February 19, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Vicarious Pleasures

I recently got an email from a popular travel website that raised some perplexing questions for me about (1) this strange beast we call America, (2) the role of fiction in our lives, and (3) my consumer profile with online advertisers. Here’s the pitch:

Immigration and border patrol seems to be at the top of every political conversation. At Parque Eco Alberto, you can go on a pretend ‘Night Border Crossing Experience.’ The parque is owned by the Hnahnu Indians in Hidalgo, about three hours from Mexico City. The $18, four-hour night hike starts with the Mexico National Anthem. Your ‘coyote’ guide, Pancho, pulls off his black ski mask while actors gather around to scare you senseless along the way. Run from border control agents; dodge hidden actors shooting (blanks) at you, and make your way through barbed-wire fences. Survivors are blindfolded, led across a rickety bridge, and then set free to run across the border to freedom!

Now I had several immediate responses to this promotion. First, I had to admire the Hnahnu Indians of Hidalgo for coming up with this brilliant idea. I can only wonder how many American tourists have paid their $18 to run through the desert at night while Mexicans shoot at them. And who, exactly, would they be? Guilty liberals? Even guiltier conservatives? Dentists from Des Moines looking for something a bit more exciting than Disney’s animatronic pirates? (It’s a small world, after all.) I also like to picture the “???coyote’ guide, Pancho” and the other actors who “gather around to scare you senseless along the way.” Is that one of the great jobs, or what? Like playing Snow White, only with weapons. But the real question this raises for me is, have Americans become so corrupt, so lacking in human empathy, that the only way we can imagine the terrors of an illegal border crossing is to play at it?

I’ve always assumed that one of the basic needs that literature serves is to allow us to imagine experiences we may never have and solicit our empathy for those whose lives are unlike our own. I may not admire Macbeth as a man or as a leader, but by the end of the play I feel that I can understand him: the play allows me to feel a certain empathy for him which expands my humanity even as I watch his humanity shrink in his violent failures of empathy. There’s a problem with this theory, of course, and its name is Nikola Koljevic. Koljevic was a Shakespeare scholar, author of eight books on Shakespeare, and Professor of English Literature at Sarajevo University. He was also Vice-President of the Bosnian Serb Republic and, according to Janine di Giovanni, the “architect of the destruction of Sarajevo” who ordered the destruction of the National Library with its collection of priceless medieval texts, a “wartime ideologue of ethnic cleansing, and the man who was nominally in charge of Serb concentration camps.” In an ending appropriate to one of the Shakespearean tragedies he loved, Koljevic shot himself in the days following the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, after returning one last time to Sarajevo and weeping at the destruction he’d brought down on the city that was once his home. (Di Giovanni tells the story in an article in The Guardian, dated March 1, 1997, not available online, as well as in Madness Visible, her memoir of covering the Bosnian war as a journalist.)

I tell this story to the students in my Shakespeare class on the first day to remind them that simply reading Shakespeare won’t make them better people, despite what some cultural conservatives argue. Writing scholarly essays on Macbeth didn’t prevent Koljevic from turning into a tragic and brutal figure much like that play’s hero, killing thousands and destroying the city he had once loved out of a combination of grief at the loss of a child and thwarted ambition. (Di Giovanni describes Koljevic becoming enraged during an interview she conducted with him, describing how Bosnia’s Muslims had denied him the academic recognition he deserved: “???They never“” he choked, his face purple with rage, ???they never made me full professor.’”) Literature may not teach us empathy as much as allow us to take credit for it without really feeling it. The act of reading gives us an illusion of depth in both the characters and ourselves. Our identification with those characters is vicarious, which means not only that we share their experience in our imagination while reading the text, but also ??? if we return to an older meaning of the word, with obvious theological implications — that they suffer for us, so we don’t have to. Sadly, as in the practice of religion, one can take that idea of vicarious suffering as an inspiration to empathy or as a substitute for it. (Substitution is another definition of vicarious, the OED reminds us, citing Robert Boyle’s 1688 A Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things, as in the stones that birds swallow, which “prove a vicarious kind of teeth” to grind up grain in their stomachs, or in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the “vicarious method” of doing one’s homework practiced by “big fellows of lazy or bullying habits, [which] consisted simply in making clever boys” do their Latin for them.) It lies within us to decide whether our imaginative engagement with the characters in a book makes us care for others or allows us to feel that we’ve done our part just by picking up the book.

I can’t imagine spending my vacation running through the Mexican desert pretending to be an illegal immigrant, and I confess I’m a little unsettled by the idea that at least one travel company seems to think I might. But after thinking about it a little, I find myself wondering if the Hnahnu haven’t hit on something brilliant here: Americans have the luxury to consume others’ suffering. We read books about Bosnian refugees and boy soldiers in Africa, watch films about illegal immigrants and Holocaust victims. Doing so allows us the illusion that we can understand those lives, but it should also remind us how privileged we are to be able to sit quietly in our comfortable chair reading about suffering. Would it be more authentic, we might ask, to follow the Hnahnu’s lead and build Sarajevo theme parks (Run Sniper Alley! Browse The Flaming Library!), Darfurland, or RwandaWorld? It sounds obscene, like something from a Don DeLillo novel or one of Margaret Atwood’s comic dystopias, but I can’t help wondering if it doesn’t require a degree of absurdity to shatter our complacency and bring us to something like real empathy.

“Survivors are blindfolded,” the ad tells us“ (Wait, survivors?) ““led across a rickety bridge, and then set free to run across the border to freedom!” What freedom, I wonder, do illegal immigrants find when they cross our border? And what pleasant fictions are we telling ourselves now?

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