Global Realism – Global Compassion
Tania Singer in conversation with Milo Rau and Florian Borchmeyer
The neuroscientist and psychologist Tania Singer is an expert in the emerging field of empathy research.
As managing director of the Social Neuroscience department at Leipzig’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, she carries out interdisciplinary studies of the various foundations of human social behaviour and moral emotions, such as empathy, compassion, envy, revenge and fairness. Tania Singer has published numerous papers and co-authored two books on compassion: Mitgefühl in Alltag und Forschung (with Matthias Bolz, 2013) and Mitgefühl in der Wirtschaft: Ein bahnbrechender Forschungsbericht (with Matthieu Ricard, 2015). She sees the unilateral emphasis on rationality as the main reason for the loss of balance we are experiencing as individuals and as a society. Tania Singer calls for a transition towards greater equilibrium in human potential – for more togetherness, care and compassion. She spoke to the theatre director Milo Rau and the dramaturge Florian Borchmeyer about the possibilities of changing society through empathy.
Florian Borchmeyer The past summer saw a historically impressive situation take place. A collectively experienced feeling – empathy, compassion – brought a political configuration to tipping point. Triggered by the news and the images of the refugees’ suffering, a mood went through a sudden fundamental change, at least in German politics: there was a spontaneous wave of solidarity with the migrants in broad sections of society, and at the same time a change in government refugee policy. Shortly after that, the image of a dead boy washed up on the beach at Bodrum, in particular, increased the extent of compassion and aid even further.
In the microcosm of the theatre, we have also experienced the subject’s relevance. At the Schaubühne in Berlin, three directors are currently looking at pity and compassion in very different ways. In Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun, Milo, you investigate the question of the consequences and limits of our compassion, against the backdrop of the mass migration and genocides in central Africa. Simon McBurney approaches compassion from the perspective of Stefan Zweig’s novel Beware of Pity – so from the perspective of a bygone world, that of old Europe before the First World War. And in FEAR, Falk Richter tackles a new right wing that suddenly begins to hate again with no inhibitions, refusing to allow compassion for a certain part of society. In the sciences, too, this feeling – which was always more a subject of religion and philosophy – is garnering previously unknown attention. Tania Singer, you’re a neuroscientist whose main research area is compassion. My question to the two of you is: What is the basis of this new interest in pity, empathy, compassion – a field that was relatively overlooked or even had negative connotations in recent decades?
Tania Singer Before we enter the broad field of compassion and pity or empathy, it’s important to me to define the terms briefly. In German, all these terms harbour very different things but are often misunderstood to be the same, a feeling somehow related to other people’s suffering. So to differentiate more clearly, I’d like to stick to the English word compassion and to mark it off from empathy. Empathy is defined as ‘feeling with’ someone, an emotional resonance. If someone’s happy then I’m happy too, if someone’s suffering then I suffer, if someone yawns then I join in. The latter is an example of what we call emotional contagion. Unlike empathy, where I’m aware that I’m suffering with someone else but that the feeling didn’t originate inside myself but in the other person, emotional contagion is an unconscious process. Babies even have emotional contagion before they can make a clear differentiation between themselves and others. When one baby starts screaming in hospital, the whole ward joins in. So to return to your question, when we see the picture of the washed-up child or images of the many refugees on the move, with all the associated pain and suffering, our first reaction is highly unlikely to be compassion, but perhaps empathy for many. You see suffering and you suffer along with the person. Compassion is more a feeling of care and benevolence. It comes from caring for others, concern for others, it’s above all a motivation that wants the other person’s wellbeing. The German term Fürsorge sounds very Christian, whereas the English concern or care system are based on the system that enables parent-child bonding, for example, and unconditional love, out of the altruistic motivation ‘I’ll take care of you’. And that kind of motivation isn’t necessarily the one that’s activated instantly when we see images of other people’s suffering on TV – to begin with, I suffer too. Empathy then has to be transformed into compassion. And that that doesn’t happen automatically. Empathy can also lead to empathetic stress. A lot of refugee helpers have this problem; they dive headfirst into activities but in the long run the emotional stress associated with them is too much for them. Because they don’t know how to translate empathy into compassion. Compassion is a very different way to address another person’s suffering. Empathy itself doesn’t immediately produce help and cooperation.
