Sunday, April 07, 2013

Empathy and art

I had an interesting Twitter conversation with Damian Walter today. (Incidentally, Walter, @damiengwalter, is an interesting person for authors to follow.) He began by arguing that video games aren’t art, a topic of which I really didn’t have a strong opinion about so I ignored it. Then he tweeted this:

I found the idea very alien that inducing empathy was the sole purpose of art so I had to answer. The following conversation took place:

Like most Twitter conversations, this had two people arguing for their own point without really listening to the other, and with no resolution reached. Walter did ask me why I didn’t consider video games art, but I didn’t have a good answer to give. Later, I thought of a definition. Working on Walter’s idea of art as a subjective experience, I decided to argue that “art, as an experience, always adds the experience to the person experiencing it. Videogames, as an experience, don’t do that.” Not a very good definition, all things considered. Maybe I'll come up with something better later.

This is a book blog though, so I decided to take Walter’s idea of art as a creator of an empathic reaction and see how it applies to books I’ve read. The definition of empathy I found on Wikipedia continues to say that you “need to have a certain amount of empathy before being able to experience accurate sympathy or compassion.” While I’ve read many dozens of books that have made me empathise with the characters – all of them have created some emotional reaction in me – it’s not very often that a book has caused me feel more than that. One book immediately came to my mind though: The Black Brothers by Liza Tetzner (1941, originally in German).

The Black Brothers by Liza Tetzner, the illustrated edition.
Set in the mid-19th-century Milan, The Black Brothers tells a story of a poor Swiss boy, Georgio, whose parents sell him to slavery to pay his mother’s medical bills. He ends up as a chimney sweep, a job for boys small enough to crawl through the flues to clean them up. It was dangerous and often deadly work for those boys, on top of which their owners treated them very badly. Georgio’s story is full of twists and turns, often tear inducing, until he manages to escape. The ending is happy for Georgio; not so much for some of his friends.

The Black Brothers is written for pre-teens and that was the age I read it. But Tetzner obviously didn’t believe in cosseting her readers or sugar-coating her message. The impact was huge on a girl who hadn’t experienced anything more unfair than having to share ice cream with her sisters. That there would be children treated so badly was unfathomable to me. It didn’t matter that those things had happened over a century ago; I was old enough to understand that children continued to suffer the same way in other parts of the world. I followed the journey of Georgio and his Black Brothers with an aching heart, hoping that there had been something I could have done for them. And when I had finished the book, I read it again.

I didn’t rush into changing the world after reading the book, but I’m sure it changed me. Well over twenty years have gone since I read The Black Brothers and it was the first book I thought of for a blog about empathy. As a subjective experience, then, mine had been strong. Would I define art as an empathic experience? I don’t think so. But the best books, like any good art, give you something that changes you or stays with you through decades. I defy video games to do that.

There is a Japanise anime based on The Black Brothers called Romeo's Blue Skies. However, it seems to be exactly what the book isn't, sweet and romantic, so I won't add a link to it for you. Read the book instead.