Unethical Reading and the Limits of Empathy

Two writers on the ethics of pen and paper

Namwali Serpell
Maria Tumarkin
Photo of Namwali Serpell on left; photo of Maria Tumarkin on right
Photo of Namwali Serpell by Yanina Gosulsky; photo of Maria Tumarkin by Sibylle Sdrojek

Maria Tumarkin, who was born in Soviet Ukraine and emigrated to Australia as a teenager, everywhere exhibits in her work the hard-won knowledge that authentic civic-mindedness often produces, and requires, an estrangement from consensus and the deadening language of common sense. Tumarkin’s fourth book, Axiomatic (2019), challenges reflexive frameworks of grief and trauma, offering instead the specificity of individual lives in their entanglement with the lives of others. Such vigilance is a quality Tumarkin shares with the Zambian novelist, critic, essayist, and scholar Namwali Serpell. Author of the critical study Seven Modes of Uncertainty (2014); of the novel The Old Drift (2019), a multigeneric, multigenerational exploration of Zambia’s history and future; and, most recently, of Stranger Faces (2020), a series of linked essays, Serpell displays throughout her work a rigorous attention to affect, aesthetics, and ethics, and how they are enmeshed with our individual and collective histories.

In 2019, Serpell published an essay in The New York Review of Books called “The Banality of Empathy,” in which she questioned our assumption that art promotes empathy—or that it should. The problem, she argued, is not simply that empathy substitutes for action, but that it promotes its own kind of moral callousness, a fascination with others’ pain. Assuming a basic fungibility between self and other, empathy of this kind is particularly dangerous when it comes to race: “Black pain, black death, is the clarifying limit case for the use of art for empathy. Its very seamlessness condemns it.” Over an exchange of emails, she and Maria Tumarkin revisit her argument about the banality of empathy in the context of the present, while also discussing their respective interests in narrative, the ethics of time, and the fraught nature of writing and reading.
The Editors

Maria Tumarkin I must say that by talking about the banality of empathy in your 2019 essay of the same title, you articulated very precisely something (a disquiet, a protest, a sick feeling) that had been in my head for over a decade. I wonder, with the world being what it is, whether you see any “non-banal models” of ethics that could describe some (potential) ethical work that literature can do or has done. Or perhaps there is something intrinsically banalizing and self-serving about “ethicalizing” conversations about reading and writing (e.g., “giving voice to the voiceless”—yet another pungent banality…)?

Namwali Serpell Iris Murdoch has a remarkable anecdote in her book The Sovereignty of Good. She’s arguing against the models of ethics so prominent in philosophy courses: theories of moral action and utilitarianism. And, because she’s a writer, she tells a story about a woman, a mother (M), who is struggling with her relationship to her daughter-in-law (D): “M finds D quite a good-hearted girl, but while not exactly common yet certainly unpolished and lacking in dignity and refinement. D is inclined to be pert and familiar, insufficiently ceremonious, brusque, sometimes positively rude, always tiresomely juvenile. M does not like D’s accent or the way D dresses. M feels that her son has married beneath him.” Now, M doesn’t ever reveal this view of D: she “behaves beautifully to the girl throughout, not allowing her real opinion to appear in any way.” But, as I’ve written elsewhere, even if her behavior doesn’t alter in the least, if M “‘observes D or at least reflects deliberately about D, until gradually her vision of D alters,’ then any internal change ought to seem moral to us.” Which is to say, our general understanding of morality is as much about thinking, reflecting, and changing internally as it is about external actions. This means that perfectly quotidian, internal experiences of consciousness—like reading and writing—can be a mode of ethics.

Now, Murdoch never says exactly how M’s perspective on D changes; she doesn’t even suggest that empathy is the ground of her deliberate reflection. Murdoch leaves all of this to our imagination, which is a beautiful trick, in that it demonstrates precisely what telling a story can do. A story does not always tell us the answer. It can prompt thoughts, incite questions, stir uncertainty, catalyze conversations—like this one. Murdoch’s point is that literature and ethical deliberation have this in common: they are very complex, variable, temporal processes of thinking that don’t necessarily bear on external acts. This should both encourage us to use literature to deliberate about ethics and remind us that to deliberate is not the same as to act.

