The writer and novelist Rebecca West, best known for her World War I novel, The Return of the Solider, wrote a book-length essay in 1928 entitled, “The Strange Necessity.” West declares that art is the strange necessity because it offers us the joy and assistance to go on living. In the essay, she delivers a critique of James Joyce’s Ulysses, describes recent Pavlovian experiments on salivation in dogs, and introduces the then little-known concept of empathy to her readers.
West describes empathy as “our power of entering into the experiences of objects outside ourselves.” She recounts how she read a poem by James Joyce in a Paris bookshop, then strolled down the Odéon to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, when her “eye lit on a dove that was bridging the tall houses by its flight.” She “felt that interior agreement with its grace, that delighted participation in its experience, which is only possible when one is in a state of pleasure.” This feeling of being in flight with the dove is aesthetic empathy. The word, “empathy,” West notes, is “absent from most dictionaries,” and unknown to the general public. But West had read about empathy in the works of psychologist Theodor Lipps and writer Vernon Lee and found that it captured the blending of the self and object in aesthetic experience.
Empathy involves both a body-consciousness and a mind-consciousness. Through physical empathy, one could enact the movements of others in one’s imagination. When watching a tennis player, one could feel as if one were also bounding across the court; when seeing someone bent over coughing, one could imagine what it might be like to have tuberculosis. Even a devout bishop, West explains, could imagine going out, drinking gin, coming home and acting violently. West points out that actually carrying out these actions is different from merely engaging in empathic imaginative flights, and thus relied on different psychic mechanisms.
West envisions the self as comprised of a multitude of rooms, many of which are unknown to us. Our ability to explore the hidden rooms of our own psyche was akin to our capacity to enter the rooms of another’s self. This intermingling is possible, she claims, because our bodies and cultural experiences are similar: “On the foundation of our experience we are able to penetrate imaginatively into the experiences of others.” We might ask West today about the limits of her own European cultural background, and whether and how empathy is possible across experiences that widely differ due to culture, ethnicity, race and religion.
And yet the empathy West describes allows her to enter into non-human forms, so that she flies with the dove and twirls with the autumn leaves:
“No sense of unwilling loyalty to a heavy, brooding preoccupation with personal issues prevented me from following through the cider-coloured autumn sunshine the dove which bridged the tall side of the Rue de l’Odéon. As I gave myself to interior agreement with its movement, I was able to give myself also to the interior agreement with the other movement of the leaves which a moment before I had seen picked up by a wind on the paths of the Luxembourg, at first spinning flatly and slowly as if they had weight, then swirling quickly in circles with the appropriate weightlessness of dead leaves, fairy gold…”
West reminds us that empathy can lift us out of our narrow existence into the extended realm of objects, shapes and persons around us, allowing us to be more than we are.