I have puzzled for some considerable time over the discrepancy between the intense emotional bonding that millions of readers experienced in their “relationship” with Burroughs’ writing, in contrast to the relatively short shrift that Burroughs has been typically given by “proper” literary critics. The mere level of discourse and passion on the comments on this site is empirical evidence that Burroughs touched certain readers on a level that is somewhat more deeply and passionately felt than other “pulp adventure” writers of his day.
In my quest to figure this out, I’ve read everything I can find that qualifies as critical analysis of Burroughs; I’ve consulted all the Burroughs scholars I know can find; and I’ve consulted our readers here at the John Carter Files. And still it remains a mystery. Those to have “bonded” with Burroughs agree with me that there is something special there that sets him apart — but what is it?
A related issue that has been the subject of much discussion is — if Burroughs’ John Carter is the kind of “cardboard cutout” or “vanilla” character that his detractors claim he is (a perceived deficiency that motivated many of the character changes in the movie John Carter), then why do so may feel so passionately about the character, and not want him to be changed?
Today, while doing some research on a completely unrelated topic (empathy), I stumbled across an article entitled: The Oxymoron of Empathic Criticism: Readerly Empathy, Critical Explication, and the Translator’s Creative Understanding by Russell Scott Valentino. It was a little off topic for the supposed purpose of my research — but the title intrigued me and so I waded into it.
Well, well, well. Interesting.
First of all, it traces the history of the word “empathy” to 1903, when it was first used as a “technical term that grew out of the discipline of aesthetic psychology at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.” It did not come into general usage until much later. So we can safely assume that ERB did not have the concept of “empathy” in mind when he wrote A Princess of Mars in 1911.
Yet all these passionate ERB fans clearly “empathize” with John Carter. Now — to empathize means what? In its simplest sense, it means experiencing what another person experiences. In science, it is broken down into various subcategories that I won’t try to go into here. The point is that reading fiction is essentially an exercise in empathy — and for a book to really work, and truly transport the reader and “make him/her care” . . . empathy has to be achieved.
But the common notion of Hollywood, literatary criticism, and the writing team for John Carter is that a character who does not display discernable flaws, who is too perfect, is not one that audiences will empathize with. Hence the decision to make wholesale changes to John Carter’s character. Well, Valentino makes a few points that–while they may not crack the code on this whole inquiry–do at least shed some light on what’s going on with Burroughs’ writing.
Writing that anticipates empathic responses in the readers is supposed to fool people, or allow them to fool themselves temporarily, into seeing its combinations of graphemes as real beings…. Part of this illusionary quality of realist and neo-realist depiction is the convention of having no conventions, merely telling the truth, perhaps despite the beautifying (and falsifying) conventions of storytelling. “I may not be a very good writer, but luckily that shouldn’t matter, since I’m merely laying out the truth in all its ugly detail.” Or “I wish Mr. Newman had not said such things, but I would be lying to you if I pretended that he hadn’t.” Identifying or empathizing with the characters in realist or other fiction depends to a great extent on the willingness of readers to accept the claim of a-conventionality that such a narrative convention implies.
Now, in reading this, I immediately thought of two aspects of Burroughs writing that resonates with this.
First, the frame story. Yes, we know it’s all just a device — but it is consistent with this notion that by presenting the narrative as if it is merely reportorial, in line with realist or neo-realist depiction, it invites empathy. That’s a very non-literary concept — more purely psychoglogical. But it makes sense and it also tracks with what some of the teens who read A Princes of Mars last year in our Teen Reading Project said. One in particular said that in spite of the setup wherein we gave here the book and explained that we were doing it in connection with a project that had to do with the Disney film, she said that even knowing that, she was actually snookered into believing the frame story and thinking that she was reading a true account of some actual adventure right up to the point that John Carter ended up on Mars, whereupon she finally realized she was reading a work of fiction. When she said this to us, others ruefully admitted a similar experience.
The point? I guess it would be that ERB’s clever use of the frame story works on us in subliminal ways wherein, even if we know on an intellectual level that it’s all good fictional fun, the frame tory nevertheless triggers empathic reactions that help draw us into the story.
And secondly — there was another thought that again is given further resonance by what some of the teen readers said. John Carter tells us his story in first person and he does so without literary artifice. He presents his manuscript as a journal of things that actually happened to him. He is extremely detailed in his physical descriptions. Consider, for example, his description of Thark hatchlings:
Five or six had already hatched and the grotesque caricatures which sat blinking in the sunlight were enough to cause me to doubt my sanity. They seemed mostly head, with little scrawny bodies, long necks and six legs, or, as I afterward learned, two legs and two arms, with an intermediary pair of limbs which could be used at will either as arms or legs. Their eyes were set at the extreme sides of their heads a trifle above the center and protruded in such a manner that they could be directed either forward or back and also independently of each other, thus permitting this queer animal to look in any direction, or in two directions at once, without the necessity of turning the head.