Milo Rau But it can send people into burnout mode…
FB Or make them turn away. It’s too hurtful for me. I don’t want to see it. I’s rather switch off the TV than look at it. The German writer Martin Walser’s familiar reaction: looking away when the worst Holocaust film sequences are shown.
TS Empathy is very fragile. It can tip over in the space of a second into schadenfreude and hate. That’s what happens with the groups who protest on the streets against refugees, for example; they predominantly feel fear and sometimes even hate. As soon as we think the other person isn’t part of our in-group, they belong to our out-group, empathy swings over to its opposite. That doesn’t happen as often with genuine compassion.
MR I’d like to pick up on that. In my new play, I ask about the limits of compassion: why does compassion end, for the Pegida movement on the borders of the German-speaking region, why is that limit only a few kilometres further for the liberal mainstream media and thus also for enlightened art discourse – at the border to Europe? Why does a dead boy in Bodrum weigh more than a thousand dead bodies in central Africa? Why are we incapable of compassion beyond Europe, or in more banal terms: why don’t we feel that automatic empathy when we see pictures from Syria or Congo? That’s the starting point for my criticism of European compassion policy in my play. How can we have a global economic system but no global sensitivity?
TS I see your question as posing a huge challenge for humankind. How can we become compassionate and responsible citizens of the world? It’s ultimately a question of expanding the circle of compassion. That means continually extending what we count as part of our in-group, for instance through nationality or religious definitions. How can I feel like a part of and responsible for not only Germany, but also Europe and now also Iraq, Syria and the rest of the world? And national in-group limitations are already quite large in-groups. Others have much smaller in-groups, like their own family: mother, father, child, aunt, uncle.
MR And the size of these circles is in a constant state of change, they’re always expanding and contracting.
TS Exactly. When a child is born, for example, it triggers the release of oxytocin and suddenly the mother can perceive nothing other than her own child for a while. That’s when the care system is extremely activated and the organism is flooded with hormones. This kind of concern for a child and the close family is what we call kinship compassion. But we’re still far from reaching the form of global compassion, the compassion we need to deal with our global world. We may have learned to extend empathy and compassion to larger and larger circles, but as you say, those circles are always expanding and contracting. Suddenly we expanded our national identity to all of Europe and everything went halfway OK, we were happy to call ourselves Europeans. Then came the financial crisis and a lot of countries in Europe were worse off, Greece went bankrupt and things got uncomfortable for the Germans: ‘Do we really want to share?’ Suddenly the identity circle and Europe got smaller again. Now we’ve suddenly got refugees on our doorsteps. Then we suddenly see all these pictures. Then come the first waves of empathy. But they reach tipping point again. If we look at the media now we’ll see very different tones, a lot of people want to close the borders again after all and the asylum laws are being toughened up. The other is being defined as ‘the outsider’ again. And at that moment when the narrative defines the other as ‘the outsider’, the out-group, there is no more empathy and no more compassion. We’ve done some very interesting experiments on this and we’ve seen how empathetic reactions in the brain, which are normally visible in our test persons when they see someone they like suffering, can switch within seconds to schadenfreude – signals when they believe the person suffering is an ‘outsider’, someone from the out-group.
FB The limitations and the instability are presumably also linked to the traditional European definition of compassion, though, which is usually founded on empathy yet is often not conceived from the other person’s standpoint, but only perceives the other as a mirror of the self. From Aristotle via patristic and scholastic philosophy to Schopenhauer: compassion always comes about through empathetic identification of the self with the other. ‘The suffering in the heart of a man who feels the sorrow of another,’ as Saint Augustine calls it. That’s how Lessing read Aristotle’s poetics as well. Catharsis comes about through pity and fear: suffering along with the tragic hero and fearing that the same fate might befall us. It is the ‘pity related to ourselves’ in which we recognize ourselves. From this self-recognition in the other arises willingness to take action: the compassion to help the other in his sorrow. Yet we could also conclude from this that the joy we feel at the other’s wellbeing is just as much a mirrored reflection. We feel the other’s joy empathetically, as if we had done something good ourselves. As I read in your book on compassion in the business world, we can even trace this emotion neurologically: when we help others to overcome their suffering, for instance by making a donation, the exact same rewards system is activated in the brain as when we’re looking forward to eating chocolate, for example. A sense of pity with such a spontaneous basis in our own subjectivity is not that easy to transform into a constant system, of course.