MT To me, in some way, the Murdoch story is about re-internalizing the idea of ethical deliberations so they are seen as necessarily submerged, diffuse, head-breakingly complex, and always temporal. Which is to say, this story is about pushing back on the cause-and-effect model of imagining the relationship between literature and ethics—where literature is the cause, while the surge of empathy or other “moral” feelings is the effect of being in its presence, whether it leads to any actions or not.

I am also thinking about your series of “undelivered lectures,” Stranger Faces, which made me realize how so many theories of ethics I was semi-consciously tethered to are caught up in surfaces. You write about the centrality of the stranger’s face to the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s thinking on alterity—the face of the Other makes us confront the profound and ineradicable differences between human beings and, in the same breath, makes us understand our beholdenness to each other. You write that, in this formulation, “The face shocks us into recognizing our stark difference from, and our profound responsibility for, one other.”

But, as you show, this way of thinking presupposes that the surface of the stranger’s face and its meaning “are fused, inseparable.” And you say No: the disjunction between the sign and the referent is the very foundation of language—and of faces too. In fact, because they cannot be read but also compel us into reading them, stranger faces only amplify this disjunction and discord. They do not stand for identity and do not stand for meaning or truth about being human or whatever.

And in a way that feels really important to me, you also write about how the language that describes cruelty and violence in terms of dehumanizing objectification misrecognizes the nature of what it tries to capture and name. The most intolerable forms of cruelty don’t need to be underpinned by seeing certain kinds of people as akin to objects or machines or empty places. Often, underneath them, one finds a clear recognition of people as people and thus as capable of being diminished beyond repair, humiliated out of existence, and so on. You write, “Many valuable and ethical relationships depend on this oscillation between a person and a thing.” When you invite us to look at faces in the same way that we look at works of art, I get goosebumps. You are doing something very interesting with surfaces and depths in this work and the way this dichotomy always goes back (I feel) to ethics. Could you talk about this in relation to your thinking on ethics and literature?

NS Yes, I think that’s a perfect summation of what Murdoch’s thought experiment suggests about ethical deliberation. And yes! I just the other day in the shower had the realization that we misunderstand the causal trajectory between empathy and literature. Literature doesn’t create our capacity for empathy (or, really, identification and projection); our capacity for empathy allows us to create and read literature. And neither empathy nor literature is necessarily a form of moral action. To be clear, language can be active, can do things in the world—consider political policies or declarations of independence—but that doesn’t mean all language-based forms do.

The relationship between these ideas and my claims in Stranger Faces might be an argument for an essential neutrality. Empathy entails a human capacity for identification and projection; literature, among other arts, makes use of that capacity; faces are parts of a human body through which empathy takes place, but faces are also material things and interpretable signs.

None of these players in the drama of ethics is inherently good or inherently valuable, however. Our idealization of certain versions of them—literature about those who suffer, expressive faces—is a product of contingency and history, and often a matter of power. Ethics was originally “the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles,” a meta-term rather than one with a positive valence in itself. I don’t believe we can think objectively about-ethics and aesthetics and affect without making value judgments. But I do believe we can try to consider where those judgments come from and why, and what other possible values we might cultivate. In the case of the face, I argue, why be concerned with whether it is beautiful when we could be concerned with whether it is interesting? Why be concerned with the face to face when the profile is what you see when you stand beside someone? Why refuse the “found art” of the human face itself when we so often “find faces” in drainpipes and outlets and tree knots?

The other relationship between my ideas about empathy and my ideas about faces might be about decoupling things we have tended to conflate: empathy and literature, for instance, or faces and authenticity. It should trouble us, I think, that we so easily equate empathizing with a person in a novel with helping a (perhaps similar) person in real life. The sheer length of time that this has been a liberal platitude—without our seeing a change in the daily cruelties of life or the frequency of violence among “readers”—ought to give us pause. Similarly, the idea that people are more cruel to those people they “perceive” as nonhuman founders on the statistical evidence that violence and murder predominantly take place in the home, and on the anecdotal evidence that many people are kinder to their pets than they are to their family members. This is a horrific example, but I’ve always been struck by the sheer contradiction in enslavers saying that the enslaved were animals yet being more than willing to rape them. This may be a matter of causal direction again: men do not rape women because they think they’re animals; they call them animals to retroactively justify raping them.