The ears, which were slightly above the eyes and closer together, were small, cup-shaped antennae, protruding not more than an inch on these young specimens. Their noses were but longitudinal slits in the center of their faces, midway between their mouths and ears.
There was no hair on their bodies, which were of a very light yellowish-green color. In the adults, as I was to learn quite soon,
this color deepens to an olive green and is darker in the male than in the female. Further, the heads of the adults are not so out of
proportion to their bodies as in the case of the young.
The iris of the eyes is blood red, as in Albinos, while the pupil is dark. The eyeball itself is very white, as are the teeth. These
latter add a most ferocious appearance to an otherwise fearsome and terrible countenance, as the lower tusks curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located. The whiteness of the teeth is not that of ivory, but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china. Against the dark background of their olive skins their tusks stand out in a most striking manner, making these weapons present a singularly formidable appearance.
Most of these details I noted later, for I was given but little time to speculate on the wonders of my new discovery. I had seen that the eggs
were in the process of hatching, and as I stood watching the hideous little monsters break from their shells I failed to note the approach of a score of full-grown Martians from behind me.
Now, this is a pretty extraordinary bit of “reportorial” communication. It is not “literary” — it’s how I would imagine Louis Leakey describing a Thark upon seeing one in real life.
What is interesting to me is the idea that by removing literary artifice and going to great pains to present the narrative as an unencumbered “journal”, it has an effect which promotes empathy between the reader and John Carter.
That’s fascinating, because we normally think of empathy as something that is achieved, in reading, more “artistically”. Who would have thought that by using relatively flat, dry, scientific description and frame stories, Burroughs was building empathy that would play a role in forging an emotional bond between the reader and the narrator — even though the narrator didn’t have the kinds of deficiencies that are the common approach to making a character “real”. Burroughs used an alternate technique to make John Carter real — he first created a frame story to sell the idea it was a “found footage” kind of story, and then he let his narrator tell his own story and do it with a kind of clinical, scientific detail that draws the reader in and makes the reader “believe”.
I recall one of the teen readers making the point that she saw John Carter like an explorer who had gone to some fascinating place and was filing his report of what he saw.
Valentino goes on to talk about a concept that is in some fashion “beyond empathy” …. the concept of “vzhivanie” , which is a mouthful unless you speak Russian an understand that “v” as a prefix means “in” or “to” (as in I live in Moscow or I’m going to Moscow) and zhivanie comes from “zhit” — “to live” — thus vshivanie means “living within”, or “enter within” more or less, which is precisely what Burroughs does for us with Barsoom:
Mikhail Bakhtin explored this phenomenon in many of his works, early and late. He dismissed “mere empathy,” by which he meant something like “emotional identification,” as unhelpful and essentially sterile. “What would I have to gain if another were to fuse with me?” he asked. Another person “would see and know only what I already see and know, he would only repeat in himself the inescapable closed circle of my own life; let him rather remain outside me.” For new understanding to be possible, Bakhtin proposed to replace talk of emotional identification with something his early writings call vzhivanie. This is from the root zhit’(to live) and the prefix v (in, or more likely in this case, into). The neologism has been translated by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson as “live entering” or “living into.” The idea is to enter actively into another individuality, another perspective on the world – without losing sight even momentarily of one’s own unique perspective, one’s own “surplus” of life experience, one’s own sense of self.
This too seems to get at some of what it was that Burroughs did so well, in a way that typical literary criticism fails to appreciate.
Then finally illuminates the difference between the kind of immersive reading of the typical reader, versus the analytic reading of the critic, in a way that (for me at least) sheds light on how Burroughs could win such passionate fans while failing to impress critics:
Reading experiences, however, are not the same as their critical explications. Readers often become absorbed by fictional works, “aesthetically enraptured” by them as Murray Krieger put it. Critics step away, distance themselves to explicate emotional responses. They also reify, appropriate, synthesize, and evaluate. All these moves emphasize the outsider judgment of critics over the insider identification of readers. 19 At this point, the reasons behind the title of this tour –and the oxymoronic nature of empathic criticism –should become evident. Bakhtin seemed to meld the two activities: the absorption or enrapturing of the reader with the reflection or explication of the critic. His notion of vzhivanie attempts to unify and integrate.
Does this make sense to anyone else?
To summarize: Burroughs invited empathy and “vzivanie” immersion in his characters and world by employing techniques that stripped away liteary artifice and enhanced the sense of unaffected, reportial presentation of his fantatsic subject matter. In doing this he broke down barriers the reader might have to the fantastic nature of his story, and he caused the reader to bond with, believe in, and empathize with his narrator, John Carter, even though John Carter deficient in the eyes of the analytical critics, then and now, because he didn’t have sufficient flaws, an “arc”, etc. Burroughs followed an alternate path that was carefully (though perhaps intuitively) created and which worked wonderfully on the “enraptured” reader who experienced a grand immersion — but which analytic critics, working from a different set of assumed virtues and always maintaining some critical, analytical distance failed to appreciate or even grasp.
Anyway, that makes sense to me. It’s not the whole puzzle, but it adds a few pieces.