I always spending time in the novelist Teju Cole’s head, and I was struck by his most recent piece in the New Yorker, a meditation on how President Obama, whose billing of himself as a serious reader has been a way of selling him as a serious, empathetic man, has also become an active user of drone strikes to kill terrorists and suspected terrorists. He argues that enjoying the way literature makes you empathize with someone else, even someone very different from you, doesn’t necessarily mean that said empathy extends once we look up from a book, much less once we’re entrusted with immense power:
Toni Morrison, in her Nobel lecture in 1993, said, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” This sense of literature’s fortifying and essential quality has been evoked by countless other writers and readers. When Marilynne Robinson described fiction as “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification” she was stating something almost everyone would agree with. We praise literature in self-evident terms: it is better to read than not to read, for reading civilizes us, makes us less cruel, and brings the imaginations of others into ours and vice versa. We persist in this belief regardless of what we know to the contrary: that the Nazis’ affection for high culture did not prevent their crimes…
How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.
I also think it’s worth noting that empathy, while a worthwhile value, is actually a fairly neutral tool when it comes to literature. Convincing your reader (or viewer) to suspend disbelief and to enjoy spending time seeing the world through your characters’ eyes is a basic task of fiction. But it can be employed to any number of ends. Which is why so many people fall for Atlas Shrugged, or end up with bad ideas about what sex should look like from Norman Mailer and Philip Roth.