Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Novelists and empathy

So I just recently finished reading Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème.

For those of you not up on your 19th-century French semi-autobiographical literature, Chrysanthème is the story of a French sailor, Pierre, who goes on shore leave in Nagasaki, where he marries a young Japanese girl, samples the delights of Japan, and eventually leaves the country (and his wife), presumably forever. It was the inspiration for an opera of the same title, as well as the more well-known Madama Butterfly (which was, itself, the inspiration for Miss Saigon. It also caused a significant degree of cognitive dissonance in me for quite a while.

See, the character of Pierre is stunningly, unabashedly, imperialistically racist. He's racist in the way that only a 19th-century Frenchman who travels abroad can be: he treats the people and places around him as mere curiosities, the entire country of Japan as a dollhouse. He begins positively enough with his description:

What a country of verdure and shade is Japan; what an unlooked-for Eden!

But when the ship actually lands and the sailors begin strolling about the docks, he describes the people thus:

little men and little women coming in a continuous, uninterrupted stream, without cries, without squabbles, noiselessly, each one making so smiling a bow that it was impossible to be angry with them, and that indeed by reflex action we smiled and bowed also...each seller squatting monkey-like, hands touching feet, behind his fancy ware—always smiling, bending low with the most engaging bows...good gracious, how ugly, mean and grotesque all those folk were.

Or like this:

The more I look at [these women] the more uneasy I feel as to what my fiancée of to-morrow may be like. Almost pretty, I grant you, you are,—in virtue of quaintness, delicate hands, miniature feet, but ugly after all, and absurdly small. You look like ouistitis, like little china ornaments, like I don't know what.

The people of Japan, to Pierre, are either monkeys or dolls, either grotesque mockeries or delicate imitations of the human form. But either way, they are not actually human, not real, not to be treated as human beings should.

And this is what tripped me up for so long. Pierre, the character, has no empathy for these Japanese dolls and monkeys, not even the titular Chrysanthème: she is a toy to him, a temporary plaything, a wife for only so long as he is in this tiny country. But I expected Pierre Loti, the author, to have plenty of empathy for these people, these characters; after all, he created them.

(Now, I know that authors should not be conflated with their characters, but when A) it's a semi-autobiographical book, where B) the protagonist has the same first name as the author, and C) it's all written in first-person, it's difficult not to see Pierre Loti (the author) and Pierre (the character) as the same person.)

We expect authors to be empathic people: we expect that they will see the humanity in even the most pathetic, depraved, despondent, villainous, or unlikable characters. We expect them to show us the human beings inside all their characters, even the 'bad' ones. That's what a novelist does, after all; they take us on journeys inside the psyches of their characters. (The good novelists do, anyway.) They need to be empathic in order to do their work.

This entire book is written from the perspective of a man completely blind to the humanity of the people who surround him. It's not until the last page, chapter, and sentence (they are all the same) of the book that our protagonist seems to experience any understanding of what, exactly, he has done—and what his actions mean to others. So it was not until that very last page that I was able to mentally reconcile these two men, the author and his character.

It was a tough read, is what I'm saying; tough for a moderately sensitive 21st-century guy. But worthwhile, for what I learned about what I expect of a novelist: empathy, the ability to see inside a person's head and love them anyway.


  1. I barely ever get to see you, but each time I read something like this from you, I'm reminded that I really, really like you. One of these years maybe we'll go to Comic Con with Liz and we can hang out for a week and enjoy many kinds of geekery.

  2. Aw, thanks, Nicole! I like you too! And yeah, we do need to find some way to hang out--next time I'm on the West Coast?