The Unreal, and Why We Love It, Part 5: Empathy

Now, I am a modern man. I’m happy to talk endlessly about feelings (as if this series of blogs hadn’t made that clear!), I enjoy art and music, and I am entirely useless at DIY.

But I do conform to the male stereotype in one way, which is that I seem almost incapable of crying at a piece of fiction. No matter how heart-wrenching, no matter how much I feel the moment, I remain resolutely dry-eyed.

Except whilst watching Dumbo. And I hasten to add, it isn’t even the whole film. Oh no, it is just the one scene—the song which is the most powerful emotional manipulator known to mankind: Baby Mine.

Yes, Disney, you have made me bawl my eyes out over a cartoon elephant.

Yes, the scene is sad, but it’s more than that. It comes in the midst of a film which looks as though it’s going to be extremely whimsical. Cute, unspeaking hero; a mouse with a strong Brooklyn accent and con-man ways; surprisingly sophisticated social satire amongst the elephants. And later on, of course, we’ll be confronted by the spectacular trip that is Pink Elephants on Parade, and be made to feel decidedly uncomfortable by Jim Crow and his merry band.

So slipping in a scene of genuine heartbreak—a child crying over the plight of his imprisoned mother, brings us back to reality with a crash.

It isn’t hard to sympathise with fictional characters—that is the point of fiction, after all. But to empathise, to actually recognise the feelings of these supernatural characters as ones you have felt yourself, is risky. Fantasy is all about escapism. That doesn’t make it any less interesting, or relevant, or (heavens help us) “important,” but it does imply a certain mindset. A willingness to step away from the normal, and embrace something new and different for its own sake. So it’s rather ironic that often the most powerful moment in these self-consciously unreal works is when reality rears its head.

Look at Harry Potter. In the later books, it is fundamentally a story about child soldiers in an increasingly grim war, but the continuing wonder of the magic keeps it just on the right side of the adventure/tragedy line… for the most part. Rowling does slip in a few scenes to drive home how serious this has become. For me at least, the image of someone being killed by a magical beam, whilst sad for the characters, never had the visceral impact of seeing Neville Longbottom’s parents driven insane by torture. Yes, the torture was magical in nature, but the subtlety of Neville’s mother, bewildered and lost, offering him a sweet wrapper as a present before being ushered away, illustrated the threat they were facing better than a million dark enchantments. It’s probably just as well that this element was kept to a minimum—that was more than sad, it was downright disturbing.

Jonathan Swift

Now, how's that stew coming along…

Then again, that might very well be the idea. There’s a fine tradition of apparent fantasy taking a turn for the pointedly real, or vice-versa, in order to shock us. Back in the 18th century, in response to the British government’s callous treatment of the Irish famine victims, Jonathan Swift created the narrator of A Modest Proposal, who humbly notes that:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

This is more than just a dark political point. Look at the relish with which Swift approaches his theme—specifying the nationality of the cannibal (Yeah, sorry about that… though to be fair, he said some pretty nasty things about the British, too.) and going into repugnantly glowing detail about the different culinary options. I almost expected him to produce a recipe. By creating such a rich character and world, despite its absurdly casual tone, he can draw us in. It’s the little practical details that make what he’s suggesting so horrifying, and weirdly funny. It might be as far from Dumbo as you can imagine, but both rely on the contrast between madness and sanity, real and unreal. This is Swift creating a whole off-kilter world in order to make his case. He was a far subtler writer than he first appears, and deserves better than becoming the base material for Jack Black vehicles. (Seriously, how did giant mecha find their way into Gulliver’s Travels? I think that might be enough for Swift to come tearing out of his grave, frothing with pure bile. Now, zombie 18th century satirists attacking film producers… that is the plot of a movie!)

The fact is, despite our best efforts, we are all real people. We see fantasy words through real eyes, and contrast it to what we know. Sometimes, we long for fantasy. Since ancient times, poets have shaken their heads and sung of the “Golden Age,” where all was peace and delight. Sometimes, we project our fears into it: it isn’t hard to see War on Terror paranoia emerging in the modern series of Battlestar Galactica. But no matter how weird, our fiction always holds a dash of reality.

But not too much. Because there is an opposing force that shapes unreal fiction more than any other. This is the power of the ancient stories, the legends that have been around for longer than we can remember. These tales are so vast, and old, that anything which tears itself free from the real world cannot help but come under their influence…

But that’s a story for another time.

David Whitley is fully aware of the irony of following a very serious post about comedy with a mostly comedic post about pathos and empathy. He is the author of The Midnight Charter and its sequel, The Children of the Lost, out now in the U.S.


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