Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What art is for: yet another explanation

Reading Adam Hochschild's review of Laurent Dubois's new book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, in the NYT Book Review, I was drawn to these lines: "American officials declared, accurately enough, that the Haitian government was in bad shape and needed reform. But as the troops on the ground discovered, like their counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one likes to be reformed at the point of a foreigner’s gun."

We've all read sentences like that last one hundreds of times in the past, oh, ten years, right? The point seems simple enough, and yet, as stark as that reality is, the failure of huge numbers of policy makers to understand it is more so. This problem goes beyond the well-known failures to become familiar with the invadee's language, history, culture, religion, etc., though these are encompassed by the overall problem: the failure of imagination itself.  In Haiti as in other misadventures, invading powers could not--or would not--imagine what they might do if some other country tried to impose its values on them by force, even if they agreed with some or most of those values.

In literature classes I've taught over the years, we've often discussed the role of fiction in fostering empathy. In fiction, we are given direct insight into the minds of other people, albeit fictional people, a position we are absolutely denied in real life. (In fact, even in nonfiction works in which the author tries to reconstruct the thoughts of, say, George Washington, that Washington is necessarily fictional, because we cannot know the real thoughts of the real Washington.) Martha Nussbaum, for one, has argued that this experience of putting oneself in the place of another (or another in the place of oneself, maybe) transfers to real life: for Nussbaum reading fiction, at least certain realistic kinds of fiction like Dickens's, makes us more empathic, i.e. better.

Personally I would not go that far. In my experience, it is possible to voraciously read the most refined literary fiction while remaining an asshole. And I don't think reading Hard Times would have done anything for all those who jittered with anticipation to invade Iraq; it would have fallen on blind eyes, as it were. Something else is involved in making that leap, in having both the ability and the desire to make that leap. But this thought did occur to me: if nothing else, the existence of fiction and other forms of art remind us of the importance of the leap--that is, of imagination. Where imagination is valued--widely praised, engaged in, and made available in the richest possible variety of forms--the leap is valued. Trying to picture what it is like to be someone else, even someone not obviously similar to oneself, will come easier. Will seem like a more obvious thing to do. Will not seem silly or beside the point in deciding what to do and how to live.

So bring on the art--art we hate, art we love, art we aren't sure about. The more the better.

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