By: Teis Jayaswal
The concept of ‘empathy’ is still relatively new to the English language, having been coined only 111 years ago in 1909 by the psychologist Edward Titchener. The term comes from the translation of “Einfühlung” in German, which roughly means ‘feeling into’. Closely related to empathy is sympathy, which in German often translates to “Beileid”, meaning “suffering next to” or “suffering near”. Following these linguistic cues, we might define empathy as the experience of actively sharing the emotions of the injured party, whereas sympathy is the experience of expressing compassion, sorrow or pity for the situation of the individual suffering.
I bring up this distinction, because empathy and sympathy play a central role in Ari Aster’s most recent film, Midsommar. Struck by grief following the death of her parents and sister in a murder-suicide, Dani is left with only her somewhat insensitive boyfriend Christian to cope with her trauma and frequent anxiety attacks. Immediately before Dani calls Christian with news about the tragedy, we witness Christian’s friends speaking negatively about Dani and her anxiety, encouraging Christian to break up with her. Therefore, when we see Christian patting Dani and staring ahead with a blank look on his face as she sobs in his lap, we as viewers might infer that he is not seeking to share Dani’s pain, but instead contemplating the burden he now faces, feeling compelled to stay with Dani to ‘comfort’ her during her grief. Some months after the incident, Christian invites Dani on the trip he and his friends have planned to go celebrate the midsummer in Hårga, Sweden. However, he explicitly tells his friends that he only invited her so that she knows she was invited and assures the friends that she won’t come. Christian’s actions can hardly be defined as empathetic, and even to describe them as sympathetic might be a stretch. His actions reflect that he acts only out of a feeling of obligation fueled by pity. This sort of do-gooder attitude is reinforced when they arrive in Hårga and everyone begins to take shrooms, but Dani says she wants to wait until she feels less anxious. Christian declares he’ll wait as well, which only results in Dani apologizing and subsequently feeling pressured to take the shrooms immediately. Thus, in this way, he seems to wield what he sees as ‘empathy’ as a means of manipulation.
The first person who makes an ‘earnest’ attempt to empathize with Dani is Pelle—Christian’s Swedish friend who is a native of Hårga and invites them to the festival. I put ‘earnest’ in quotes because Pelle obviously has an agenda of his own which Dani, Christian and his friends are not aware of. Pelle tries to connect with Dani by somewhat forcefully telling Dani that he understands her pain because he himself lost his parents at a young age and became an orphan. Dani is not that receptive to Pelle’s attempt at empathizing with her, and gets frustrated and upset both times that Pelle tells her that he shares her pain. Thus, this form of empathy communicated through speech alone proves ineffective. However, that’s not to say that she does not value Pelle’s companionship. Pelle in many ways fills in for Christian as a caring figure, which is particularly exemplified when Pelle remembers her birthday while Christian forgets.
In Hårga, Dani is introduced to a new kind of empathy, which lies at the heart of what binds together the Hårga family. This empathy is characterized by the collective experience of individual pain and pleasure. For example, when one of the elders jumps to their death from a cliff and survives the fall, the members of Hårga community cry and violently convulse until the elder is struck to death with a large mallet. Similar cries and spasms take place in the end when the individuals inside of the sacrificial temple cry in agony as they are burned to death. The democratization of individual experience is not limited to pain, but also appears in the realm of pleasure. When Christian has sex with one of the young Hårga women, he is surrounded by a large gathering of women who moan with the girl, seemingly sharing the physical experience of the sexual encounter. Dani catches a glimpse of Christian while he is still having sex, triggering a panic attack. However, unlike her previous anxiety attacks, she is not alone this time. As Dani cries and hyperventilates, women from Hårga surround her and drop to the floor with her and mirror her hyperventilation. They cry and breathe intensely in unison. At this moment, as the family around her actively participates in her pain and suffering, Dani finally feels supported.
While this form of empathy ultimately wins Dani over and leads her to become part of the Hårga family, this empathy cannot be left unquestioned. It is tempting to say that the members of the Hårga community have achieved the pinnacle of empathy, the highest form. By mirroring the shrieks, cries or moans of those experiencing great pain or pleasure, the Hårga community seemingly pools individual experiences of pain and pleasure, such that the subject neither needs to suffer alone nor monopolize experiences of ecstasy. However, it is exactly the form through which they practice their empathy that raises skepticism. That which I have interpreted as empathy thus far comes through the expression of the pain or pleasure taking place. As others have expressed before me, a fundamental dichotomy between pain and the expression of that pain threatens our ability to empathize. To the skeptic, individuals can never share the experience of another, and in particular can not know what pain feels like to someone else. We are left to interpret the pain of others through cues such as screaming or crying. If we take the skeptic to be right in saying that we can never know the pain of another, then what really is empathy? It seems that to fully exercise empathy, we would have to be able to do what the skeptic says we cannot do. Therefore, it seems that empathy is an ideal, at least if we think of empathy as understanding and sharing the internal turmoil of another individual.
Instead, the takeaway which I find to be the most convincing and quite frankly, beautiful, is that the empathy which we desire when we are suffering need not always be complicated.
Yet, the form of empathy presented in by the Hårga community in Midsommar seems to work within exactly what the skeptic would have us think we have access to in the way of discerning pain—expressions. The members of Hårga seek to replicate expressions of the cries of pain or pleasure and by doing so, seem to successfully form closer familial bonds. As viewers of the film or even if we were individuals within the film in Hårga , we would never know whether the Hårga members are also seeking to truly experience whatever pain or pleasure is at hand in addition to simply mirroring the expression of that pain or pleasure. I see two possible takeaways about empathy that can be drawn from the Hårga community. We might say that Hårga represents a rebuttal to the skeptic. By that I mean that Hårga shows us that by replicating the expressions of the subject in pain or pleasure, individuals can gain access to the actual pain or pleasure of the subject, and thus, the dichotomy between pain and the expression of pain is weakened. However, that seems highly unlikely and appears to be a weak argument given that the expressions of the subject themselves are already what allows us to discern their pain or pleasure. Instead, the takeaway which I find to be the most convincing and quite frankly, beautiful, is that the empathy which we desire when we are suffering need not always be complicated. Not everyone needs to act as the therapist or psychoanalyst, but simply the presence and proximity of others sharing expressions of pain can make the difference.