes expecting Number 1 feeling-like or Number 3 feeling-for, so don’t come expecting to need to analyse. But I also think I could improve my work in this area.


And write Gormenghast: The Opera.

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