On Saturday in the Guardian I read an article on Montaigne and sympathy. Saul Frampton argues, in a nutshell, that one's feelings for another person are likely to grow more sympathetic if the person can be seen, or felt, or heard. "For in many ways," Frampton writes, "the Essays constitute not only an argument for people's capacity for sympathy, but an extended disquisition on how and why it breaks down …
Above all, [Montaigne] concentrates on a very simple element, one that we tend to overlook in our attempts to arrive at a universal moral code – that our ability to feel sympathy with others is directly proportionate to our proximity to them. So while the Stoics advised that one can prepare oneself for death and bereavement by imagining our children and wives as fragile objects, Montaigne insists: "No wisdom is so highly formed as to be able to imagine a cause of grief so vivid and so complete that it will not be increased by the actual presence, when the eyes and ears have a share in it."'
Which made me think of a passage I'd read in Swann's Way only the night before. Françoise, Aunt Leonie's chief servant, is woken in the middle of the night by the suffering of a young kitchen maid, recently pregnant and moaning with after-birth pains. "I had taken note," writes Proust's narrator, "of the fact that, apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself. The tears which flowed from her in torrents when she read of the misfortunes of persons unknown to her, in a newspaper, were quickly stemmed once she had been able to form a more accurate mental picture of the victims."
So, kinfolk aside, Francoise is actually less likely to sympathise with a person who is in close proximity to her, than with an absent person suffering from a set of symptoms explained in print.
Françoise … had begun to read the clinical account of these after-pains, and was violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a type of illness with which she was not familiar. At each painful symptom mentioned by the writer she would exclaim: “Oh, oh, Holy Virgin, is it possible that God wishes any wretched human creature to suffer so? Oh, the poor girl!”
But when I had called her, and she had returned to the bedside of [the kitchen maid], her tears at once ceased to flow; she could find no stimulus for that pleasant sensation of tenderness and pity which she very well knew, having been moved to it often enough by the perusal of newspapers; nor any other pleasure of the same kind in her sense of weariness and irritation at being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night for the kitchen-maid; so that at the sight of those very sufferings, the printed account of which had moved her to tears, she had nothing to offer but ill-tempered mutterings, mingled with bitter sarcasm
Perhaps Françoise's capacity for sympathy is being overwhelmed by habit. The reader can see that she is in the habit of being moved by "printed accounts" and elsewhere the narrator has let us know that she is in the habit of hating the kitchen maid. (Françoise is one of the book's great haters, and the other servants in the house make her jealous.) Her pity depends on the right stimulus, delivered in a convenient form -- in a book, which she can read as she pleases, which states facts unambiguously, which doesn't weep at her, which has never roused her irritation, and which excites her by describing "a type of illness with which she was not familiar," or, in other words, by introducing her to a dramatic novelty.
And the example of sympathy that Frampton describes for us at the start of his article could also be attibuted to habit. He tells us that one of Montaigne's neighbours tricked his way into the essayist's house, meaning to kill him, but just as his prey was at his mercy he changed his mind, "abandon[ed] his advantage," and left. "He remounted his horse, his men keeping their eyes on him for some signal he might give them, very astonished to see him leave," Montaigne wrote. "He has often said to me since … that my face and my frankness wrestled his treachery from him." The sight of Montaigne in the flesh acted like a magic charm; the murderer reverted to the role he was accustomed to inhabit, the role of a harmless neighbour.
Imagined at a distance, as Françoise imagines the sufferer in her medical book, Montaigne is attackable. The person who conceives an imaginary person can take action against them. In the case of the neighbour he can kill them, in the case of Françoise she can pity them. Once the person is corporeally present -- once they are no longer imaginary -- the actor's feelings grow complicated; they are no longer facing the same person at all. They realise that the imaginary person and the living person are different things.
And this is why I feel uncomfortable when I see an assertion like this one by Hilary Mantel, quoted some weeks ago at the Reading Matters blog:
I think good fiction expands our sympathies, asks us to consider people and places and circumstances very remote from our own, and asks us to consider how we would act and what we would feel if we were in their shoes. Much wickedness stems from our failure to imagine other people as fully human, and as our equals. So, yes - I think fiction does have a moral dimension.
Does fiction really expand our sympathies? How fruitful is this expansion? How does fiction affect our actual behaviour toward the counterparts of the "people and places and circumstances" presented for us in books? The people of fiction are imaginary people, they are ideas that have sprouted out of a collaboration between an author and ourselves -- the author at a huge distance from us, and ourselves, prompted, feeding on our own experiences to fill in the gaps. We cruise omnipotently through the lives of these imaginary people, like gods we create them out of ink. "[I]n the novel we can know people perfectly," claims E.M. Forster, "we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life." But they are less dimmed because we illuminate them. We are their light, their life, their salvation from darkness. No real person stands to us in the same position of dependence. No one else partakes of us in the way a fictional character does. How do our feelings translate, and what does this mean for fiction that doesn't try to introduce us into the lives of its characters in the ordinary storytelling way? Finnegans Wake, for example, how do we measure its "moral dimension"? The correlation she's suggesting is too simple, and her fictional model is limited.
Anecdotally, thinking only of myself, I'd suggest that reading might make you more sympathetic toward a broad notion of people, but it won't help you when it comes to people in the round. In real life I am anti-social and impatient. In my mind I am exquisitely sympathetic towards the citizens of Stalinist Russia. Why? Because I have read Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. I am sure I would do anything for those characters. It's a very satisfying kind of sympathy. I never have to do a thing except imagine it.