I’m late in getting to the whole “it’s not relatable” business begun by Ira Glass’s silly tweet about how “Shakespeare sucks” and continued with Rebecca Mead’s lament, and subsequent responses by Alan Jacobs and Fredrik deBoer. But I have to throw my belated 2 cents in.
Let’s pass over the word “identify” – the word we’re looking for is “empathize.” If you say you can’t empathize with a character, what does that mean? Whose fault is that?
Perhaps it’s the writer’s fault, or the performer’s – perhaps they haven’t really shown you the character from the inside. Perhaps they don’t empathize with her themselves, don’t really know what she’s like.
Or perhaps it’s your fault – perhaps you’re unwilling to follow where this writer, this actor have taken you, unwilling to acknowledge a kinship that feels implicating, contaminating. Perhaps you just haven’t been reading, or listening, attentively enough to understand.
Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault – sometimes it just takes a lot of effort to get cross a chasm of mutual incomprehension. Works produced in radically different cultures, from long-ago eras, composed in different languages: these inevitably require a degree of mediation, sometime a great deal of mediation, before they can be understood well enough to be felt. Some contemporary styles are designed to repel the reader unwilling to put in that kind of work.
There are all sorts of reasons why empathy might fail. But the word “relatable” suggests that it’s the character’s fault. If she were different, made different choices, had different feelings, then I could relate. If all these other people in the universe would only be who I wish they were, instead of who they actually are, life would be so much more pleasant for me. I suppose it would. There are so many, many people who are . . . inconvenient in one way or another.
And not just more pleasant for me – implicitly, for anyone. “Relatability” is a quality imputed objectively to the object. The reader or observer is cut entirely out of the equation. You can’t do that with “identify” – you wouldn’t say a work was “unidentifiable” (or, you might, but you’d surely mean something like “unattributable” or something nothing to do with “relatability”). If I say that “I can’t identify” with Humbert Humbert, I might be admitting to my own lack of empathy – or I might be proud of that fact, convinced that anybody who could identify with H.H. must hare his pathology. It’s a question; it can be debated. But if I say he’s “not relatable” then I’m saying that it isn’t reasonably possible to understand him, empathize with him. The question is closed.
That’s what’s horrible about the word – not that it blames the author or performer (sometimes the failure really is their fault), nor that it demands a place for the self (we’re the only ones who can feel our feelings; “empathy” fundamentally means feeling someone else’s emotions as our own – there’s the self, right there), but that it involves a definitive closing of doors on experience. A conviction that I already know all that I need to know. About the world. About other people. About myself. And I just want to see that knowledge affirmed.
I think that’s what Mead was really getting at with her whole distinction between mirrors and selfies. Mirrors are places where we see ourselves – perhaps unexpectedly. Selfies are ways we show ourselves to other people. Saying, “that work of art is like a selfie” is like saying: that work of art is presenting a public persona (albeit a casual one), a curated version of itself. Moreover, a version that is functionally interchangeable with versions of all other selves – its function is social, not artistic. It’s saying hello. It’s reassuring me that we have something in common, rather than surprising me with the unexpected discovery that we do.
But what about those mirrors?
Well, as it happens, Shakespeare had something to say about mirrors and art – or, one of his most discerning characters did, at any rate:
[l]et your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special overstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.
“The mirror up to nature” – it sounds like Hamlet is saying that art (and performance) should strive for verisimilitude, should show us things looking (and behaving) the way we already know they do. Our pre-existing knowledge of reality is the standard against which we measure art. That doesn’t sound too far from what the “relatability” brigade might think.
Stanley Cavell, one of my favorite literary critics would beg to differ with that interpretation:
Why assume just that Hamlet’s picture urges us players to imitate, that is, copy or reproduce, (human) nature? His concern over those who ‘imitated humanity so abominably’ is not alone that we not imitate human beings badly, but that we not become imitation members of the human species, abominations; as if to imitate, or represent – that is, to participate in – the species well is a condition of being human. Such is Shakespearean theater’s stake in the acting, or playing, of humans. Then Hamlet’s picture of the mirror held up to nature asks us to see if the mirror as it were clouds, to determine whether nature is breathing (still, again) – asks us to be things affected by the question.
Yeah, Shakespeare sucks. Indeed.