The idea of the difference between a lived experience and an observed or anticipated one, cannot have been better evoked than in the comparison often made between two contemporary writers of the Victorian Era, and the tumults of the Industrial Age it was in – Charlese Dickens and William Makepeace Thackery. The two novelists of world renown, were not only contemporaries who were friends once but bitter rivals later, but both began their careers as journalists, sharing in the process a similar lens in witnessing and documenting their time and the peculiar character of the society such a time engendered. This was a time that Dickens famously characterised as “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times…”, in the opening lines of his “A Tale of Two Cities”, an artistic depiction of the human stories at the time of the French Revolution which witnessed the rise of the middle class (or the bourgeoisie), challenging the feudal order’s hold on state power, and the turmoil that resulted, as any epochal transitional churning is marked by. It was a time that was reaping the fruits of the European Enlightenment and the science and scientific outlook to life that came with it, opening up immense possibilities, wealth, inventions, colonies, conquests etc. If there were new classes of people newly enriched and empowered by these quantum shifts in economic and social paradigms, it was also a time of great impoverishment and uncertainty for those in the margins of these new social and economic orders. There were of course other adverse consequence beyond the vision of most of these writer, for instance the fate of the colonial subjects of Europe, as well as the unspeakable dehumanisation of slavery and slave trade etc. Even if there were to be overlooked, what was also true of the time was that most Victorian writers remained cloistered in the new world of the bourgeoisie, its senses and sensibilities, prides and prejudices, aloof from the harsher world outside even in the European societies, but Dickens and Thackery were among those who stepped out to also create memorable characters of the time such as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bill Sykes, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Nancy and Becky Sharp and more.
If both created immortal literary characters who defined their age in the raw as few others ever could, what is it that critics see them distinguished most by is a question of interest to the initial proposition raised in this article – the difference between a lived experience and an observed or assessed one. Both wrote of poverty and dehumanisation this caused, and in their own ways contrasted this with the insulated world of those privileged by new economic and social order. The stories they wrote also had their shares of villains and heroes, and the dramas these characters created, or the messages these stories sent out, were appreciated by their contemporary audiences but not exactly in the way critics of the postmodern age of the late 20th Century onwards, especially those with left leanings, do. For the latter, these literary heroes and villains were all products of the time, with the agency under their command overwhelmed by the diktats of the order of the time. This probably is true especially with Dickensian characters, most of whom are classified as flat and stereotypical therefore possessing no conscience or are incapable of responding to it, and left to be swept along by changing circumstances and fortunes alone. Without digressing too far into this direction of analysis, let us return to the comparison of Dickens and Thackery. They both wrote of poverty and created their own vivid pictures of it in their time, but the difference many have noticed is, Dickens’ portrayal of poverty is far more powerful than those of Thackery, and this because of the lived experiences of either. While they were struggling for success, as critics have observed, for Dickens poverty literally meant starvation with no assurance when the next square meal would be or if there would be any at all. For Thackery on the other hand, poverty meant living on credit for some time, never in any doubt that he only needs to organise his resources to be able to overcome the adversity.
