Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sometimes We Have to Carry Others

Human Lives

An article (“Carrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation;” July 5, 2019) in The New York Review of Books, by Teju Cole, summons forth the idea how writers of literature can help raise the value of a human life—all human lives in our shared humanity, “our fellow citizens”—by having the courage to voice their conscience about injustices, about not viewing as important physical differences, by understanding that we cannot do it alone; that we are not alone, even if and when we feel alone.

By doing so, by risking persecution in their host nations, such writers help move the readers of such literature from indifference to making a difference. It might take some time for the action to take place, but take place it will, when it is necessary to save a life, when it is necessary to carry someone across deadly waters, if not literally, then figuratively, or financially. Cole, novelist, photographer, critic, curator, and the author of five books and currently the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard University, writes:
I offer this: literature can save a life. Just one life at a time. Perhaps at 4 AM when you get out of bed and pull a book of poetry from the shelf. Perhaps over a week in summer when you’re absorbed in a great novel. Something deeply personal happens there, something both tonic and sustaining.
How much I agree with this passage; I, like many, have had such personal experiences when reading a great novel. It has moved me in a certain direction with particular insights that were not known or thought of before reading a particular novel. Perhaps it takes a certain temperament, but many I know would not care, have not changed at all. They have remained in the same place for decades, certain in their views. It sounds troubling. Such persons are closed, walled off from human experiences. Fear and complacency go together. People are tired; people are stressed; people are depleted. People are bored.

Perhaps I could suggest that they should read more good literary fiction. Great literary fiction that stirs the heart and mind. It can make you understand thousands of different persons, who are unlike you, but at the same time very much like you. There is a shared common humanity, if you are looking for it. That being said, I agree, up to a point; a novel can move individuals, singular people—joined with others—into doing good and making sacrificial offers for humanity, for others.

Cole, an American born to Nigerian parents, writes about a current example of such persons taking personal risks and defying the laws of the land:
A young woman from Bonn named Pia Klemp is currently facing a long-drawn-out legal battle in Italy. Klemp, a former marine biologist, is accused of rescuing people in the Mediterranean in 2017. If the case comes to trial, as seems likely, she and nine others in the humanitarian group she works with face enormous fines or even up to twenty years in prison for aiding illegal immigration. (Klemp’s plight is strikingly similar to that of another young German woman, Carola Rackete, who was arrested in Italy this week for captaining another rescue boat.) Klemp is unrepentant. She knows that the law is not the highest calling. As captain of a converted fishing boat named Iuventa, she had rescued endangered vessels carrying migrants that had been launched from Libya. The precious human lives were ferried over to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The question Klemp and her colleagues pose is this: Do we believe that the people on those endangered boats on the Mediterranean are human in precisely the same way we are human?
Cruelty is the adversary of love. I would think that the answer is as clear as clear as can be, and we ought to applaud their efforts to save human lives. But not for everyone; not everyone thinks as I do, even when I think they should, because this is clearly a moral cause. And, yet, there are many cases of people acting morally without having read any literary fiction. They acted as they did, because they were likely taught at a young age that no human is superior to another. When this is stripped of politics, we can more easily see each human as a human being.

That each life, in the end, does matter. This might sound strange in this day and age, when differences are highlighted and politically exploited; when nations tightly control their borders; and when the wealthy live in grand gated communities and in large exclusive condos; and the poor, many immigrants or newcomers, if they are lucky, crowded in shabby subsidized housing and in rundown low-rent units. Such is the way it is; cruelty is the adversary of love.

In love, sometimes we have to carry others; sometimes others have to carry us.

For more, go to [New York Review of Books].