Lutz Writing Book on Empathy in Literature

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By Anand Venigalla

Features Editor

Dr. John Lutz, professor of English and chairperson of the department of English, philosophy, and foreign languages, is working on a new book, “When Grief Hath Mates: Empathy and the Human Imagination.” The book, according to Lutz, “is an interdisciplinary explanation of empathy through fields such as neuroscience, literature, social psychology, evolutionary biology, [and] philosophy.”

Dr. John Lutz, professor of English, is working on a new book

The opening will explore recent writing on empathy, while the rest of the book will deal with literary works “where the author is explicitly interested in empathy.” Some of those works are Homer’s “The Iliad,” William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” Ivan Turgenev’s “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album,” and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.”

The first chapter will cover Homer’s “The Iliad,” which Lutz considers to be the foundation of empathy in Western literature. “The great scene of empathy in The Iliad is the scene where Achilles gives back to Priam Hector’s body, and in the fact the way it’s described in the Iliad is that Achilles thinks of his own father and how he’ll feel when he’s [dead], and then he feels empathy for Priam and returns Hector’s body to him because he is able to put himself in Priam’s place, which is a good description of what empathy is,” Lutz said.

Empathy, according to Lutz, can be related to sympathy and compassion, but is distinct from those two. “Sympathy is feeling bad for a person, not the same thing. Empathy is feeling what they feel, or approximating what they feel,” he said.

Lutz believes there are challenges to being empathetic. The key “empathy blocker” is perception of difference. “If somebody thinks that some other person or group is somehow doing harm to them, I think that could prevent empathy for the whole group,” Lutz said.

Literature, according to Lutz, can give us the imagination needed to see how others suffer and think. It “enables us to put ourselves in the position of those who we otherwise would not necessarily come into contact with,” he said.

Focusing on the similarities and common ground that we share cultivates empathy, Lutz said. “We all need shelter, we all need food, we all need a sense of belonging, we all need security. Those are common across all cultures.” Likewise, empathy can actually help the appreciation of the authentic differences peoples can have, keeping these differences from becoming antagonistic. “All this talk of difference is important, but I think you can’t appreciate difference and respect it without first recognizing a kind of common human ground on which we all reside,” he said.

Lutz encourages others to read literature to promote empathy, especially literature from other cultures. “I think that cultivating a kind of openness to the point of view of others, listening rather than talking to others, and actively trying to understand where they’re coming from before leaping to a judgment would be [great] advice,” he said. “Empathy is fundamentally connected to my commitment to the liberal arts and sciences, which is to me something that teaches the value of perspective-taking, and inhabiting the world that other peoples might inhabit.”

Empathy, according to Lutz, should be extended even to “bad” people. He cited Raskolnikov, the student-murderer of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” and Humbert Humbert, the pedophile and rapist
of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” as examples. “We do need to have empathy for those who are bad, because we need to understand evil so that we can prevent it,” Lutz said. “Empathy is not endorsement, and that’s where I think people get confused.”

“King Lear” shows the problems that arise from the absence of empathy, Lutz said. “Shakespeare’s deeply caught up in the problem of empathy, and the play is a depiction of the consequences of the absence of empathy,” he said. “So by being disenfranchised himself, he comes to occupy and recognize what it’s like to be the very lowest beggar in society, and that leads him to at least the idea that he has to do something.”

Lutz’s interest in this project started from his meditations on his readings. “When I started thinking about it, I started thinking about numerous books that I loved, where the authors were deeply engaged in dealing with empathy as a human problem.” He saw it in action in all these books.

Lutz anticipates his book will be finished in two years; he is currently “well into the research for the opening introduction.” He does not yet have a publisher lined up.

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