The recent death of Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing—one of the most significant writers of our time, in my view—brought to mind that serious fiction spurs your spiritual and psychological development, your essential soul. It’s a gateway to “evolving” yourself during your lifetime, rather than stagnating within the person you’ve become. The latter path—which so many people descend into to—was captured by Norman Mailer in The Deer Park: “It is a law of life that one must grow, or else pay more for remaining the same.”
Delving into serious fiction engages you in the core human issues that everyone grapples with, consciously or unconsciously. The prime one is the question of, “What’s the meaning of life; of my life?
And, there are related issues concerning moral judgment, the impact of social conventions, conflicting paths in life, and so on. When you’re awakened — or threatened — by portrayals of those in good literature, you’re often forced to confront your own life choices and dilemmas in new ways, with new perspectives. You’re likely to resonate with the George Eliot quote, “It is never too late to be what you might have become.”
Lessing’s vast body of work is especially relevant to stimulating your soul’s evolution. Or, in Western psychology’s language, your “true self.” She portrayed the intertwined political, personal, sexual, cultural and ideological forces in people’s lives from pre-World War II, through the sexual and social revolution of the ’60s, to the present era. Among her novels is an interconnected series under the umbrella title, Children of Violence. Thery chronicled a woman’s character and life development via her social, sexual and political awakening.
Her final volume of the series, titled The Four-Gated City, contains one of many passages that highlight the intertwined nature of these forces where they relate to love relationships: She visited an old lover, and reflected upon the powerful sexual connection they once experienced. She now realized that—while he had mastered Tantric sexual practices—over time he had descended into emotionally disconnected technique in his sexual relationships. There was no artistry; no longer any joining of two partners, because the latter depends on authentic, soul-to-soul, mutual connection. And he had lost that; had devolved, really.
Perhaps prophetically, Lessing concludes her novel (published in 1969) with a vision of an unspecified worldwide, human-caused catastrophe, somewhere after 2000—highly suggestive of a new ice age. (Man-made global warming?) Food for thought, especially in the light of Jeffrey Sachs recent provocative essay in the Washington Post about a possible, coming “environmental revolt.”
Literature is especially relevant to me, personally and professionally. As I train and teach younger psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, I’ve always stressed—sometimes to their surprise… or amusement—that they will develop their skills more fully by reading serious fiction, much more so than many of the volumes on therapeutic theory and technique. It’s the single most valuable source of building the capacity for empathic understanding and wisdom about a patient’s life issues. Interestingly, the early psychoanalysts were much more educated in knowledge of literature and the humanities than those of the present day—as I lamented in a previous article.
So I encourage them to read such writers as Alice Munro (another Nobel Laureate), Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Melville, to name a few. And, of course, Shakespeare and the Greek Tragedies. They engage the reader in core human issues, in great depth. That helps mental health practitioners develop their capacity to help patients heal and grow beyond the damage of early relationships and family dysfunctions, and liberate themselves from semi-conscious adaptation to some of the norms and values of our culture that have damaging and deforming impact on intimate relationships and careers.
But that’s true for everyone, not just psychotherapists. And therefore it’s especially affirming to see that new, empirical research finds that reading serious fiction develops your soul, your humanness, which includes a core of empathy and compassion. (I distinguish serious fiction from popular fiction, which is essentially entertainment; plot-driven and superficial regarding human life issues)
The research was conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research. It was published in the journal Science, and described by Pam Belluck in the New York Times. It found that reading serious fiction has a demonstrable impact on increasing empathy, social awareness and emotional sensitivity. I see that as an essential part of becoming a more developed soul, more fully human.
The study found not only that reading serious fiction increased reader’s emotional awareness and empathy, but that neither pop fiction, nor serious nonfiction had the same effect. Belluck writes that the study “… found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.”
Belluck added that “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”
In a press release about the study from The New School, Kidd and Castano state that “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances.” And that, “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”
When you add these findings to previous research showing, for example, that learning to develop greater compassion translates into more altruistic behavior, and that humans are hard-wired for empathy to begin with—then I think it’s clear that your inner life, your consciousness, your soul’s development, are enhanced and expanded when you immerse yourself in the portrayals of human conflicts, challenges, and the many “gray areas” of life that serious fiction provides.
A version of this article previously appeared in The Huffington Post.