I’ve been planning for a while to read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and now that reader Ellen Collington has steered me to an essay inspired by the book, I won’t put it off any longer. Apparently Pinker believes that literature has played a key role in the decline of violence.
The essay citing Pinker’s book, which appeared in the Boston Review, is Elaine Scarry’s “Poetry Changed the World: Injury and the Ethics of Reading.” (Two years ago, Scarry’s The Body in Pain triggered a series of posts about literature and pain, beginning with this one.) I recommend that you click on Scarry’s article and read it, but as it is long and complicated, I offer up a summary.
Pinker, according to Scarry, sees a sea change in society’s attitudes towards violence starting in the 17th century. Over the next 200 years, European society would stop executing accused witches, imprisoning debtors, torturing humans and animals, and enslaving fellow human beings. The horror expressed by William Hogarth in the 1751 print above shows that England had traveled some distance since its nonchalant acceptance of Elizabethan bear baiting. Pinker attributes much of the change to exploding literacy, and he singles out the novel for special mention:
Drawing elaborately on the work of historian Lynn Hunt, Pinker convincingly describes the effect of men reading best-selling novels such as Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie and thereby entering imaginatively into the lives of other people, including those without social power: women, servants, and children.
Scarry further explore how empathy works:
By “empathy” Hunt and Pinker—rightly in my view—mean not the capacity of literature to make us feel compassion for a fictional being (though literature certainly does this), but rather the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, and to make this recognition a powerful mental habit. If this recognition occurs in a large enough population, then a law against injuring others can be passed, after which the prohibition it expresses becomes freestanding and independent of sensibility. Literature says: “Imagine Pamela, and her right to be free of injury will become self-evident to you.” The laws say: “We are not interested in your imaginative abilities or disabilities; whether or not you can imagine Pamela, you are prohibited from injuring her.”
I would add that this dimension of empathy is also what made the novel so threatening to many in the 18th century, an issue I have written on several times (for instance, here). When we read, we instinctively identify with the protagonist, and when (as in the case of, say, Defoe’s Moll Flanders) the protagonist is a prostitute, thief, and bigamist, then one can find oneself empathizing with some pretty dodgy characters. Indeed, the fact that so many young people were identifying with the bastard Tom Jones led the Bishop of London to attribute two 1750 earthquakes to that novel.
But yes, empathy also means that one has to ascribe individuality to others, making it more difficult to casually see them as objects. Tomorrow I will discuss two other dimensions of literature that Scarry believes were integral to the advance of civilization, poetic dialogue and beauty. But if you want to see what she says before then, go read the article.