TS There are two things to say here. We have in fact managed to provide neurological evidence of the mirroring of the self in the other that you talk about as a mechanism of empathy. We can show in many experiments that I activate neuronal networks in my brain when I see someone going through pain, networks that are also active when I feel pain myself. When I see someone’s hand being stroked that activates somatosensoric areas in my brain that also code the feeling when someone strokes my hand. So these shared neuronal networks of empathy really do work like a kind of neurological mirror system. Your second point, that neuroscientists have found that rewards centres in the brain are activated when we perform altruistic actions like making donations, has nothing to do with that, though. That was work by William Harbaugh that you read. He’s an economist and he works on the basis of what economists call the warm glow hypothesis. It’s a theory from economics that he pursued on a neurological basis. All he did was show that we find it rewarding to help others. It has nothing to do with compassion. Compassion is anchored in a different system to that kind of reward. They’re almost antagonistic. Compassion is, as I said, anchored more in the affiliative care system. When it’s active I don’t think about what I get out of doing something, whether it will give me a kick. I just do it. It’s about the other person, not about me. It is true that we feel better and healthier when we’re not always entirely self-centred, when we see the bigger picture. Research has confirmed that. But that’s not because compassion satisfies an egotistic drive, it’s because the ego then doesn’t circle constantly around itself and thus isn’t constantly afraid of being attacked or not being taken seriously. If we take care of the bigger things in which we’re interdependently embedded, that’s a completely different, almost humble perspective, which seeks a systemic context and breaks out of the ego bubble.
MR Hence my question: how do we get out of the western European discourse of concern and into something more analytical? How do we turn charity into genuine solidarity? What form can realism and emotional policy take, global justice and representational practice that not only reaches as far as Kos or Athens, but is as universally oriented as finance capitalism? Because the global economy doesn’t contract and then expand again – it’s just the tides of the media that make us think it does. In the spring and summer we were somehow suddenly expanded as far as Greece. For a little while Russia was very far away, the eternal antipode, and now that our relations to Russia are suddenly important because of the war on IS, Europe goes all the way back to the Caucasus. And then the Congo comes into focus for a brief moment, then Indonesia, Haiti, whatever. But that’s not the case in the economy; capitalism is always everywhere. As we speak, one person is dying every five minutes on average in the Eastern Congo region. That’s not an abstract figure – it’s the price of Europe’s demand for cheap raw materials and the necessary dismantling of state structures, the eternal civil war into which entire regions of the world are catapulted. What kind of emotional budget, what kind of perception do we and our contemporaries have to develop so as to perceive the permanence of this catastrophe playing out beyond its media availability? How can we evade the masturbatory waves of seasonal empathy? For me personally, the answer is travelling, going there, working with local people. Real work, that is, everyday experience, comparing the media with the practice. Before I went to the Congo, saw the resettlements, the massacres, the World Bank’s and the European conglomerates’ policies in the villages and the mines, none of it was real for me. Before I worked in Moscow, organized a tribunal there with dissidents and was expelled in the end, I couldn’t really grasp Putin’s power politics. And the same goes for the jihadist neighbourhoods in Brussels and all the other places where I’ve researched for my plays, where I’ve staged them or filmed on location. In an emotional respect, that also made me less susceptible to media hysteria, of course. In Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun, the character played by Ursina Lardi, an NGO employee who experienced the genocide in Rwanda and the civil war in the Congo, asks: ‘What is my problem that the boy on the beach at Bodrum doesn’t upset me? Why doesn’t this picture tell me anything new in terms of tragedy? Am I a bad European?’ Because we have to say very clearly: from a realpolitik perspective, the arguments between the liberal mainstream and the Pegida idiots that Germany has been obsessing over this season are nothing but squabbles between citizens of the affluence zone, all of whom profit equally from the destruction of state structures in Africa or the Middle East. Of course we have to beat self-evident aspects of civil life into Pegida, we have to demand a standard of compassion. But what we mustn’t forget is that inner-European intellectual refinement changes nothing about the brutal reality of our economic imperialism. The truth of our continent lies beyond Bodrum or Lampedusa, beyond the pity politics with which we’re currently buying our way out of the world’s misery. Or as Marx put it: to understand the reality of bourgeois means of production we have to go to the colonies. In fact we ought to introduce compassion training, educate people to feel global compassion. And I’d say we ought to educate people to travel.
