The other day I was watching a drama in which a single mother went to hospital having gone into labour for her second baby. Her first child, a girl of about 8 years of age, was with her, and as the mother received her epidural, a social worker gently explained that, as the daughter couldn’t stay there with her, and she had no other family, the girl would stay for a few days with a foster family. Naturally the girl became very upset and started crying, chasing her mother’s bed as she was pushed down the hall to the delivery room.
Needless to say this was difficult to watch, but even more so as we had had a related, but not exactly similar experience. We had to arrange for someone to look after our first daughter as we went to hospital to give birth to our second. In the end my wife’s parents stepped in, although it wasn’t as easy as all that, given that none of our immediate family lives in the same country. Still, it was very easy for me to place myself (and our daughter) in the situation we were watching, which gave it an emotional resonance it wouldn’t otherwise have had for us.
This got me thinking about two things. Firstly, that I’m much more likely to have an emotional response (i.e. it’s easier to tug at my heartstrings) these days than before. Doubtless having children has something to do with this – you feel for them as much as (or even more than) you do for yourself.
Secondly, to what extent does your reaction to a book or film, or any piece of art have to depend on the emotional baggage you bring to it? This may seem like a stupid question with an obvious answer, but consider the job of the critic who, after one viewing/reading, has to quickly produce an assessment which will be seen by some as an authoritative, definite statement of its “quality”. How many film reviews do you read where the reviewer mentions their state of mind or personal situation? “I was very tired when I saw this film late at night, and combined with the fact that, like the main character, my wife also died of cancer, I ended up in floods of tears”. In fact, reviewers know full well that if they take this approach, it will become obvious that their emotional response to a film will be seen to be no more or less “valid” than anyone else’s. Therefore they concentrate on the technical aspects in which they can claim some superior knowledge, and they talk about the cinematography, the mise en scene, the montage, the screenplay’s structure. Hence the disconnect with audiences, most of whom want to feel something, to enjoy it, rather than to analyse it or appreciate it in an intellectual sense.
So, given that your response to something depends on your state of mind, it follows that, if you experience it at another time or in another place, your experience will change. People change, accumulating experiences and knowledge, and (hopefully) growing, maturing, developing in their intellectual repsonses and emotional capacities. That book you read as a teenager and found to be dull may suddenly speak to you now that you have a couple more decades under your belt.
There have been some interesting experiments in trying to review the experience of reading a book at a certain time and in a certain place, and I vividly remember reading Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”; his description of a long, hot dreamy childhood summer chimed perfectly with my state of mind, the garden and the sunny weather I was experiencing when I read it. I’m not sure how far you can stretch this logic though. Did I get more out of my reading of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” because I read it while I was living in Dublin, surrounded by the culture of which it was a product? Or would I have felt the same if I’d read it while on a beach in Italy? And can you fully appreciate art when I don’t have direct personal experience of the subject matter? I can be moved by “Schindler’s List”, but if I’m not a Holocaust survivor, will I ever really “get” it? There’s a limit to how much you can empathise and imagine. There’ll always be some aspect of a work of art which you don’t get, because you can never share every aspect of the creator/character’s experiences. But on the other hand, the point of art is to open you to new experiences, and to develop imagination and empathy for the previously unknown. It’s nice to read something you can identify with, but I also like to explore new worlds.