An Obstacle to Empathy
I am conducting an interview with a general who is in the process of authorizing an invasion of a country that borders both his and mine. This—the invasion—is not an out-of-the-ordinary thing for him to do, which is why he feels comfortable doing two things at once, launching a war and chatting with a foreign journalist. The atmosphere in his office, here in the marble palace of the ruling military junta, is relaxed; or, at least, as relaxed as it can be on an intensely hot day like today. Our interview takes longer than it might under more peaceful circumstances. His telephone keeps ringing—his subordinates calling with questions from the front. He needs to take each call, although he gives me an apologetic smile every time.
“He is very sorry,” the general says, picking up the receiver.
“He is entirely all right,” I say.
His people are old hands at launching wars. Their problem—if you want to call it that; the general would not—is a simple one to diagnose, say scientists back in my country. Their hypothesis is that the general’s impulse to fight stems from the fact that his country’s language lacks both the first person and the second person.
The general holds the receiver away from his head, pointing it in my direction. I can’t make out the words, but I can understand the tone, the frantic barking of a colonel out on a battlefield. The general rolls his eyes. I’m on his good side. I nod and smile.
“Can he believe him?” the general says.
“He cannot,” I say.
“How is he expected to work?” he says.
“He has a lot on his plate,” I say.
The general abruptly brings the phone to his mouth. “He will call back!” he says. “He will have an answer. In the meantime he should hold his horses.” The general slams the receiver down, wipes his damp forehead with a handkerchief, and smiles graciously at me. “Where were they?”
The scientists back in my home country argue that the absence of the first-person plural—the lack of the word and the concept of “we”—results in the absence of any kind of common feeling, among the speakers of this language, with other people. Their grammar precludes compassion. This is why, the scientists say, the speakers of this language are constantly invading their neighbors. It’s why they have such an enormous prison population; it’s why so many of them die every year, or lose various body parts, in knife fights.
“He was describing the outrage,” I say.
My country does a brisk business in the export of artificial limbs.
“The outrage!” repeats the general. “The outrage, the outrage.” He pounds his open palm against his desk each time to punctuate the word, making the telephone receiver rattle in its cradle, leaving a trail of wet handprints. The press corps of my country also profits off the ongoing saga of our brutal neighbors. Hence, this interview. My readers love to be scandalized by fresh reports of barbarism and stupidity. We are lucky, as we busy ourselves making fun of our neighbors, to have a formidable mountain range between them and us. Our artificial-limb convoys make it there eventually, but we are no fun to invade.
The phone rings yet again. The general sighs. “The foreign reporter needs to leave him now,” he says. “The general is very sorry. He has had a pleasurable interlude talking with him.”
“The pleasure has been all the foreign reporter’s,” I say.
“He is having difficulty understanding what they are doing to them,” he says, “or what they say they are doing to them.” He chuckles, shaking his head. “Their incompetence astounds him sometimes!”
“He knows what he means,” I say. Over the years, I’ve become fairly fluent in their language; and I have, over time, developed my own hypothesis, which is that their problem might not be a grammar-derived block to sympathy, but rather total, constant confusion about who the hell anyone is ever talking about. I chuckle sympathetically. “He has just the same problem with them!”
The general’s look turns dark. “He should feel free to go now,” he says. He is staring bullets at me. I am worried that I may have been inadvertently unclear just now—unclear to the point of endangering my own life. “He should feel free not to return.”
The general has one hand on the ringing phone, one hand on his chest. Is he scratching an itch? Or fingering a hidden weapon? Dying would be a dumb way to prove my hypothesis. Especially when I haven’t had a chance to write about it in any of my articles. I drop all pretense of professionalism. “He knows his excellence knows no bounds!” I say. “And he knows he will soon know again the taste of his fresh blood!”
Luckily, the general gets the quote. His people have only produced one poet—one awful, mean, idiotic poet—so it’s not difficult to have a working familiarity with their national literature. He grins broadly. “He is right, he is right,” he says, taking his hand from his chest and waving it at me. “God-wind-guns,” he says. Another reference—the poet’s catchphrase. He picks up the phone; he waves me away again. “God-wind-guns!” I parrot. I scuttle out of his office.
My heart hurts with the shame of my brief, pathetic, self-preserving lapse into bootlicking.
Fortunately, no one—not my family nor my colleagues, not my editor nor my readers—no one ever has to know my shame. I’m grateful, as I’ve been before, that the military here has a strict rule against recording devices.