TS I think both. Travel is a wonderful thing. But not everyone can afford it. Compassion can definitely be learned, though, and cultivated. And aside from that, compassion is not just a feeling like empathy is, feeling along with another, but above all a very strong motivation with the other’s wellbeing in mind; it’s also very cognitive. Empathy is the beginning, we feel for the other and we’re upset. Compassion, in contrast, can exist without the slightest upset but with an incredible courageous intentionality to get involved and take action.
MR With analysis, ultimately. I came across your compassion theory when I talked to a Jesuit priest in Eastern Congo who wrote an interesting book: La compassion, j’y crois. An incredibly intelligent and impressive man, a former anthropology professor in Liège. He coordinates the Jesuit missions across eastern Africa and has seen his fellow priests and other NGO workers burn out, sometimes in a matter of months. Something flares up but after a short time that emotional reservoir is exhausted and at the same time the reason for the compassion ceases to exist: yesterday Greece, today the refugee crisis, tomorrow something else entirely. Père Bernard is trying to bring a line into his work: how can we work on one thing for fifty years? What form can genuine solidarity with other people’s suffering take? And, from a perspective of religious philosophy: what is the point of all this suffering, all this misery? These are aspects that interest us in Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun. And on the other side we’re also interested in the relation between practice and pity and what we call catharsis in classical drama theory, or later in bourgeois theatre. That comes from the idea that we say, there isn’t only aristocratic theatre, there aren’t only princes. No, the petit bourgeois, the simple market women are allowed to cry too, they have just as much right to emotional confusion and heroism. Everyone’s allowed to join in in theatre, it’s a great democratic space for pathos where everyone’s allowed to identify with the hero. The interesting thing is that this vertical emotional policy class structure has shifted into the horizontal: today’s aristocrats are the Europeans as a whole. Europe’s outer borders are what the class barriers were in Schiller’s times. The refugees, the Africans are to a certain extent the third estate in this conception, which appears in the theatre not as a subject but only in its suchness. It’s symptomatic that usually when someone in Western European theatre says, ‘I’m working with black people, I’m working with refugees,’ they are given the role of the third estate before the introduction of bourgeois theatre. So they make up a choir, for example, they talk about themselves, they present their collective or individual fates but not their irreducible humanity and thereby the promise of a utopian counterdraft to themselves or their relationships to one another. Genuinely integrative theatre would mean, though, that the bourgeois demand for universal humanism is actually put into practice globally. It would mean that a second, global revolution removed Europe’s outer borders just like the barriers between the estates in the French Revolution.
TS So how can we make that quantum leap and become compassioned citizens of the world? Not only in our minds but in our feelings, in a motivational sense. The sense that our limits don’t end at nationality or religious confession, but at the world. We could still always make Martians taboo and declare them an out-group. That’s not as dangerous, and everyone else in the world would suddenly be part of the in-group.
MR Not the Jews or the Muslims – the Martians. That would be a whole new emotional challenge for Europe’s radical right. What a fantastic idea!
TS What you’re suggesting – travelling, simply going to face the realities in person by really speaking to one another – that would be one approach. That’s what we call gathering information and knowledge. Learning to take on perspectives. Understanding that people in other cultures have different sets of beliefs to us. The other possibility is cultivating and practicing social skills like compassion to a greater extent. We’ve set up a major study on mental training over the past few years, creating a kind of meditation-based compassion training in a secularized form that can be used in the West: the ReSource Project. We carried out daily mental exercises with more than 300 test persons, helping to train the mind, attention, perspective taking of the self and others, and empathy and compassion. They also get to know their own impulses and motivations better and how to change them. The idea behind it is to make us into more conscious and globally responsible people. You practice getting up in the morning and sitting still and looking inwards rather than going out immediately and lapsing into fear and hostility, and understanding who the other is, who am I and what is my relation to others?
And we’ve seen that we can actually change not only neuronal networks of social cognition in the brain with this kind of mental training, but also behaviour, subjective experiences and health. Our test persons suffer less social stress, become more attentive, gain a better understanding of themselves and others’ needs and beliefs, even if these are unfamiliar to them to begin with, and they actually become more compassionate and more connected to others.
