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Suffering and the limits of sympathy

Keith Gallasch: Empathy, Art & Action

Kym Vercoe, seven kilometres north-east Kym Vercoe, seven kilometres north-east
photo Heidrun Löhr
Physical pain has no voice, but when at last it finds a voice, it begins to tell a story…” Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (1985)

This observation comes from Scarry’s introduction to her seminal work on pain, its full title—The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World. “Intense pain,” she writes, “is world destroying.” For refugees whose worlds have already been undone, Australia’s treatment of them mentally and physically is doubly unkind.

We can protest on behalf of refugees, make art for or with them. The art signals our sympathy and can be taken as a form of action designed to generate sympathy in others, encouraging them to take action in turn, maybe charitable (not since the 19th century has the notion of doing good works by donation had such traction), perhaps political.

Art can ‘give voice’ to our own and others’ pain, with or without words, and in any form. Scarry writes, “Ingmar Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers opens with a woman’s diary entry, ‘It is Monday morning and I am in pain,’ and becomes throughout its duration (a duration that required its cinematographer photograph 200 different background shades of red) a sustained attempt to lift the interior facts of bodily sentience out of the inarticulate pre-language of ‘cries and whispers’ into the realm of shared objectification.”

An artist can be a stand-in, as in the case of Mike Parr suffering on behalf of refugees, by having pain inflicted on himself in a durational performance. In Kym Vercoe’s seven kilometres north-east, the performer nightly relives the suffering felt over the unveiling of the tragedy of 200 Muslim women raped and murdered in one location during the Bosnian War. The most affecting moment of a performance otherwise saturated with words comes at its end when Vercoe silently disrobes, steps beneath a cold shower (as did the women before being raped) and then disappears into a void. In Parr and Vercoe there is deep identification between artist and victims in their enactments of sympathy. Neither is a character in a performance, they are, selectively, themselves.

In an essay on seven kilometres north-east, “Tragedy at a distance,” on the blog, I note that Vercoe tells us very little about the dead women, although through her identification with them we, like her, become sympathetic. We can go beyond sympathy (we could be equally naïve travellers) to empathy for Vercoe, because we learn so much about her, her motives, very specific feelings of pain and guilt. But we know little about the women, nothing of the few survivors or the relatives. This tragedy is Vercoe’s, not the women’s, for the ignorance for which she berates herself, having blindly fallen in love with a country, its customs, music and language, yet which has its secrets and will keep her at a distance, even threaten her. In this way our feeling for Vercoe’s plight provides the potential for us to develop empathy for the slain women, should we be so motivated by her performance.

Similarly with Mike Parr’s Daydream Island, we sympathise at a distance with refugees via a performer who identifies with them to such an extent that he willingly endures very real pain, sublimating the experience by becoming a work of art himself. Parr tellingly writes to Edward Scheer about the shape of his performance, “…I felt that this structure of theatrical convolution was exactly like our treatment of the wandering arrivals to our northern shores…wounds that are constantly opened and closed… boats turned back and people left adrift…the collusive, muffled reportage.”

Parr and Vercoe are stand-ins not just for the people for whom they care so deeply, but also for us; they are willing scapegoats embodying our fears and guilt. The emotional outcome in tragic drama for the audience is supposed to be the “calm pity” espoused by Aristotle—catharsis purging us of the pity and fear experienced upon witnessing the horrors of tragedy, relieving us of excessive emotions and returning us to a rational state. There is some truth in this, but some tragedies are more tragic than others, their effects long lasting. Performance art can likewise stay with us, more sharply perhaps because of the real pain witnessed. For some of us, to have experienced such events is enough. The demands of the experience and the work’s resolution—something satisfyingly complete, cruelly beautiful even—require nothing more. We might feel a “calm pity,” absolved for having seen the work.

Elaine Scarry reveals concern about “the danger that artists so convincingly express suffering, they may themselves collectively come to be thought of as the most authentic class of sufferers, and thus may inadvertently appropriate concern away from others in radical need of assistance.”

