Gerwin on Scott (2020)

Scott, Maria C. Empathy and the Strangeness of Fiction: Readings in French Realism. Edinburgh University Press, 2020, pp. 235, ISBN 978-1-4744-6303-4

It is a truism that fiction increases a reader’s social awareness and emotional intelligence; such arguments in Western criticism draw on sources at least as old as Aristotle’s theory of katharsis. But how do such notions square with twenty-first-century psychology and brain science? And what if the poiesis were not the collectively-experienced drama of antiquity, but rather nineteenth-century French narrative fiction, consumed individually through reading, in a manner that is distinctly modern? These are the initial questions driving Maria C. Scott’s Empathy and the Strangeness of Fiction: Readings in French Realism, which skillfully weaves together disciplines that are rarely brought to bear on one another.

Scott opens with an examination of empathy as understood by psychology and cognitive criticism. Increases in empathy have been measurably linked to fiction-reading by twentieth- and twenty-first-century social psychology and neuroscience. Drawing on these findings, Scott argues that literary fiction makes a unique demand upon the reader to navigate between two empathetic states. The first is the more familiar one of affective sharing, where empathy entails a sense of identification or absorption between self and other. The second is the distinct social skill of mind reading, in which the self maintains a certain mental distance from the other, and understands through inference rather than feeling. Where cognitive literary scholars such as Lisa Zunshine have used Theory of Mind to explore how reading fiction improves mind-reading skills, Scott proposes that “fiction also crucially highlights the limits of our ability to know other people” (8). Scott presents mind reading and its limitations as key elements in resisting the seduction of identifying affectively with fictional characters. This book’s fine-grained critical lens discerns a further means by which narrative empathy is at once engaged and suspended, for the reader is constantly alerted to the opacity of the characters that she or he engages with by a disquieting sense of strangeness that typifies the literary encounter. Finally, Scott’s persuasive suggestion is that the ethical wisdom attributed to reading fiction emerges from this “productive conflict” (12) between absorption and distance, and that psychological self-change is stimulated by fiction’s irreducible strangeness.

In her second chapter, Scott confronts the long-running debate about the psychological—and ethical—use of literature as a tool for social transformation, acknowledging that recent cognitive approaches to literature can be reductive. Choosing instead to underscore the relation between empathy and the reader’s alert imagination, she proposes that narrative fictions dramatize the text/reader interaction through the presence of stranger figures. Such characters thematize the sense of strangeness that reading fiction generates experientially in the reader’s mind; they solicit the reader’s empathy, while giving the reader pause. This suspicion, argues Scott, is felt both by perceptive mind-reading characters within the fictional world, and by readers who follow their interactions with disquieting stranger characters.

Scott investigates the links between strangers and fiction in her third chapter, proposing that the seduction and menace of the unknown, to which we respond by “moving between credulity and scepticism” (46) is at the core of intrigue and of the readerly experience. Drawn in, but also on their guard, readers of realist fiction are invited to empathize with mind-reading and with stranger characters, all the while recalling that, given the opacity of these characters, their disbelief should not be entirely suspended.

Scott’s book pursues the idea that realist fiction presents the reader with relations between characters that foreground and enact the relation that exists between reader and narrative fiction. Employing this post-structuralist motif in original ways, Scott turns in her subsequent chapters to three close readings of stranger figures presented in the realist novel: Honoré de Balzac’s La Fille aux yeux d’or, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir and George Sand’s Indiana. Scott’s investigation of readerly empathy focuses on the relations that characters establish with others whom they perceive to be intriguing strangers. In Balzac’s famously ambiguous text, Scott argues that while the exotic Paquita Valdès is gradually revealed to be credulous, honest and self-aware, the irreducible opacity that characterises all otherness frustrates Henri de Marsay’s mind-reading skills, leading him to mistake Paquita’s mysteriousness for deceit, and to abandon empathy for paranoid destruction. In the case of Stendhal—himself a theorist of empathy and the “social intelligence” (137) acquired through fiction—Julien Sorel incarnates the out-of-place stranger, a sham artist who also lacks self-knowledge. Examining Julien’s mind-readers who are variously affective (Madame de Rênal) or shrewd (Mathilde), Scott productively draws out Stendhal’s opposition of judgement and emotion, and argues that both characters and readers must navigate this dichotomy, yielding to seduction and retreating to suspicion of Julien. In the case of Sand, Scott shows how the narrator blends omniscient perspective with the personally-motivated perspective of Raymon, to the end of making the character more human and believable, and the reader more aware of the need to adopt an independent position inside and outside the text. Indeed, Scott proposes that every one of Sand’s central characters is on the stranger spectrum, including the narrator; thus “the reader’s suspicion, and her mind-reading skills, are regularly solicited by this text” (182). Ultimately, Scott argues, no matter how far the reader penetrates into the minds of the main characters of each novel, “full transparency is impossible” (179). Her book suggests persuasively that this opacity, far from being either a narrative shortcoming or an authorial ploy to confound the reader, is the ethical dimension of all fiction, including realism.

Scott’s writing is at once dense and clear, much like the arguments that she meticulously constructs from diverse conceptual domains: Theory of Mind, cognitive and affect theory, and literary and cultural criticism. She guides her reader carefully at every stage, and repeats her guiding arguments such that each chapter is a coherent stand-alone piece, accessible to those working on any one of its three authors and novels. Its clarity and its wealth of primary and secondary examples makes the book a valuable contribution to the burgeoning field of cognitive literary scholarship, while demonstrating the inherent value of close literary analysis.