MR I’m quite critical of experiments like that. In Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun there’s a scene about a workshop: Ursina Lardi’s character teaches Congolese military chaplains to express their feelings through coloured stones, right in the middle of a civil war with several million killed. In my view, that’s the danger of the emotional perspective, which is great on an individual level but also blocks the view for political solutions. What needs reforming in this case is the Congolese military, not the chaplains’ minds. In Congo Tribunal, I examined a massacre of women and children that I happened to witness a year previously. Two hostile rebel groups had been called together in advance, they met up, there was a UN workshop, it was all great. And two weeks later one group wiped out the other group’s entire village. The knowledge generated in the workshop was of no use because it didn’t prompt any genuine, lived solidarity that made it to a political structure. It remained absolutely insular.
TS Right, a workshop is not enough. Internal transformation can’t be achieved in a two-day workshop.
MR Yes, but that’s exactly the problem.
TS Just like political institutional transformation can’t be ticked off in a two-day workshop.
MR Absolutely right, but where are we supposed to take the resources from – in terms of time and space? Let me come back to Père Bernard, the Jesuit priest who’s been travelling in the Congo for thirty years and has seen dozens of charity fads go by. First it was cholera, then it was war orphans, then child soldiers, then it was AIDS, then women’s work, then came Ebola for a while. Right now it’s gone back to rape, and in two years it might be child soldiers again or the water supply. You simply never know. The subjects turn in a circle and one set of problems disappears behind the next in the logic of donations.
TS But what’s the consequence of all that? Isn’t it the old trap you’re falling into, opening up a dichotomy between emotion and motivation as weak, sentimental and short term up against rationality as long term? That’s a false dichotomy.
MR That’s true. The only thing that helps in practice, in my view, is a dialectic linking of emotionality and rationality. Pure knowledge alone is just as useless as pure feeling.
TS We need both for responsible actions: thinking and feeling, wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism and the old wisdom teachings, wisdom is always coupled with motivation and compassion. It’s never separated. It’s a Western trait to believe we have to decide between knowledge and rationality on one side and motivation and emotion on the other, whereby the latter is then seen as weak and irrational. From the neuroscience point of view too, that dichotomy is simply false.
MR I think we ought to expand the definition of compassion to include solidarity. That’s how I understood Père Bernard, at least. Because the main difference between empathy and active compassion is that the latter tries to develop a form of practice. Compassion respects others in their suffering, expresses solidarity with them, but doesn’t take on their suffering.
TS Exactly, that’s the important distinction between empathy and compassion. And compassion can integrate everything. That doesn’t mean you show pictures of misery and you’re just upset for a brief moment. I’d say you’re absolutely right there, that kind of thing only takes us from one empathetic reaction to the next, with a constantly alternating object. That has no long-term systemic effect and has nothing to do with compassion. Compassion is more of an attitude that motivates responsible action, that focuses on the other’s wellbeing and tries to overcome the in-group/out-group division between individuals and groups. That’s very ambitious, of course, an aspiration that has been shared with most religions. Whether that has always been achieved in religious terms is another question. When you read the texts of the great enlightened prophets, be it Jesus or Buddha, it was all about feeling for others and compassion.
MR Well, I’m not a Buddhist, I’m a sociologist – a Marxist who enjoys talking to theologians. And I have to say, sadly, that Buddhism hasn’t changed the world. At least not as far as I know.
TS I don’t quite agree with you on that point.
MR On the subject of the long-term, people often ask me: ‘You do political theatre, what’s the point of that?’ What happens when the evening’s all over? And I answer every time: Art has nothing to do with usefulness, it’s to do with necessity. There is such a thing as symbolic actions, there’s a symbolic togetherness, there’s symbolic solidarity. Schiller’s idea of aesthetic education has a real effect for me. What we need alongside it of course is pedagogy, more traditional education, practical and local knowledge. In the case of NGOs, for example, that would mean that 90 per cent of the money doesn’t get spent on organization and PR, as is sadly the case for almost all international NGOs. We’re currently seeing an aestheticization of NGO work. Or to put it differently: a lot of today’s artists are really doing the same work as NGOs, for instance by attracting media interest for marginal groups, involving them in their projects and so on. The intention is good, but unfortunately neither long term nor in any way pragmatic. Because talking about Africa or Syria without having spent a decent amount of time there makes no sense, outside of arts journalism. I mean that as self-criticism, certainly, and the absolutely self-obsessed main character in Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun, who descends into a kind of narcissist high on helping, is a critical portrait of the political artist of our time: a character both tragic and ridiculous. But the question is, how can we artists be active in such a way that pragmatism and symbolic action overlap? What does the artist have to know about the world so that her actions make sense?