Nabokov’s Lolita is a case in point: Humbert idealizes Lolita and dehumanizes her in the sense that he treats her as a fantasy, a literary pastiche, a two-dimensional screen. He does all of this to defend himself to us, the readers, in retrospect. But he would have raped her anyway—and she uses this word herself: “You raped me. Oh you dirty, dirty old man.” His efforts to know her, to understand her mind, to empathize with her, are just part of his insidious plan to seduce her, when in the end his physical and legal power over her (as her stepfather) is what allows him to take advantage of her.

MT It’s clear that Nabokov’s idea, which you mention in passing in your NYRB essay, that the worst thing a reader can do is identify with the characters, is connected to what you say about the banality of empathy. I wonder to what extent the will to identification is responsible for what is most banal about empathy? Would the idea that literary works have the capacity to move us (including to moral action) look significantly different if this matrix of identification were disrupted or if a text were to refuse it?

NS We’ve gotten caught up in empathy only because it seems to offer a straightforward equation between our human love of identification and the relatively recent tradition of viewing sympathy or empathy as a key to treating other people better. The fact of the matter is that, like many of our cognitive capacities and narrative techniques, identification as such is neutral (our love of seeking similarities goes back to our instinct for patterns) and can be practiced—or imposed—for different reasons.

Nabokov absolutely wants us to identify with Humbert in Lolita, not to the end of empathy but to foster a kind of complicity—a horror—when we realize that this is not, contra the banal blurb on the edition I read in college: “The only convincing love story of our century.” Lolita is not a love story at all. But Nabokov can’t make this claim, can’t “convince” us of this, without drawing us into identification with Humbert and then warping that identification. It is an experiential ethical mode.

One of the other reasons I find “reading for empathy” to be a reductive model is that it so often treats identification as a one-shot single move. Identification, as you note, can be disrupted, refused, changed over time. It’s a remarkably useful modality for narrative, which is art in motion, in time. But beyond identification, when we move into the realm of morality, it’s important to remember that we don’t want to treat real people the way we treat characters, or vice versa. We might be amused when a child treats a character as a real friend, but we are appalled when someone treats a real person like they’re a character (criticizing them as “flat,” killing them off, manipulating them.)

This makes me want to ask you about how you complicate identification in Axiomatic, your nonfiction book exploring different aspects of trauma and the aliveness of our past(s) in our present(s). The ending of the essay titled “Those who forget the past are condemned to re———” gives us a new view of a grandmother, an Australian artist and Holocaust survivor, that changes everything that came before—not as a judgment, but through a sudden widening of the lens so that we see more, understand more of life’s contradictions. There are similar oscillations of identification and distance in your many years of interviewing certain subjects. When you’re writing, do you try to replicate your own experience of identification and disidentification for the reader over time? Or does that happen as you write—is the writing itself a form of deliberation?

MT I love what you said about the folly of seeing identification as “a one-shot single move.” With the grandmother in Axiomatic, I wondered how to handle coming into some new information late in the piece, because on the surface (surfaces again!), this information is meant to potentially discredit the grandmother’s self-representation. I wanted the reader to know but also not know this information at the start, so that something like what you describe might be possible: the widening of the lens, rather than the new information canceling or corrupting what came before. It was important to me that what I had to say about her should unfold in time. I didn’t want to write backwards. To me, compression, the sleek and tight synthesis (a version of life in one hundred words or less), is among the most violent modes of writing about others. When you take time out of the equation, you end up misrepresenting people (yourself included) in dangerous and corrosive ways.

More generally, I don’t think I am trying to replicate my experiences of identification and disidentification so much as I am trying to put them on record and be clear about them. I don’t want readers to experience people and situations I write about in the same way as I did or do. Except for one thing: I want to make sure that time is always made visible in my work because to me there is such a profound connection between ethics and time.

