- A "Correspondence of Eyes with Eyes"Edwin Arlington Robinson, Empathy, and Literary Naturalism
Edwin Arlington Robinson's popular poem "Richard Cory" (1897) examines the world-warping pitfalls involved in knowing other minds. The poem records a series of assumptions made on the part of a tragic chorus peopled by the poor inhabitants of a small town, perceiving and speaking in aggregate. Seeing Cory's wealth, gentlemanly deportment, and "human" affability, the townspeople express envy of his station and implicitly project stability and contentment onto someone who, much to their surprise, goes home "one calm summer night" to "put a bullet through his head" (Robinson 1989, 10). Indeed, before Cory committed suicide, the speakers admit: "We thought that he was everything/To make us wish that we were in his place" (Robinson 1989, 10). The poem's flatly delivered, skull-perforating [End Page 179] punchline turns on its power to contradict visual appearances, to disrupt assumption, and especially to interrupt one-sided projections, revealing in the process the townspeople's utter ignorance of Cory or his intentions. Other minds cannot be known, understood, or even empathized with due to a psychological myopia and group consensus that, in this instance, tends to conflate personal with social identities and acts as a barrier to true intersubjective experience.
But the speaker's projections are not wholly one-sided. After all, the choral voice is multiple, and the speakers' perceptions, correct or not, are shared, harmonized into a first-person plural pronoun. On one hand, Cory's actions demonstrate the profound limitations of empathy, the ability "to understand and appreciate another person's feelings [and] experience" (OED Online 2019), but on the other hand, paradoxically, this alienation is also the pretext for consensus, for a shared experience and a collective bond. The poem's corporate subjectivity is almost entirely constituted by thinking about another person: the wealthy, "glittering" Richard Cory. In this case, the perception of the otherness of another mind is the precondition for an intersubjective formation—just not between Cory and the chorus.
And yet, for a while at least, the townspeople thought they knew Cory. Moreover, to them (taking Robinson's enjambment in meaningful isolation), this refined, good-looking man was "everything." In other words, this alien other functioned as an intimate part of the town's shared or "objective" reality. Just because the foundations for that reality later proved illusory and projective doesn't mean they weren't temporarily meaningful. Up until his suicide, Richard Cory served as an anchor point around which "everything" else fell into place or stabilized, including the townspeople's capacity to share a subjectivity and vocalize as "we" in the first place. In this early poem, then, Robinson highlights the social or intersubjective foundations of objective reality while showing how fragile these foundations are, thanks to the opaque alterity of the other's mind. Robinson doesn't want to invalidate empathy; instead, he wants to show both how central empathy is to the formation of knowledge and community as well as how misleading and unreliable it can be. A fundamental feature of [End Page 180] consciousness, empathy is psychologically inevitable at the same time as it determines what counts as real. However, its inconsistencies and inaccuracies mean that any apprehension of objectivity is elusive from the start. Other people condition, and more precisely obfuscate, any perception of the external world.
At around the time of Robinson's rising status in American poetry, the emerging concept of empathy was formative to the development of philosophies of mind in both Germany and the United States. German phenomenology as pioneered by Edmund Husserl argued that objectivity (the sense that there is something outside of, or alien to, the mind of a conscious subject) was constituted intersubjectively (Husserl 1960, 153). In other words, being able to understand that there is a world outside the mind involves understanding that it is perceptible by or available to other people. In a sequence of articles for The Philosophical Review in 1895, the American philosopher Josiah Royce made a similar claim: the reality of an external world is first predicated on the reality of other minds...