I have a professor who doesn’t mind when I mix anime and philosophy. I wrote this prior post on Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal for his class. This particular post relies on a Schelerian reading of Attack on Titan and Claymore. Max Scheler’s ideas about the importance of how levels of sympathy build upon one another will be discussed below in two posts. Enjoy!
The Five Levels of Sympathy and Drama
Max Scheler adamantly insists that levels of sympathy build upon one another and that the higher cannot exist without the lower. Similarly, the best drama relies on the viewers truly loving the main characters and being engaged in all their experiences. Therefore, many dramas contain a modern setting, which allows for easy identification: the characters live in the same environment and have the same experiences we do. On the other hand, when an author wishes to place a drama in a different time, he must pay particular attention to the realm of identification so that the audience can be more easily brought up to the higher realms of sympathy and desire to feel and experience what the characters do. To show this, I propose to juxtapose two animated series: Claymore and Attack on Titan. The first succeeds in creating an atmosphere for the audience to identify with the characters, while the later fails.
First off, we ought to note that both Claymore and Attack on Titan are fantasies. Most of the time, fantasies are stories of adventure meant to transport our minds from our humdrum existence and provide a bit of fun. Very rarely will one come across a fantasy which describes a serious plot and even more rarely will one come across a tragic plot. Attack on Titan decided to do the later and also in the monster slaying genre— very rare choice for drama. Indeed, the only other serious monster-slaying show which comes to mind is Claymore, but I would not place it at the level of a tragedy—no matter how grim the story becomes.
Max Scheler writes in his chapter describing the dependency of the levels of sympathy upon one another: “It seems to me that identification underlies vicarious feeling in the (timeless) order of functional dependence…”1 Therefore, one must identify with characters before one can begin to imagine what the characters must feel like, i.e. the vicarious state of sympathy. But, fantasy itself places many hindrances on the audience identifying with the characters, especially the nearer the setting approximates the medieval world: the technology is well beneath what we are used to, the political system differs, death more frequent, the scope of medieval people’s worlds is much smaller, their lives much harsher, religion more ubiquitous, etc. Many times, anachronism is employed to try to make the characters more modern. For example, the characters in The Lord of the Rings smoke pipes, and a knight offers his pupil a cigarette in the short story The Fifty-First Dragon. But, primarily, identification between moderns and medievals must occur on universal human experiences: family, romance, friendship, parties, and the whole host of events which humans experience in every age. The protagonist ought to have a love interest, good friends, some family troubles, and personal foibles. If the author cannot establish good identification between the audience and the characters, he had better realize that he ought eschew drama in order to write a story which relies on the audience reaching the vicarious level of sympathy, such as a fun, entertaining monster slaying show. The audience can then escape into fun daydreams about slaying dragons and ogres without being troubled by a serious storyline.
And so, when we are introduced to characters at the beginning of a story, we seek out the ones with whom we naturally identify. From here, we generally grow in liking or disliking them according to what they further divulge about themselves through word and deed. Max Scheler writes this about the subject: “If a man is to achieve his full realization of his ideal capacities, his various emotional powers must all be cultivated…There can be no full development of the higher, though necessarily rarer, emotional powers in man, where the lower but more common ones have not been fully cultivated.”2 In the same way that one cannot achieve the higher states in oneself without utilizing the lower, one cannot love another person without having moved from identification, vicarious feeling, fellow-feeling, and benevolence toward them.
Interestingly, suffering may become a barrier to truly loving someone if the other emotional states have not been cultivated prior to suffering. For example, one felt sorry for the people of Japan when they were hit by the earthquake and tsunami, which motivated many people to donate money to them as an act of benevolence. But, how many people would wish to become further involved in helping these people? For that to occur, there must be an active love already established between oneself and the Japanese people. The saying about one laughing with the world and weeping alone applies here. Many wish to share in one’s good qualities and good company, but few wish to share in the sufferings one undergoes. The only people who wish to share in these pains are those who have known one for a long time and do all they can to deliver one out of one’s sufferings. This lies in the fact that the previous and more personal levels of sympathy have all been established prior to this point.
1Scheler, Max. The Nature of Sympathy. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009: 98.
The next part will delve into how these two shows succeeded or failed in bringing the viewer to the highest level of sympathy: love. Part II will be posted on Tuesday.