NS I love this answer. I am obsessed with rendering time in my work, making it visible. Not necessarily as a staging for the reader but almost as an invitation to the reader, to experience time in this way, with me, as we commune through the words that I have written and that you are breathing life into as you read. One of the passages I marked as a favorite in your book is your disquisition on your dread of “movie sequences in which a human life—a normal, long life, unshortened by illness or war—gets condensed into a few emblematic scenes.” I know exactly what you mean, how painful it is because it ignores that “time is what makes everything OK.” (This is the insight that has gotten me through the despair of mourning more than once in my life.) We are in such a strange time now, a suspended time, neither frozen nor rushed (or both?). It does make it hard to think through writing or reading, my other primary mode.

It strikes me that we both have chosen narrative forms to do this work of rendering time. And for me at least, that’s precisely because in longer works, time, as you say, “flows forward and circles round itself, both.” Narrative allows for the unfolding and dilation of time that have such profound effects in your work. I think most of us tend to treat people—even ourselves—as fixed in time, in amber. But narrative reminds us that people’s contradictions are surges and dips, not locked paradoxes or inherent flaws. It opens us up to considering how people’s different ways of being—some of which might be incommensurable with our own—manifest and change over time.

MT I am also wondering if there is any way in which (even if it hasn’t aged super well) the historian Dominick LaCapra’s idea of “empathic unsettlement” might offer a different model, in describing a movement towards some charge in the space between a text and its reader that is also a movement away from reassurances and fantasies of closure? I am quite possibly flogging a dead horse (forgive this violent image), but I wonder if you think empathy is always already rotten with “this grotesque dynamic” you write about?

NS Literary identification has many possible uses—reassurance, fantasy, assimilation, eruption, and so on. Think about a Beckett novella like Company. We might identify with the figure who opens by saying, “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine. To one on his back in the dark,” but we do not necessarily have enough information to empathize with them. Yet we can still feel deeply unsettled.

I believe empathy as such is only one, heavily promoted, mode of ethical engagement. And, yes, I think it is intrinsically beset with a certain grotesque dynamic—that is, if you think that hierarchies of power are grotesque.

The eighteenth-century origins of empathy—which was called “sympathy”—are revelatory in this regard. We know about Adam Smith taking “our brother…upon the rack” as his case study for sympathy. I just had occasion to revisit Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection (1997). Her first chapter talks about how John Rankin, in trying to convey to his audience the horrors of American slavery, goes so far as to imagine himself, his wife, his child as slaves:

My flighty imagination added much to the tumult of passion by persuading me, for the moment, that I myself was a slave, and with my wife and children placed under the reign of terror. I began in reality to feel for myself, my wife, and my children—the thoughts of being whipped at the pleasure of a morose and capricious master, aroused the strongest feelings of resentment; but when I fancied the cruel lash was approaching my wife and children, and my imagination depicted in lively colors, their tears, their shrieks, and bloody stripes, every indignant principle of my bloody nature was excited to the highest degree.

So what is this? It is obviously voyeurism. It is paternalism, insofar as he believes he can actually imagine this, and even that he needs to voice this. Somehow, the cries of real slaves are not enough. Only his imagined suffering can suffice, only his cries can be heard by others—are human enough to prompt mercy. Hartman points out that not only are there filaments of masochism tainting this purported act of empathy, but that the act itself—who empathizes, with whom, and why—is also thrown into question: “What comes to the fore is the difficulty and slipperiness of empathy.… The ease of Rankin’s empathic identification is as much due to his good intentions and heartfelt opposition to slavery as to the fungibility of the captive body.”

Empathy is both useful and necessary to human relationships, insofar as it offers the grounds for a kind of rudimentary moral imagination. It does not go much beyond the recognition—which usually dawns on children by about age five—that other people exist, that they are human like us, and have thoughts like us, but are also very different from us and from each other. To stop at that recognition is hardly sufficient for an ethical education!

I found your chapter on the court system, in which you follow the legal aid lawyer Vanda around, fascinating in just this regard. The sense that, for example, empathizing with a drug addict means understanding that going clean is a deep loss for them, doesn’t necessarily lead to obvious solutions for helping them survive. Could you talk about how empathy both works toward and against people with close contact to the law?

