A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro. Empathy and the UnsaidPaola Partenza
The aim of this article is to explore the function of empathy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, A Pale View of Hills published in 1982. The concept, as the author uses it, is not meant as substitution but as projection. Ishiguro initiates the empathetic process as a moment of interaction, that is, as mutual influences between the protagonists he describes. In the novel, the empathetic interaction is rather complex, a product of words —said and unsaid— as well as of gestures and silence, reducing, sometimes, the privileged role of words. In A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro seems to undermine the dialogic method by transforming it into a relational dimension giving emphasis to individual aspects, and problematizing the relationships mainly between the female protagonists. The imaginative construction begins with the observation and analysis of elements of the outer world and culminates in the psychological. The author, in fact, gives substance to images and states of mind, thus generating the creative process, and moving to reality which emerges in the comparison with the inner world. In synthesis, Ishiguro’s work constitutes precisely a combination of fundamental elements in which impulses are fused with emotions. In other words, and following Martha Nussbaum’s theory, we immediately understand how the empathetic process caused by the author falls within Nussbaum’s definition: “it involves a participatory enactment of the situation” (Nussbaum, 2008, p. 336).
A Pale View of Hills di Kazuo Ishiguro. Empatia e non dettoPaola Partenza
Lo scopo di questo articolo è di esplorare la funzione dell’empatia nel romanzo di Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, pubblicato nel 1982. Il concetto non è inteso come sostituzione, ma viene descritto in termini di proiezione. Ishiguro mette in moto il meccanismo empatico come momento di interazione, cioè di influenza reciproca fra i personaggi che descrive. L’interazione empatica nel romanzo è piuttosto complessa, un prodotto di parole -dette e non dette- oltre che di gesti e silenzi, ridimensionando, talvolta, il ruolo esclusivo della parola stessa. In A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro sembra mettere in crisi il momento meramente dialogico trasformandolo essenzialmente in relazionale, dando spazio agli aspetti individuali e problematizzando soprattutto la relazione tra le protagoniste del romanzo. Il processo immaginativo, che inizia con l’osservazione e interpretazione degli elementi del mondo esterno, culmina in quello psicologico. L’autore, infatti, dà corpo e sostanza a immagini e stati d’animo avviando così il processo creativo, trasferendo su un piano di realtà tutto ciò che si manifesta nel confronto con il mondo interiore. In sintesi, l’opera può essere definita come una combinazione di momenti cruciali in cui gli impulsi si fondono con le emozioni. In altre parole, seguendo Martha Nussbaum, comprendiamo immediatamente come il processo empatico avviato dall’autore si inscriva perfettamente nella sua definizione quale “messa in scena partecipativa della situazione” (Nussbaum, 2004, p. 394).
This essay investigates the role of empathy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s work A Pale View of Hills, a novel published in 1982. Empathy —which into our collective conscience seems to play a marginal role —is frequently replaced by mere emotional expressions because they are considered the most effective ways of showing human propensity to comprehend sentimental or rational events. Often confused with compassion, empathy does not require the subject to substitute him/herself for another person’s experiences, thus reducing him/herself to a state of object. But, each individual must be conscious of his/her “qualitative difference” (Nussbaum, 2008, p. 338).
As Martha Nussbaum points out “compassion is distinct from empathy, which involves an imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer” (Ibidem, p. 337). Further, the empathetic relationship requires the subject to maintain the necessary distance between him/herself and the other. He/she has to become conscious that the pain or joy of another person does not belong to him/her. This process is exhaustively described by Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought. The Intelligence of Emotions in which she delineates empathy as a psychological mechanism: “it involves a participatory enactment of the situation of the sufferer, but is always combined with the awareness that one is not oneself the sufferer” (Ibidem, p. 337).
Following Nussbaum’s theory, we may consider Ishiguro’s novel as a way through which he leads the reader to explore in depth the nature of empathy between the protagonists: Etsuko and Sachiko. The story is narrated throughout from Etsuko’s perspective, a mature Japanese woman who emigrated to England together with her second husband. From the beginning of the novel the reader is projected into an unusual atmosphere of gloom and silence. Something hangs in the air. Then, the reader finds out that Etsuko’s eldest daughter, Keiko, committed suicide by hanging herself in her bedroom. Etsuko’s second daughter, Niki, attended the funeral service of her sister, though she had never had any relationship with her. This episode opens important reflections on all experiences that encourage the protagonists —and the reader— to comprehend the emotional situation of the moment, and gives them opportunities to try empathizing with the points of view and needs of the others. Ishiguro seems to undermine the dialogic method by transforming it into a relational dimension and by giving emphasis to individual aspects. Gradually, Etsuko and Sachiko enhance relationships by understanding their own feelings and by empathizing with the feelings of others. Thus, the role of empathy, as the author uses it, is not that of substitution. Ishiguro describes it in terms of projection.
The empathetic interaction is the result of words —said and unsaid— as well as of gestures and silence. It manifests itself progressively. The author intertwines the emotional events through the female protagonists and gives them the possibility of sharing a common emotional situation in a non-conflictual way.
As already observed, empathy is not built on suffering, but on intensity of feelings, and on profound emotions. It primarily focuses on the events experienced by the characters, giving rise to a narration developed through polarity or opposing pairs: emotional/rational. The characters predominantly involved with emotions are Etsuko and Sachiko; on the contrary, those who are related to rationality are Ogata-San and Jiro. As we might argue, all the experiences the female protagonists share —and lived as fundamental elements of their biographies— focus on what we might call the semantic of emotions, as opposed to rationality established by the male characters Ogata-San and Jiro. They focus, instead, on what might be defined as the grammatology of relations, that is, the connection between the characters based on reason rather than emotions. In fact, they are capable of governing themselves: either when they have to face anger and frustration, or when they lose their certainty or their will diminishes, they resort to the acquired rules. Thus, the ethic of responsibility, the sense of duty, and the respect for existing codes of conduct constitute the habitus of the male universe described in the novel. This becomes a fundamental pedagogic moment through which the author reinforces all the rules which define the start of adulthood into the masculine world. On the contrary, the aforesaid female characters are built on different principles. In fact, the protagonists’ relationship becomes a paradigm for the reader who clearly perceives, through them, their authentic emotional state: they promote in themselves the attitude of openness to diversity, the meeting with the Other.
In synthesis, we might argue that Ishiguro’s imaginative construction begins with the observation and analysis of elements of the outer world, and culminates in the psychological, focusing his attention on individuals and their inner conflicts. His work constitutes precisely a combination of fundamental aspects in which impulses are fused with emotions; empathy is the core of the novel, and emotions, as Nussbaum observes: “shape the landscape of [the characters’] mental and social lives” (Ibidem, p. 1).