Is this an overstatement, that the artist rather than being a conduit for empathy stands in its way, becoming a substitute for action, the aforementioned scapegoat? It’s nothing less than a reminder that art alone is insufficient when it comes to developing empathy in a population. If the millions whom we are told attend and participate in the arts truly cared, then would we have the growing empathy deficit that has been likewise statistically tallied?

It’s fascinating that programs developed around the world to nurture empathy are not unlike works encountered in live art. Roman Krznaric, the author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution (Random House, 2014), reports that some seven million people in 130 cities have experienced the museum-based work Dialogue in the Dark ( for an hour each since 1988, guided by the blind as they negotiate everyday tasks and sensations in total darkness. Krznaric argues the necessity for creating “experiential adventures” in order to develop our capacity for empathy, to put ourselves in the position of others, to not simply sympathise, but understand. He cites a widely adopted Canadian scheme, The Roots of Empathy, commenced in 1995, putting groups of school children in regular contact with babies (“what is it feeling, thinking; why is it crying?”); results included a claimed drop in bullying. Another program put Israeli and Palestinian citizens in contact with each other for long conversations in over one million phone calls. Krznaric recommends we move beyond the introspection so favoured in the 20th century into what he calls “outrespection,” or stepping outside ourselves.

Krznaric writes in the Guardian Australia (“Is Australia losing its empathy?” 26 Feb) that former Paul Keating speechwriter Don Watson told him, “If you wanted to disenfranchise refugees, and leave the public thinking they have no rights, then call them ‘illegal’ over and over again.” Politicians, Watson says, do everything they can to “keep any kind of empathy at bay,” finding language that “dulls the instinct to ask, ‘What if that were me and my children in one of those boats, or in one of those detention centres?’”

Climate Change too is an empathy issue. Empathy is an act of the imagination at once latent and culturally developed by upbringing, education and art; if you cannot imagine the suffering of Pacific Islanders whose homes are falling below sea level or the agonies our own future generations are likely to face, then you will not care about their fate. With Western lifestyles focused on living in the moment, in yourself and in your space, whether actual or virtual, there’s a limit to how far one’s sympathy, let alone empathy will reach. You might share a digital space with people far and wide, but well within the Facebook and Twitter niche you have created or been coopted into.

Sympathy is one thing, empathy another. We can feel sympathy for Pacific Islanders and refugees, sign up to online protest campaigns and donate to campaign funds, and believe we’ve done enough. The great social scientist Richard Sennett distinguishes between sympathy and empathy, asserting, “Curiosity figures more strongly in empathy than sympathy,” a notion resonant with Krznaric’s ‘outrespection.’

Sennett writes, “Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but one is an embrace, the other an encounter. Sympathy overcomes differences through imaginative acts of identification; empathy attends to another person on his or her own terms. Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment than empathy, because ‘I feel your pain’ puts the stress on what I feel; it activates one’s own ego. Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or her self” (Together, The Ritual, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation, Penguin 2013).

With empathy, adds Sennett, “we don’t experience the same satisfaction of closure, of wrapping things up.” Empathy “is a cooler sentiment than sympathy’s often instant identifications…” He argues it arises from open-ended dialogue, a desire to learn and to be known “without forcing ourselves into the mould of being like” those we are attempting to understand.

There are limits on art when it comes to making us empathic; it can’t provide the detailed information and dialogue that understanding requires, but it can go part of the way: sympathy yes, empathy by degrees. Some live art and new varieties of participatory theatre do bring people from very different circumstances, classes and cultures together in activities not unlike those described by Krznaric.

We cannot expect art to save the world. Nor should we accept art itself as an adequate response to the suffering of others. Of course there’s only so much any of us can do—although the density and speed of life in the West denies us a sense of what we might actually be able to do. In the first instance we need at least to recognise the differences between sympathy and empathy, and be aware when “our instinct to ask” is being repressed—by politicians or by our own feelings of helplessness.

version 1.0, seven kilometres north-east, devisor, performer Kym Vercoe, Seymour Centre, Sydney, 8-22 March; Mike Parr, Daydream Island, Performance Space, 30 Ways with Time and Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, 30 Nov, 2013

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 6

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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