MT I grew up in the former Soviet Union and in a late, flaccid, totalitarian state, the idea that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” was particularly obvious. For seventy years, the rhetoric of the Soviet state was always about happiness for all, a better future for all, equality for all—bullshit rhetoric that was like a paper bag thrown over a bomb. But apart from learning about how the genocidal state operates, you also learn instantly to recognize this idea, in whatever guise it comes at you, that someone else knows what you need to be “happy,” and that this knowledge is certain and enforceable. You see it miles off. It emits a special stink even before you know it’s there. I mean, the idea of “the best interests of the child,” for instance, as determined by law—how many women and children did that bright idea kill, and how many will it continue to kill?

In my research for Axiomatic, I came to see that the lawyers and magistrates, who were actually doing important work for people who live with addiction, understood how much these people stood to lose if their addiction was somehow, let’s say, “broken.” They understood the relationship between addiction and a sense of self, a sense of community, meaning, and purpose. It’s always both, life-giving and life-taking, and you need to be able to see that. This is before we get to the corruption, bigotry, and sadism of the law enforcement institutions and the broader structures they are embedded in. I don’t want to hold forth on black and brown bodies—I am white. I’ll just say that in Australia, indigenous deaths in custody are a catastrophe that rolls on as if nothing can stop it. I’ll refer you to a recent article in The Conversation by Alison Whittaker: “Despite 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991, no one has ever been convicted. Racist silence and complicity are to blame.”

When I was growing up in Ukraine, a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince seemed to capture the ethics my family was teaching me without teaching it to me didactically: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” And if you can’t handle forever, then please don’t start. Just don’t. The word tamed is context-specific for the story, but the idea is that if you offer help or a shelter to another being, you have to be prepared to do it again and again. And if you’re likely to get exhausted or feel “used” or want a medal for your displays of goodness and selflessness, you will do untold damage. The idea that doing something is always better than doing nothing is very dangerous, I think. Not that I want to provide an elaborate justification for doing nothing. I just know that doing something as a ready-made ethical position is fraught. So much work and deliberation need to happen before you actually do anything that is ethically grounded and not fundamentally self-serving. Which sort of takes us back to where we started this conversation.

NS What a succinct and acute line! Now I am the one with chills. I completely agree with this. And it resonates with another of my recent shower thoughts, which is that turning to writers for thoughts about the good is always a bit of a mistake. Because utopias are boring! We’d rather read “The Yellow Wallpaper” than Herland. Dystopias are much more interesting to us. Even happy endings are predicated on a great deal of misery and complication preceding them. And why are happiness and the good so dull? Because they aren’t active! Being happy very often involves sitting still; being good very often involves not doing bad things. Which is to say, the predilection for agency, for moral action, for being a “do-gooder,” so to speak, in Western societies is childlike: optimistic and well-intentioned (the road to hell, as you note), but also naive and simplistic. As you note, so much that has been justified in the name of “action” and “progress” has yielded mass horrors like detainment and genocide.

I agree with you: doing good is difficult and fraught and very rarely escapes the self-serving. The smallest acts are often the only ones I can conceive of as purely “good.” Feeding someone, hugging someone (with masks on!). I, too, don’t wish to promote doing nothing. But there are different versions of doing nothing. For instance, the U.S. government essentially did nothing to prevent, as of this writing, over two hundred thousand deaths from COVID-19. But I believe allowing workers and businesses and students to do nothing—letting us sit the virus out at home, providing us with enough to survive, until enough time had passed—would have been the right thing to do. Perhaps the pandemic, or Dr. Rona, as I like to call her sometimes, is teaching us some tough lessons about time and about agency! (I’m kidding, of course. If anything is neutral, a coronavirus is.)

MT So: the pandemic. People are writing “the power of literature to unite us and help us make sense of the world” pieces as if there is no tomorrow. Are you thinking new thoughts or old thoughts with new intensity about the banality of empathy at this moment?

