zondag 15 maart 2015

The pedantic novel

There is a number of things in our society that are surrounded with an aura of loftiness. I think of the prestige of getting to know other cultures, distant travel, and reading novels. In itself there is nothing wrong with that, because these are all venerable activities.

But there is one recurring aspect of that prestige that bothers me, and that’s the moral pretension that is (too) often linked to it. By traveling and reading you’d become a better human being, because you learn to enter into the world of others.

Let me premise: any insight into a different way of thinking is a broadening of the mind. Therefore, travel, cultural exchanges and novels certainly have an added value. What I object to is the pretentious claim that may go therewith.

Take reading novels. Recently Beatrice de Graaf said to believe that the novel is an irreplaceable source of knowledge, because it is the only way to get into someone else’s head. “Only the novel does justice to the complexity of feelings, thoughts and motives that guide our behavior”.

That’s simply not true, because there is at least one other way, which is that of the confronting real-life encounter with another human being, a phenomenon that in my workshops I extensively explore with participants. It indeed háppens that a person, in conversation with someone else, is convinced that his interlocutor will think so and so about a certain matter. And that then the sobering surprise appears that the interlocutor thinks totally differently. If that happens to you, you have for one moment been right in the other’s head.

So it is not true that reading novels would be the royal or even only way to that end. Therefore that pretension bothers me, but perhaps even more because of the underlying scheme leading to that pretension. Namely that the real life confrontations are ignored, in favor of a spectator’s confrontation. Priority is given to the situation in which you sit down into your armchair and have chosen a particular story; over the situation in which life itself, in the person of another human being, confronts you with another universe.

In the end, we intend to retain control. We draw back, decide when and how and how far to be confronted. That’s legitimate, and broadening of our horizons will certainly occur. But please let’s not pretend that it is the only way, nor that it enables you to know the world. In ordinary daily life, even of non-readers, often more world enlarging confrontations occur than we would like to have it.

Also see Sacred imagination and Levinas and Empathy