Home » Blog » Neglected Virtue (10) Cross-Cultural Empathy – “Ethics Under the Mask of Aesthetics?” Xuenan Cao (Duke University)

Neglected Virtue (10) Cross-Cultural Empathy – “Ethics Under the Mask of Aesthetics?” Xuenan Cao (Duke University)

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Xuenan Cao is a 3rd year Ph.D student in the Literature Program at Duke University.


Empathy and Well-Being

To concern oneself with the well-being of others, as in cases of altruism and charity, is one act. To empathize with imaginary characters or characters from a different culture is a rather similar act, since this act also participates in framing how one perceives the well-being of others. In such an act, what appears to be an aesthetic issue can be, in fact, an ethical one.

A remarkable series of scenes from a film depicts a young man, an older man and a middle-aged woman in a domestic space in urban Taiwan: a pornographic video plays on a TV in the master bedroom, in which the woman, during her masturbatory attempts, recognizes the vibrating sound of her wand massager from the other side of the wall; a cut to the dark room next door shows the young man using the vibrator to massage his aching neck—this ‘pain in the neck’ is certainly the protagonist of this movie; the vibration then blends with the dripping sound of water, leaking from the ceiling in another room, under which the older man struggles to rest. This fragmented space is not a healing place. To treat the pain in the neck, the older man takes the young man on a trip. During this trip, the two men have sex unknowingly in a dark room of a public bathing house.

For those who are familiar with this film The River [He-liu] (1997) by Tsai Ming-liang, the bath house scene is shocking because, as the film subtly reveals, these two men are father and son. The characters of the film appear neither well nor unhappy. To be precise, they are not well if considered a family. The film concludes with the young man stretching his aching neck in warm morning light. An ambiguously hopeful ending. These suggestions of the healing potential in what would be dubbed “crime of incest” makes the film difficult for audiences to handle.

This is where readers’ ethics comes in masked as an issue of aesthetic taste. Could we read these characters outside of their family bonds? Could we, as the film suggests, empathize with them, see what is touching in their intimate encounters, instead of finding these intimacies exotic or difficult to handle? In bringing the ethical question to the foreground, this short essay on empathy pins on itself a note about the active role of any readership and authorship about the well-being of others.


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