Poor Tom's A-Cold: King Lear and Empathy

Isak Dinesen told Truman Capote that she judged people by what they thought of King Lear, which is pretty damned intimidating, if you ask me. If actors think of the play as a mountain to be climbed, how much more of a wilderness for us Sunday climbers, who might never make it over the top but become lost in the brambles and ankle-turning boulders around the base of the mountain? Maybe she just said it to scare visitors, or start a conversation.

This is occasioned by the arrival in New York of Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn's production of King Lear, which is mostly getting good reviews. I'd follow these guys most anywhere: Trevor Nunn's film of Twelfth Night is my favorite Shakespearean movie, being less melancholy and easier to bear repeated viewings than Zefferelli's beautiful Romeo and Juliet, and in interviews McKellen "gets" things that most actors miss.

For most of us peasants, the whole last century was a bloody meditation on just the implications of the "flies to wanton boys" speech. Millions were having our wings pulled off and more than enough signed up to do the pulling, whether for Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pinochet, or on a smaller scale, for Reagan and Kissinger in Latin America. Dinesen hid her Jewish neighbors (Denmark was the only European country to not lose a single Jewish citizen) in plain sight, posing as household servants when the Nazis came to call, "hiding them like winter apples in the cellar", but then in the face of syphylis, failed crops, inconstant lovers and plane crashes, she seems to always have had more style than the rest of us (when the apocalypse comes, I'm standing next to her).

By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end-
Methinks it is no journey.

Myself, I've always been a Tom O'Bedlam/Edgar, not old and never powerful enough for Lear, although of late I've begun to understand all too well Yeats' "Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?" I've worked for all too many Gloucesters, the difference being I'll be damned if I rescue them. I dated Goneril, or was it Regan? And Edmund is in charge of Republican strategy and most athletic programs in this country. McKellen says that Lear's a talker, always showing off verbally or muttering in argument with the gods, so maybe I'd better watch my ass.

If you pinned me down to say One Big Thing, with the stipulation that no one's ever done re-reading these plays, I'd have to say this: that the sympathetic characters, whether ragged or royal, Cordelia and Edgar and the Fool, all posess the trait of empathy, an ability to make emotional connection with others. Some of them even come around to forgive the people who drove them off. The villains all have one frightening trait in common: there is not a trace of fellow-feeling or empathy in them. They are as casual about digging out someone's eyes or disposessing an old man or hanging their own sister in prison, as those gods and wanton boys are with the rest of us. And this problem of empathy-- why some have it, and others don't, why some Join the Party in order to escape the demands of empathy for others, why others embrace the world and accept the broken heart that goes with it-- is essential to humanity.

Phillip K. Dick wrestled with this a little in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, with the metaphor of androids identical to humans in every way, except for their demonstrable lack of human empathic reactions. This makes them a danger to others, a lesson learned in the aftermath of a nuclear war and the almost complete extinction of animal species (one of the ways androids and humans are tested for empathy is to note their reaction to animal cruelty.) The Hollywood ending of Blade Runner, with the Rutger Hauer android suddenly growing a conscience, runs contrary to the rest of the story and the evidence of the past century, where Nazis can shovel children into a pit and that same evening weep at their daughter's violin recital. How else explain Jeanne Kirkpatrick, as a diplomat under Reagan, dismissing the rape and murder of Maryknoll nuns because they were "sympathizers" somehow with The Enemy? How else explain the willingness of people to use indiscriminate bombs in warfare, whether strapped to their body or from the air-conditioned comfort of a fighter plane?

Maybe I could have bumper stickers printed up: If You Think Empathy's Not Important, the Next Time There's a Holocaust, Call a Psychopath.


Anonymous said...

Ah Michael, I work a lot with autistic children and teaching them how to react to their pets. The school bunny tamed one of my beastly charges this summer. He finally got that the bunny needed him. Another one was tamed by a horse.
Can Autistic children turn into pychopaths? Yep!
Can empathy be taught? Yep to a degree.
The majority also love to sort and catagorize into "them" and "us". (Black and white)
So far I'm one of them and am allowed into their worlds.
Smile, Dee Ann in Arizona

Jim H. said...

I work a lot with delinquent children. One thing that characterizes many of them is a stance that Arnold Goldstein describes as "attribution of hostile intent," which simply means that they regard almost everyone else with extreme suspicion, as a potential or actual enemy. This allows them to seal off any nascent feelings of empathy. My colleagues and I spend a lot of time and effort trying to teach empathy. Equine therapy, music therapy -- to these I think we might add Shakespeare therapy!

Nicely argued post.

Michael Fountain: Blood for Ink said...

Used to see this when I taught in the inner city, as when reading a horrific newspaper story in class about a baby in a carseat being killed by a concrete block thrown off an overpass. Most of the students had the humane reactions you'd expect: revulsion, horror, anger-- but the hard cases would say things like "baby shouldn't have been there in the first place". As you say, "regard almost everyone else... as a potential or actual enemy"-- I read somewhere (it might have been in Goldstein) and observed that the hardest cases, including some murderers, related to others on the basis of threat: how dangerous is this person (or policy) to my safety or freedom? What can I get from them? They were contemptuous of authority that wouldn't/couldn't threaten them physically or legally, placating when they wanted something, submissive to judges (while they were in the same room), cops and physically threatening peers.
This dynamic also seems to prevail at the opposite end of society, where the rich and powerful are contemptuous of plebian authority unless they're caught doing something, or the cameras are rolling, or some other poor slob is in the dock.