Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Failed attempts at empathy, recognized (plus death and sex)

TCKs are, as I write in the post about Point of View, particularly good at seeing all sides of an argument or issue, and their literature reflects this.  But what if this does not mean they are good at empathy?  In fact, what if it means they are more than usually bad at  "identifying themselves with  . . . a person or object of contemplation and so fully comprehending them or it" (OED, lightly paraphrased)?  What if their ability to see so many perspectives precludes their ability to fully inhabit any?  What if seeing many sides all at once makes them extra aware of how prone they themselves are to misunderstanding people and getting things wrong?

Here are five third culture novels in which characters are acutely aware that they do not understand other characters.  They desperately want to understand, they know there are different ways of understanding, and they see that they themselves have failed to understand.

In Eileen Drew's The Ivory Crocodile,  Nicole likes and wants to understand Diabelle but comes to see very clearly that her misunderstanding directly contributes to Diabelle's death.

In Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, characters try to understand who they are now that they are in a remote village in the Belgian Congo.  Their failures result in the death of the youngest child (Ruth May).  Leah, Adah and especially Orleanna perceive their own inabilities to demystify Africa as contributing to her death.

In Alice Greenway's White Ghost Girls,  Frankie doesn't understand her older sister Katie, and she sees that her father doesn't understand either.  Both lapses in comprehension result in Katie's death.

In Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Hans fails to comprehend his wife and nearly loses her to divorce.  He also fails to understand his friend Chuck Ramkissoon, and Chuck winds up dead.

In Catton's The Luminaries (no, I haven't read to the end yet) every one of those 12 men wants desperately to understand.  Did Emery Staines die?  Why?  Where'd the gold come from?  Where'd it go?  There's a likely death for which someone is to blame, and in the meantime characters like Moody cry when they realize they have misunderstood things (482).

You'll notice misunderstanding  more or less equals death in these novels, and that the characters who have misunderstood recognize they have done so (which must be distinctively TCK/ TCL).

It is worth pointing out that in these books sex, often inappropriate sex, indicates efforts to communicate effectively, or bridge misunderstandings.  Drew's teenaged African Diabelle sleeps with an expat aid worker; Kingsolver's beautiful young Rachel sleeps with (and marries!) middle-aged and alcoholic Eeben Axelroot; and in Greenway, Katie sleeps with one of her father's colleagues while Frankie kisses and licks a deaf boy until he kisses her back.   In Catton, it seems like Anna, the town whore (with whom everyone has slept, pretty much, even the marginalized Chinese opium dealer) will be the figure who connects all parts of the story; she holds the key to everyone's understanding.

O'Neill's Netherland doesn't quite fit this mold (unless I can argue that here cricket replaces sex as the game played in hopes of gaining intimacy with another).  Hans's wife chastises him for not really wanting to understand Chuck: "You never really wanted to know him [ . . .] You were just happy to play with him.  Same thing with America.  You're like a child.  You don't look beneath the surface" (166).  Maybe Rachel's critique unveils a dirty TCK secret?  Maybe, the literature suggests, we play at empathy and intimacy rather than actually succeeding at it?  And maybe we are quite good at perspective so we see how our failure to really understand adversely affects people.

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