In my last post I worried that I got off point and started talking in meaningless riddles. You may remember (and if you don’t, it’s near the conclusion of the post):“We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.”
In one of life’s coincidences, I picked up an April 12 New Yorker last night and read a short story by Ben Loory entitled “The TV” about a man who one day, for no particular reason, stays home from work and watches television. The program he watches doesn’t end until the end of the day when its leading character closes up his workplace and starts for home. It’s then, as he shampoos his hair in the shower, that he realizes that the show was about him. Not metaphorically about him, but actually about him. “But how could it have taken me so long to recognize my own self? he wonders. And how did they manage to find an actor who looks so exactly like me?”
The next day he watches again and confirms that the man is indeed him; even the credits say so. As time passes, he stays close to the television, watching the man who’s him work, go to lunch, and come home again. Soon the man who is himself evolves into someone who does all sorts of things the watcher never did—or did he since he and the man on the screen are one and the same?
His on-screen activity expands and grows more furious until one day he realizes he has a mind and that his mind is like a fist which he must focus on and keep closed at all costs. Of course, he finally does open it, only to discover he’s holding the end of an electrical cord. Feeling powerful, he takes the TV down to the basement trash, but on the way back up discovers himself doing the same thing, and then sees himself again bringing it back up the stairs and worse, the same man watching the TV in his living room in the same familiar way. By now, the screen no longer holds his many selves: they’re too numerous; they’re everywhere and living all sorts of lives. All he can do is struggle to keep track of himself.
The story, of course, is more detailed and more nuanced, and the conclusion is full of irony. But it seems to me, it’s very like what I was trying to describe. Of course, we’re all interested in each other’s lives. That’s part of what drives the arts—we want to know and understand other lives in relation to our own. But something else is happening when fiction is being eclipsed by reality TV and memoirs and magazines devoted to the details of everyone’s lives. When the privacy of other individuals, and even our own, is no longer respected.
Tolstoy answered the question “what is art?” declaring that “it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.” In other words, empathy.
What I’m trying to talk about isn’t empathy, and it certainly isn’t art. But empathy and art (as in Mr. Loory’s story), may help us understand it.