Caleb Crain wonders whether "novels spread human rights and discourage torture." Quoting Lynn Hunt's claim in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History that "novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings," Crain glosses Hunt's claim by adding: "As it became easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people, it became harder to justify treating them with cruelty or systematic inequity."
This is a cogent enough observation (although it remains after-the-fact speculation), as long as a caveat is added: Novels, or at least certain kind of novels, can make make it "easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people," but this is a secondary effect of the novel as a form, not its reason for being. It exists to allow writers the opportunity to create aesthetically credible works of literary art in prose, not to champion human solidarity and facilitate good will toward men.
Crain further wonders whether "the recent decline in novel-reading in America hasn't got something to do with the country's new tolerance for torture and lack of concern about human rights." Specifically, he contrasts the attitude toward torture (violence more generally) conveyed by various visual media--advertisements, movies tv--with that encouraged by novels:
. . .Perhaps the brain's limbic system responds to the sight of violence without first checking with the forebrain to find out whether the image is fictional. In other words, a person who see a severed arm, or who sees Kiefer Sutherland shooting a Muslim prisoner, might become frightened, at some level, though perhaps not fully conscious of his fear. His limbic system sees a strong person harming a weak one; his moral faculties, meanwhile, are neutralized by his forebrain's awareness that the sight is fictional; and the limbic system, finding that the forebrain doesn't seem to care one way or the other, decides to side with the strong person. . . .
"Is it really possible," he asks, "to watch the famous torture scene in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs all the way through and remain identified with the torture victim? Not only is the man mutilated and terrorized, but his torturers have all the good lines." Whereas
I can't think of a vividly imagined torture scene in written fiction where the reader sides with the torturer. Maybe this is because the novel's heyday happened to coincide with a faith in human rights, but maybe it has something to do with the cognitive processes involved. In reading, one's forebrain is fully engaged; when it disengages, reading stops. And to every part of you except perhaps your forebrain, reading seems safe. There's nothing about holding a book and turning its pages to alarm one's limbic system. In fact, nothing can be "seen" without first being imagined. . . .
Crain presumably knows more about the physiology of the limbic system than I do, so I'll take his word that the brain responds to images in the way he describes. That an intervening level of "imagining" is involved in reading seems intuitively correct, although I guess I'd like to see some neuroscientific evidence that reading about violence is as different an experience from being confronted with it--or its aesthetic representation--directly in filmed images as Crain thinks it is. As a literary critic, my engrained bias is that reading is a more complex phenomenon than viewing, that literature is in this sense an aesthetically richer form than film or television (although what about painting?), but still. Is it sufficiently more complicated as to make reading novels inherently part of the struggle to establish human rights?
I guess I can't immediately summon up a torture scene in fiction in which "the reader sides with the torturer," either, although much of the behavior depicted in, say, A Clockwork Orange seems just as cruel as outright torture, and I can't say I don't have some empathy for Alex and his droogs as they resist the curtailment of their freedom and, in Alex's case, free will. I may not like feeling such empathy, but most well-fashioned first-person narration produces an almost unavoidable identification with the narrator, an identification that might be repudiated but that still does exist. Bardamu, the protagonist of Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, is in many ways a pretty despicable character without much human fellow-feeling, but it's hard to deny that his narrative is powerful, his narrative voice compelling. We certainly find ourselves admiring him as a fictional creation, if not as a "person" we'd otherwise like to meet. Other novels in which we are invited to inhabit the world evoked by unpleasant or morally dubious characters come to mind as well (Lolita obviously, The Stranger, Naked Lunch), although perhaps Crain would contend that forcing us to sample "the feelings and interior lives" of such characters as these is actually itself a step toward clarifying "human rights" (even if it doesn't necessarily show us that "all people are fundamentally similar.")
It's not entirely clear what period Crain takes to be the "novel's heyday." Since Crain has mostly presented himself as a critic/scholar of 19th century American literature and culture, my immediate assumption is that he has the 19th century novel in mind (perhaps extending into the early 20th.) Thus one might infer that his concern for the decline in novel-reading is also an accompanying lament for the passing of the novel in its realist/character-centered phase (at least characters who are relatively unproblematic in their psychological make-up, who give us desired access to their "inner feelings.") We are no longer in that "heyday," and if we were, if the 19th century novel were still the paradigm current writers followed, presumably it would be attracting more readers and helping to spread human rights more efficaciously. Instead we're left with 24 and Reservoir Dogs.
Perhaps this is unfair to Crain's more fundamental, underlying argument that if more people were reading and fewer people relied on "edgy" television and film for their entertainment we'd live in a safer and more empathetic world. I'd like to think as well that a planet populated by fans of Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady would be one less inclined to "cruelty or systematic inequity," although I do have my doubts. My biggest problem with Crane's analysis is that it strongly implies that a "novel" is properly that sort of thing that was written back in the "heyday" and that those writers of artistically adventurous prose such as Celine or Nabokov (or John Hawkes or Gilbert Sorrentino or, for that matter, David Foster Wallace) have helped to undermine their own enterprise by writing works of fiction that don't so transparently exteriorize "inner feelings" and thus foster human understanding. It may be that some novels, as Richard Rorty has it, "help us become less cruel," it may even be that a contingent effect of the kind of heyday novel Crain extols was to create a cognitive bond between the reader and the imaginary "people" depicted therein, but reducing cruelty by promoting such a bond takes no more precedence in defining the novel as a literary form than does, say, Nabokov's insistence that great fiction produce a certain aesthetic "tingle" in the reader's spine.