Behind the Bookcase, Week 12: The Guide by R. K. Narayan

 

After all these years, I still believe with Lauren Myracle that the development of empathy is one of literature’s crowning achievements.  I believe with J. K. Rowling that imagination is an extraordinary gift: “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”

But then as Rowling puts it, “…this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.”

Banned Books Week has seen a lot of rhetoric about literature’s ability to save.  I wonder if we’d be surprised at how much that view overlaps the Nazi’s view.  They produced a phenomenal number of stories aimed at the YA crowd, most of which drew heavily on empathy, just like Hitler’s own autobiography.

Thankfully, Nazi propaganda wasn’t a temptation for me.  But there is one more danger I would add to Rowling’s list: loss of self and meaning.  People who continually put themselves in others’ places, who get lost in others’ stories and who idolize such lostness may never find their way back. People who relish creative and empathetic wall-breaking above all else may find in the end, once all the walls have come down, there is nothing left to be empathetic or loving towards.

The book that most poignantly captured this idea for me was one I read my senior year in college: The Guide by R. K. Narayan. In it, the protagonist pretends to be a sadhu (spiritual guide), and out of empathy for others suffering in a drought-related famine, goes on a hunger strike.  Suddenly people start to believe he’s really a spiritual leader, and he can’t turn back. This man who has struggled and lived a farce of a life now finds purpose, and existence in selflessness. He steps out into the river, and as he seems to die, he feels the rain falling in the hills, moving slowly up his feet and legs until, finally, he is one with it and finally free.

Empathy alone can knock down walls. When used carefully, in a context of fixed transcendent morals, it calls us out of ourselves into action and suffering for others. But without rules, without a loving Creator drawing its boundaries, empathy is just another kind of emptying, a kind of death.

I know this probably sounds highly speculative, but it’s not just an abstract idea for me.  During my college semester studying abroad, the same one during which I visited Anne Frank’s house, I was perhaps the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.  (Note I didn’t say joyful.  Just happy.)  The school I attended wasn’t academically challenging. It was a teacher’s college, mostly populated with sons and daughters of low-class welders or shipyard workers. But it had a fabulous exchange program, with so many students involved from so many countries—Finland, Sweden, Norway, Japan, South Korea, Italy, The Netherlands, France, and of course America—that we didn’t have to assimilate at all. We foreigners formed our own little country within the school, a citizenship of open-minded and open-hearted young people who had no larger social ladder to climb, at least for the moment. We just wanted to have experiences together and make memories.  Socially, except for marriage, it was the most liberating thing I’ve ever experienced.

The highlight of the trip was one night fairly early in our stay when the foreign students hosted a cultural exchange.  Think 30 well-to-do, college-age kids touring 10 or so dorm rooms with free liquor, finger-food, and awesome accents.  The kids from the American South and I served Jack-and-Coke, and I stood on a chair above everyone, holding my guitar and looking out on a sea of fresh, bright-eyed faces buzzing with alcohol and new crushes.  And in that moment, what was it that my American friends and I chose to hold out to the rest of the world gathered before us?  We closed our eyes and sang in worship together,

“I’m trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it’s only life after all
Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it, I’m crawling on your shore.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper
And I was free.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m.
To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
I went in seeking clarity.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

We go to the bible, we go through the workout
We read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine.”

Which ought to have been enough.  But even as I felt alive as never before, felt atop this rich community of beautiful people, why was I the loneliest I had ever been?  Why, when I had given up so much of myself to others–why did I feel so empty inside?

Read more of Emily’s spiritual autobiography through books in our Behind the Bookcase category.  For other posts that touch on these topics, see Janie’s posts on C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man , or Emily’s post True Grit and True Grace.

COMMENTS

 

, , , ,

3 Responses to Behind the Bookcase, Week 12: The Guide by R. K. Narayan

  1. emily September 29, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    P.S. Rather than making that abstract point in my post, Joy, I finally chose to focus on the practical. There was the logical problem, yes, but it showed up in my life as an emotional, experiential one: a horrible loneliness and emptiness of spirit. I think God used that far more than any argument to convince me I was wrong. I knew in my heart that something was missing.

  2. emily September 29, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    I really appreciate this question, Joy. I had actually written quite a lot about it in a previous version of this post. Maybe it’ll make it into revisions.

    My short answer really comes from F. Schaeffer–that what we like to think of as pantheism is better thought of as pan-everythingism. And who really wants to be one with Nazi soldiers making lamps out of little Jewish children? I’ve never met anyone who wants to give their eternal yes to that.

    I’m guessing most people aren’t really tracking with me on this, though. What do you think?

  3. Joy Tucker September 29, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    “… without rules, without a loving Creator drawing its boundaries, empathy is just another kind of emptying, a kind of death.”

    Isn’t this sort of emptying and death what frees us from our tendency toward self-sufficiency and isolation? Isn’t becoming one with everything more meaningful than withdrawing from the world because we care about our own needs more than the suffering of others?

    Teilhard de Chardin found a way to reconcile Christ with a more eastern way of thinking and founded a new understanding of Christianity based on our becoming part of all that is creation, in fact, becoming part of God. Why should we look at this as death and not life?

Leave a Reply