I have a story to file—one only partly untrue. I hurry down the palace’s long marble hallway to the press room.
The Way the Water All Agrees on a River
My friend the expatriate and I are fighting on the sidewalk of a busy city street. My friend has asked me for a loan, and I have refused. Times are tough these days, especially for the people who, like my friend, have made a new life here after fleeing her home country. But I have no choice in the matter, no matter how close we are. There is nothing I can do. We have no need for loans in my country; our economists have devised an algorithm for compensation so rigorous, so precise, that everyone’s financial needs—soldier, teacher, fiddler, beggar—are met. For a generation, the idea of a loan has been taboo. We actually only have one word now which means both “to borrow” and “to loan”—as a verb, it essentially says that an unwelcome state of loaning is occurring between the two parties, not who is doing the loaning or who the borrowing. My friend and I are fighting in her language, though, so I keep getting her words for “borrow” and “loan” confused, which only makes her more angry.
I try to explain my unwillingness to help—more than that, my complete inability to help—by employing idiom. I try to recall all the figures of speech that best sum up how we feel about such matters in my country; I translate into her language as best I can. I tell her: No part of the river can borrow from any other part; all of the river borrows all of the water always. I continue: The water all agrees on the river. A scholar agrees with the river’s agreement. A fool scoops a cup of water from one side of the river and relocates it to the other side.
The translation doesn’t go very well, and doesn’t seem to help my argument. Ours is a land of plenty—a land of rivers—which explains our water-heavy idioms. Hers was always a land of hardship, a land of deserts and buttes and vultures—a harsh land to begin with, now made completely uninhabitable by their recent civil war. A landscape of scarcity, I’m told, is what explains their highly complex culture of loans and debts. Which would explain why all these expatriates are having such a hard time adjusting here in my country—which is why my friend and I are having this fight.
My friend looks dejected. Her people are dark-complected, and she herself is congenitally heavy-lidded, but this is more than that. She fumes. Then, in an instant, she grabs me by the shoulders, pulls me back off the cobblestone sidewalk and into a narrow alley, and throws her arms around me. She holds me to her so tightly that I lose my breath.
I don’t know what to think. Is she secretly in love with me? Was all her talk about wanting to “borrow money” from me merely code for this?—for love?—for wanting us to merge in such a way that, as one person, there would be nothing to borrow, nothing to loan? She holds me more tightly, I think, than anyone has ever held me before. I feel her breath from her nostrils, warm and wet on my neck, right below my earlobe. Her people, being desert people, are inhospitable on the surface, but impulsive and intense in private, they say; I’ve heard their lovemaking is more fevered than anything my people could possibly imagine. I start to melt. I have certainly harbored certain feelings for my friend, feelings that I never thought I could have for a foreigner. I gently reach up my hands to her back, to try to tell her, wordlessly, that I reciprocate.
As my fingers lightly stroke her shoulders, I can feel her hand reach down into my pants pocket. For a moment, I am flushed with passion. I can feel that her other hand is in her own pocket, and rustling around; and then, after that, there is a flurry of activity between our hips, and I don’t know what either of her hands are doing. My friend’s people truly are impulsive! But then she pulls away from me, and I realize what’s just happened: my friend has switched our wallets.
She has come to understand my people better than I’d thought: money is not fluid here, but identity is. I can’t loan her cash, but it is acceptable—although only tacitly so—for her to borrow who I am. Now she is me, and I am her. In other words, I can argue until the professors retire about my inability to loan my money, but who am I to argue if it is me who is walking around spending it? A twig cannot complain about what part of the water carries it downriver. Our fight is over. I step out of the alleyway and see that she is—I am—already halfway up the block, heading toward the marketplace, my money burning a new hole in her pocket.
I take up her alms cup, the cup she put down on the sidewalk when we began fighting, and I sit—she sits—back down on the cobblestones. I shake the cup at passersby, awaiting their precisely allocated tithes.
If I could, I would choose a different outcome, but as we say: the beauty of a waterfall, the sadness of a stagnant pool—the water has no choice in the matter. I resign myself to my fate. And yet, that saying has a corollary: the stagnant pool has one consolation, which is that it reserves the right to hate the waterfall. And so I have this small happiness, which is that I now hate my friend. I shake my alms cup, and I give myself permission to drown in hatred.