Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy. Sympathy is about loving your neighbour; empathy is about loving your enemy. Nice idea, but is it possible? In the City of Words, Alberto Manguel shows how stories are the first clue to the existence of others, and how the creative use of language allows us to understand those quite different than ourselves, so that we may together build a civilized society.
According to legend, Cassandra had both the gift of prophecy and a curse that no one would believe her. No one heeded her prediction of the fall of Troy. Such is the state of storytellers across time. Their language suggests ideas that do not conform to the current Zeitgeist. So the poets were excluded from Plato’s republic, and the literate were persecuted in Nazi Germany. Outsiders. But we need these stories; they serve a vital purpose in unfixing inapt labels, and animating lifeless dogma.
One of our oldest stories, that of Gilgamesh, tells of the discovery of “other”. Gilgamesh is a tyrant king who discovers a wild man, Enkidu, outside the city walls. Gilgamesh brings him into the city, and they become brothers, together more powerful and wonderful than before. We see our evil twin, or doppelganger in many things, including the technology which we fear will supplant us. If we can imagine a way to integrate these perceived evils, we can create a better society.
In the story of Babel, a plan to build a tower to heaven was thwarted by God when he confused the tongues of the builders. Language began as a tool to identify things and keep stock, and without a common language it is difficult to work together; ask the foreigners who come to our cities. But words are not simply our tools; they often take us places we did not expect. It is imagination that gives a sense of hope, progress and the future. Writers create stories in which readers find a hopeful reflection; their interest in turn creates writers to tell more stories. The presence of many tongues can be a blessing, bringing new stories. It may be better to think of the future as an unending stream of stories than a single project or conclusion. Don Quixote is a tale of a hero who does not necessarily win his battle, but moves us with his aspiration.
The theme of the evil foreigner who must be destroyed plays itself out in other stories, often with a chilling outcome. In Jack London’s The Assassin’s Bureau, the assassin’s own rules eventually force him to kill himself. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey 2001, the computer Hal is forced to see the spaceship’s occupants as obstacles that must be killed. In our society, advertising is the new storytelling, the book industry has become business not culture, and the consequences are becoming clearer. The machines of our economics are zeroing in on us. Manguel warns that literature is essential to disrupting this narrow path, to allowing other futures to be imagined, and a better society to be built.