But the important question is, does this mean somebody who has never experienced crushing poverty of the kind that Dickens early life was immersed in and wrote of, will never be able understand or get a grasp of what such poverty means. Certainly not, for if this were to be so, even Dickens own book would not have had any appeal outside of those who have had the same lived experience of poverty, for under this assumption, it just would not have been at all possible for anyone else other than them to comprehend what the author was talking about, much less appreciate. We know that the opposite was the reality and Dickens gained his fame precisely because he was able to convincingly communicate through his art of storytelling, how this oppressive world feels like to his audience of largely people who have never been exposed to such inhuman circumstances, and make them see and feel exactly as somebody who has lived this reality. This is what empathy is about, or the phenomenon by which one person can mirror the experience what another person’s experience without actually physically being exposed to that experience. Indeed, humans can be sad when others before them are sad, and happy when others are happy. Without empathy, as Jeremy Rifkin powerfully argues in “The Empathic Civilisation” human behaviours would have been solely dictated by instinct and therefore no civilisational bondages would have been possible. This also means that if Thackery’s portrayal of poverty was not as strong as Dickens’, it does not mean do so was not possible. Another artist with greater empathy probably would have been able to. In fictional character portrayal, there is an understanding called “negative capability”. This is the ability to enter and merge completely with the personality of the fictional character being portrayed. This ability is seen almost to perfection in William Shakespeare. It is hence impossible to see even a morsel of Shakespeare’s own personality in any of the immortal literary characters he has created and so there is nothing that tells the reader about Shakespeare after reading Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Othello, Desdemona, Lear, Romeo, Juliet, Prospero or anyone else. All of them were unique individuals with their unique idiosyncrasies, living in their own unique worlds. On the opposite end is the “egoistic sublime”, in which it is impossible to miss some bits of biographical elements in every creation of the artist, and indeed it is the character and thoughts of the writer which holds the work together. In Dickens’ work for instance, there is a bit of himself in several of the most famous fictional characters he has created.
The relatedly late and accidental discovery of what are now termed as “mirror neurons” in a laboratory in Italy studying the cognitive response of macaque monkeys, led to some very interesting studies in the field of neuroscience as Rifkin points out in the book I mentioned above. The presence of mirror neurons is now evident in primates and is strongest in humans. Studies are being done on their occurrences in other animals as well, and its presence is not uniform. In some they seem absent. Even within the same species, its distribution is uneven, hence some humans may have more of it than others, and in some it can be missing altogether. It is also not completely sure if these neurons are present from birth or they develop in the initial years after birth. It is not uncommon to see children in their early years seemingly lack the ability to mirror pain in other creatures, such as in their games of catching insects and tearing wings, legs apart etc, unmindful of the pain they may have inflicted. This seeming natural sadism seldom last beyond a certain brain growth stage, but in some they persist. In these few, the condition may be actually pathological, and they are the ones who can become heartless, insensitive and cold blooded in witnessing conditions of others. This being so, anybody who does not feel the impulse to laugh or cry when everybody else is, or claims they are unable to gauge the unique lived experiences of pain and suffering of others, should see this as their unique pathological conditions and not generalise it on all others. It is quite possible the presence of mirror neurons in them are low, and in extreme cases, absent altogether, therefore the lack of empathy.
This also reminds us of the famous quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein that “the limits of my language means the limits of my world” and the thoughts that went into this. I do not claim to have read “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (though I have a copy) of the philosopher considered by many as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century, but there are so many comprehensive interpretations of him in lay language available. The logic of this statement is clear. In the relationship between language and reality, it is the language which has the priority. Language is public and evolve out of consensus of the community, and outside of language it would be impossible to conceptualise reality or even to think of anything real. It would be helpful to use an example here. We agree for instance as to what the colour yellow or any other colour is, therefore we are able to communicate to each other what the colour yellow is and its different shades. But as neurological experiences, all of us could be having very different experiences of the same phenomenon, but there would be no way of communicating the variance to others or to the self, as there would be no way of doing it. This why, the limits of our language means the limits of our world, and in a way, Wittgenstein is turning Descartes equally famous statement “I think therefore I exist” on its head. It is not possible to think of anything that does not exist within the linguistic domain. In everyday terms, this can be seen in two ways. There is no experience which cannot be conceptualised in terms of language, and equally, there is no experience which cannot be understood by others even though they have not experienced it. To bring this to my original proposition, it also means that lived experience can be very unique to the person experiencing it, but so long as it exists within the realm of reality, it would be a fallacy to believe no one but the person experiencing it will be able to conceptualise or comprehend it. In other words, while lived experiences of different people bring previously unknown experiences into the public sphere and limelight when articulated, their ultimate articulation also demonstrates the limitless ranges of human experiences. Hence making lived experience a point for championing exceptionalism is a show of vested interest to promote self-importance rather than look for realistic solutions to the problems and challenges in question.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author