I have been many times to see La Boheme, sometimes railing against Puccini’s universal plot structure, where the women always die and the men walk away. The last time I went – at a music festival deep in the Virginia countryside – I saw another theme. In the opera’s last scene, Puccini aims straight and true for the heart, when as Mimi is dying she and Rodolfo reprise the first moments of their love in Rodolfo’s darkened apartment, where each is pretending to look for Mimi’s key in order to stay together longer. Puccini is brief, as Mimi’s life is brief, but his music opens up their feelings to us, feelings that become infinite because shared through empathy.
The scholar Lynn Hunt has written on the origins of human rights (Inventing Human Rights, Norton, 2007). She identifies the invention of the novel as an important trigger for a new sensibility, especially the extension of the feeling of empathy across class lines coming from identification with the interior lives of ordinary persons. She discusses in particular the widely popular episolatory novels, Clarissa and Pamela by Samuel Richardson and Julie by Rousseau. “Human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion. They learned this equality at least in part by experiencing identification with ordinary characters who seemed dramatically present and familiar even if ultimately fictional.” A century and a half later Puccini draws us into a poor young woman’s life as Richardson and Rousseau had with a different artistic form, but creating the same powerful empathy.
The real Mimis lived – and live – lives that seem no more than a gnats bite, quickly brushed away. Mimi didn’t have health care; research had not come up with a cure for TB; there were no minimum labor protections. A poor seamstress was virtually forced into prostitution in a world of people who mattered and people who didn’t matter. It seemed that we had moved to an understanding that we all matter as human beings and are bound together in a community. Government is one vehicle that creates actions and institutions to better lives, following up on that feeling of empathy. Instead of the evanescence of a gnat’s bite, Mimi’s spirit is a big as the universe the minute we say no one should die of destitution.
Many on the conservative right today appear to live in a world where human beings do not have a right to be recognized in some moral sense as equally valuable and that sense of equality is essential if we are to feel duties and obligations to others. Republican politicians have denounced using government to better lives as evil socialism. For many on the religious right, charity is the way to deal with need and is a matter of an individual choice the government should not interfere with. The fact that charity’s reach will be random and inadequate is not seen as a deficit.
Empathy builds in us an enlarged moral vision. Without it we are free to see government, for one thing, solely as it impinges on our defined-down selves. Who can forget Republican Senator Rand Paul’s rant that the government should get out of his decisions on what toilet to buy (water usage!). Defining ourselves down, as we have seen in the debate over deficit reduction and raising the debt ceiling, leads inevitably to a small minded vision of our country and what we, together, are capable of accomplishing. We become, as President Obama said, addressing the nation on the debt ceiling stalemate, “disjointed individuals, but not a society.”