TS Are you talking about information?
MR More than information. I’m talking about a practice-led aesthetic strategy. And that is primarily a long working period on the same thing, I think. I found that out the hard way. You can’t just pop over to central Africa and stage a tribunal – it takes years, it eats up an incredible amount of energies. And first and foremost you have to accept that the European need for instant moral gratification doesn’t work then. Working in the long term means deciding on a strategy that might not bring anything instantaneous for me or my interlocutor or my audience, but makes sense in a broader context. The only real measurable effect of my Congo Tribunal up to this point is that several of my staff got abducted. At the same time – I hope – it’s a draft, the symbolic acting out of future economic tribunals. So global art is to some extent a very rational bet on the future.
TS And you’re back to that belief in rationality again. As I said, when I look inside a brain there aren’t any purely rational decisions, there is no ‘ratio centre’. Decisions always have to do with evaluation: ‘Makes sense or feels good, and that’s why I’ll do it’ or ‘Doesn’t make sense, doesn’t feel good, so I won’t do it.’ There’s always a weighing up of whether an action is more likely to prompt a reward or a punishment. Actions are always motivated. And they can be motivated by all different factors: fear, love, performance, power, aggression or care and belonging. The purely rational-thinking homo oeconomicus, as we find him in neo-classicist economic theories, simply doesn’t exist from a biological and psychological point of view. This narrative is getting us nowhere.
FB But how are we to activate at all in our neoliberal economy, where that narrative is dominant and functionally excludes compassion, because profit-maximizing and compassion simply aren’t compatible? By outsourcing production – to Bangladesh for example, where it’s fine for workers to be burnt alive in their factories because we don’t have to see it for ourselves and at most we read about it in the paper – the true victims of this system are moved so far away that they’re no longer perceptible for their exploiters. That wipes out all compassion for them at the same time.
TS That’s the problem. Everyone only takes care of themselves and we think the market will regulate itself – the invisible hand. The possibility of altruism, compassion, interdependence, systemic belonging together doesn’t exist within that model. Or for instance the possibility of me feeling when you’re stressed and then being stressed myself. But of course markets are constantly influenced by these phenomena. Business and politics are performed by people. People have a certain architecture and that architecture doesn’t recognize the division of rationality on one side and emotionality on the other as strictly as it still takes place in the narrative of our so-called enlightened society.
FB Well, they merge in the form of pity. In that pity where, since the scholastics, both elements, the more physical and the more cognitive part, come together and yet don’t quite fit smoothly. Perhaps the result of that very simultaneity of affective and rational elements is the difficultly of translating this into any form of constancy. What you said earlier: empathy is something that ensues instantly but can tip over into schadenfreude at the next moment. In Germany we’re facing the problem that there was a mass wave of empathy that is currently tipping over to its opposite, because people are thinking in a supposedly rational manner about what the country should do with all the refugees it’s taking in. That’s why, with such a volatile entity as an empathetic impulse, the question is: how can we make policies out of it and what form can a policy of compassion take?
TS That’s why it’s not a question of empathy but of compassion. Because compassion doesn’t contradict institutional change. People often think in opposites: there’s the individual who has to change, that’s an individual psychological matter. Or there are political, institutional changes and that’s the domain of politics or the economy, so to speak. And that’s another artificial dichotomy that has to end. Every actor in politics and the economy is also an individual and therefore responsible for their thoughts, their intentions, their motives, in other words also responsible for their form of compassion, for how far their wisdom and attitude goes towards others. And of course it’s not enough to turn it around and simply provide a few little mental training courses and hope that will solve a refugee problem. We need both, a new culture of awareness and institutional adaptions, there’s no separating the two. If you’ve suddenly been through an inner transformation and your personal narratives and views of the world change, that can also go towards changing the narrative of society. Because who is it that writes for the press and blogs in the end, or talks on TV? Why else do generations change, for example, from capitalist consumption-oriented egoists to people who say: ‘But I’m interested in where this product comes from, what it does to the environment and what it’s good for in the first place.’ There’s already been a change in our society. An expansion of awareness has already taken place.
