Liars with a heart

It happens every semester. The conversations in one class will weirdly start to meld into those in other courses. Sometimes it's as if the various authors I am teaching have begun debating each another. In the senior capstone, for example, we have been reading Martha Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity. In particular we were reading a chapter on the "narrative imagination," a capacity to imagine oneself in the experiences of strangers through the agency of fictional narratives.

In the first-year honors seminar, on the other hand, we are reading Gulliver's Travels and have have arrived at Gulliver's fourth voyage, which takes him to a fictional island populated by the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses, and a tribe of repulsive, disagreeable creatures called Yahoos. The Yahoos are brutish, nasty, greedy, violent, and a little too close to human-shape for Gulliver's peace of mind. He loathes them at first sight, but by the end of the fourth voyage, he will ruefully acknowledge that human beings resemble Yahoos far more than they do the gentle rationalism of the admirable Houyhnhnms.

On the surface, these two works have nothing to do with each other. Even so, Swift and Martha Nussbaum have started a debate. Where she is advocating the use of fiction as a way of opening students' empathy and imagination, Swift is writing about rational horses who have no concept of lying or falsehood. Indeed, Gulliver has to go to great lengths to explain to the Houyhnhnms why any rational creature would ever say "the thing that is not."

And fiction is by definition a lie. There never was a Huck Finn, a Hamlet or a race of completely rational talking horses. Despite their virtues, however, no Houyhnhnm could have written a novel like Gulliver's Travels. To do so would have been “to say the thing that was not.” And, as Nussbaum argues, the ability to lie and make up stories is somehow connected to our capacity to empathize. Con artists apparently have always scored very high on empathy tests.

So yesterday when we finished Gulliver's Travels, I had the students line up across the back of the room in a spectrum of response. At one end of the line were those who agreed with Gulliver that humanity is a wretched, vile lot with some marks of reason that it employs mostly to exacerbate its natural vices. And there is certainly no end of ammunition for this position. Were Swift alive today, he would no doubt relish pointing out to us that the average American watches 30 hours of TV per week, pornography is a $97 billion per year industry, and the country has a an $11 trillion dollar debt. Not much rational about any of that.

At the other end of the line were those students who thought the book could not possibly be that dark. They argued Swift would never have bothered to write Gulliver's Travels if he felt we were so irredeemable. Besides, no Yahoo possessed the self-awareness of Gulliver, which suggests that we should read the novel as a cautionary tale, not an outright condemnation of humanity. Maybe Swift was pulling a Nussbaum and trying awaken our empathy and conscience.

In the middle of the line stood students who were not sure what to make of this strange and savage book. Was it a backhanded plea for charity, humility and kindness, or a gob of spit in the face of humanity? They just didn't know. And as we were leaving classroom, one of the students asked where I stood. Did I think human beings were Yahoos? I gave him my standard answer: "It kind of depends on the day."

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