I had the pleasure of stumbling upon an article on morality in Enid Blyton’s work (of all things) from Aeon this week. Nakul Krishna looks into the ethical life as demonstrated by the schoolgirls of Blyton’s Malory Towers and comes out with a quote from Iris Murdoch:
‘Love,’ Murdoch wrote in an essay called ‘The Sublime and the Good’ (1959), is ‘the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’[…] The schoolgirl’s hell is not, as a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) memorably puts it, other people; her hell is the isolated self, incapable of getting outside itself. […] But Blyton, like life, can be brutal: not every character is redeemed by the end of the series, and no character is straightforwardly rid of her vices. There is only the lifelong challenge of acknowledging the reality of other people.
This calls to mind a similar train of thought from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, where he cautions the graduates about the dangerous ease with which one can sink into unconsciousness.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. […] Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
Granted, the “default settings” that he describes aren’t limited to a person’s perception of themself, as the castigated examples in Blyton’s work seem to be; DFW’s idea of “default settings” extends to cover all sorts of perspectives one might hold. Nevertheless, these default settings bring about the same kind of objectionable condition found in Blyton: isolation, residing “too tightly in [one’s] own skin” (as one character puts it) that other people cease to be real.
It’s an interesting brand of ethics, particularly in our world of virtual realities, curated feeds, and intangible communications. Faced with a glut of information and an ever-growing toolkit with which to tailor received information according to our preferences, it’s easy to build “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We can build and expand that bubble of familiarity, all the while narrowing our own perspectives; the catch, too, is that it is easier than ever to lose everything else to the constant noise that surrounds us. When we miss (or choose to overlook) something, it’s often irretrievable.
As Enid Blyton and David Foster Wallace gently remind us, too often that means losing something invaluable to the ether. As we drill down on our own concerns and beliefs and goals, we forget to acknowledge the full extent of other people’s existence. Hence DFW’s alternative:
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.
Great care should be taken in how we conceive of this awareness, though. The idea of “sympathizing” with others by imagining them through our experience — by reconstructing their lives through patterns and notions culled solely from our own — can itself be a default setting that erases as much as any other automatic mindset. Throwing ourselves into a careless project of sympathy risks imposing our selves on others, thus invalidating these people’s experiences and identity. Essentially, we end up talking over the very people we aim to recognize and connect with. We ignore their personhood, reducing them to a collection of identified (or invented) points of similarity and choosing instead to talk to this facsimile of them constructed within our heads.
It is not enough to acknowledge the reality of others. Ultimately, it is necessary to arrive at that acknowledgement without filtering it through the lens of the self. We must remember and respect that our personal realities are no more important or essential than theirs; and certainly, that their realities are not mere extensions of ours.
Or, taking from Kenneth Reinhard, too often sympathy is “based on narcissistic identification, on seeing the other as ‘like yourself.'” This can easily lead to a reduction of the other, serving to extend our skull-sized kingdoms in a more insidious (and self-congratulatory!) way.
More difficult, and perhaps more valuable, is the constant effort to “[welcome] the other as Other rather than reducing him to Same.” (Reinhard)