FB Even the development of the relatively young German idea of Mitleid or pity – not in writing until the 17th century – and its rise to a central category of modern thinking indicates such a civilisatory process of ideational realization. Remarkably, pity has retained its status as a bourgeois virtue, at least in the German-speaking region, particularly in the theatre context, feeling pity for the characters on stage, literally suffering along with them. Feeling communal suffering in order to liberate oneself from it and enable a civilised coexistence is something very strongly linked to drama.
MR And with the current realism debate in the theatre, which asks whether we ought to put so-called experts on stage, amateurs who tell their story and are authentic in their suffering, their truth, in the inevitability and fatality of their biographies. Or whether people want to see actors, artists who appropriate the essence of characters and reproduce them for us, go through their experiences via performance but aren’t them. The first option always has something reductive about it, and the second has the stigma of a bourgeois emotional exercise. What interested us most of all in Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun is the tension between these two theatrical concepts: the reciprocal mirroring of the authentic and the mediated, the expert and the actor.
FB But is there still such a thing as a cathartic moment that can take place via compassion? Or that is even thought of in the original sense, that it can liberate us from pity?
MR That’s the moment in which a collective phase shift in pity prompts something like a jolt, what we used to call a revolution. Can we act together to change the course of things, undertake some action through which we experience ourselves as a unity of individuals capable of suffering but also of utopia? That’s the question we ask ourselves when we come together as a collective. A dictatorship divides people from one another: look, this person is suffering but if you don’t do anything wrong then you can be happy. So don’t identify with them. But where does collectivism come from? I once wrote a play about the failed revolution in Romania. Aside from a few traces there was no real societal change in Romania in 1989. The party bigwigs turned into the new economic elites, now in the second generation. Ceausescu and his wife were executed, as we all know, but the system morphed from a political one to an economic one to a certain extent, the narrative simply continued. I asked Jakob Tanner, a Swiss historian I consider very important, in a panel discussion: is there such a thing as revolutions and collective actions? Is there anything that happens on the historical stage and actually changes our lives in the long term? Or is all that nonsense and the truth is behind the scenes, in the institutions, the streams of capital and so on? And he answered: you know, what happened on the historical stage in December 1989 happened in Romania, the flowers in the rifle barrels, all the people who felt they were equal and could achieve something together – that’s gone into their souls as a spark. Anyone who experienced those weeks – the storming of the Central Committee, the Securitate headquarters, the state broadcaster – has carried it with them in their biography from then on. And that fracture, that experience, that collective high, they’re now implanted inside those people. Something like that can take place as a symbolic action, as a revolution, including on a stage. In the 1830 revolution in Brussels, that feeling was transported from the opera stage – at a performance of La Muette de Portici – to the audience and they all went out together and unleashed the revolution. That’s something art and theatre really can achieve. You see the horror, you recognize yourself as a collective mass and you sense that it’s not a step from feeling to practical action, but that feeling organically becomes action. I think that’s what theatre can show symbolically, can condense, in one act, in a story or an allegory that can also be one of failure. Tragedy means that the attempt at liberation fails in the end, that the antagonism is too great. Antigone can’t convince Creon; she dies. And for me, that’s the task in this very classical art form – that a human being doesn’t just stand on stage stuttering and stammering, in her suchness. Because that, I think, is the dialectic of the tragic: failing together, failing better and better until that failure inscribes itself on the institutions as societal change.
TS You started out by portraying the individual’s absolute lack of power…
MR I’m afraid I’m a fatalist, yes.
TS And now this plea for the power of theatre. Those are two extremes. But I think all moments can change a narrative; the multiplicity and best of all synchronicity of many small moments can lead to non-linear change. Be that in a church, like in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall came down, or on theatre stages, cinema screens, talk shows – they’re all stages, statements made by people coming together in one space. Or on Facebook; the net has become a stage as well. The multimedia channels can produce and provoke cathartic, viral, global moments. In one direction or another. And all these stages can ultimately contribute to a kind of change in awareness taking place, a change that may not have to begin with politics any more. And then politics has to change.