NS What has struck me most is that people still believe that empathy—literary empathy even—is useful in this moment! As though it were a matter of identifying with those who are sick or those who have died or those who have lost others. No! It’s a matter of the government doing its job to prevent a health crisis. Prevention of death should not require empathy. Why would it? What could empathy possibly do except stratify people into those who are worthy of saving—empathizable with—and those who aren’t?

On the one hand, I found it interesting to see how many people got released from jail, just like that. No need for hearings, for their side of the story, for defenses or calls for empathy, just the recognition that human lives are worth preserving. The pandemic, not empathy, is what unveiled that proximity, that co-dependence, that mutual humanity. On the other hand, I found it awful to see how many prisons locked down, resulting in mass death—because the rights and safety of convicted people weren’t seen as valuable enough to protect. More than ever, I think empathy is not just banal but dangerous—a distraction or a palliative for people who want to be and do good but have no tools, no opportunities, no imperative to take action. Systemic change needs deliberation, yes, but we’ve deliberated much of this already.

The protests have been interesting to me in this regard as well. The idea that something about George Floyd’s death on tape, because it was so long, so gruesome, is what prompted greater empathy and therefore a bigger uproar, is a canard. That kind of death has been visible and frequent in America for centuries. Many other forces came together to push people out on the streets to protest—it may sound cynical, but I don’t doubt that being cooped up in the summer because of a pandemic during a Trump presidency was a big part of it. The way this pertains to literature is that while many people now say Black Lives Matter, few of them seem interested in actual black lives. Only a few of the “race” best sellers are works of black literature. Most of them are books that permit white people to self-flagellate, like John Rankin did, about the sins of racism. Empathy just isn’t a useful rubric for thinking through these sociopolitical shifts.

Empathy also does nothing to resolve the problem of incommensurable values: I can empathize with teachers during the pandemic and with parents of small children during the pandemic, but that doesn’t help me understand how to create a society that would accommodate their competing needs and values. And as I said earlier, empathy can help with deliberation, and with making sense of the world, but it does not always prompt action. So yes, we can keep writing and reading and thinking—it soothes, if nothing else—but it won’t necessarily do anything to save us right now, I don’t think. The cult of relevancy, or urgency, can create a kind of opacity that is inimical to real thinking and writing and reading, for me. Perhaps scientists and public health researchers can be granted all the authority and hope usually foisted on writers.

Have you found that writing or reading has been of help to the spirit at least?

MT I have been barely writing. Reading has been hard too. I teach full-time (four days a week at the moment), I have three kids—in the last three-four-five months, just being with my family and my students as my university continues cannibalizing itself has put me at what feels like my limit. I am so tired, I can’t read fiction. As to writing, I feel like I have nothing to say. My partner listens to music as if without it he might die. Even that is not for me. I seem to be always—almost always—looking for silence. I feel that the fewer words I put into the world right now, the better. But I am also aware that my urge towards a version of self-effacement is a mode of fleeing from the present moment, so I just try to hold still and pay attention to it all.

NS I agree. Words don’t feel to me like vehicles for ideas or beauty or anything real or true right now. So I don’t really want to write or read in that “putting into the world” or “taking in from the world” way. I just want to converse, to chat, to think in tandem. As someone who lives alone, words are my form of touch at the moment. Our lines here are—a figure I often return to—a loose weave, laced with silence and absence, that makes up a hammock in which I can sit with you and sway a while. Thank you for doing this with me, Maria. There’s so much synchronicity between our thoughts at the moment, despite the great distances between us. Not empathy exactly—we have such different lives, and how lovely that we do!—but something like resonance, perhaps, with all the warmth and song and elusiveness of vibration.

MT I love the idea of vibration as opposed to empathy as a form of connection: we are not exactly holding hands, but gusts of sound (or of words?) are traveling between us and grazing our skin. I love this kind of connection that is so attuned to elusiveness, unknowability, and movement. I feel it as a special kind of warmth.

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and a professor of English at Harvard. She is the author of Seven Modes of Uncertainty, The Old Drift: A Novel, Stranger Faces, and The Furrows: An Elegy.
Maria Tumarkin is the author of four books of ideas, including Axiomatic. She holds a Ph.D. in cultural history and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Melbourne.
Originally published:
December 1, 2020


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