In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis writes, “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . . . We demand windows. Literature as logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out.’”
While I agree with Lewis wholeheartedly about literature’s ability to allow us to see with “other eyes,” I am afraid that we now live in a world that doesn’t want to see with other eyes. I have no evidence from sociological studies to back up that claim, but I think that anybody who takes an honest look at the world (at least in the West) will agree: we no longer want the windows or doors that Lewis describes; what we want is a mirror. We want to look out and see our own thoughts, beliefs, and identities reflected back at us.
Don’t believe me? Pay attention to political discourse. Listen to people talk about anything important to society. What you’ll see and hear is mostly a lot of people who are completely incapable of comprehending the thoughts and opinions of others. If anybody dares to disagree with us, we label them as bigoted, stupid, ignorant, reactionary, radical, backwards.
I don’t know if social media is the root cause of this, but if it isn’t, it is certainly a symptom of the disease. Memes, click-bait headlines, and statements limited to 140 characters all scream for our attention and for our clicks and make broad statements about political or social issues with all the depth and thoughtfulness of bathroom graffiti: “Donald Trump wants to kill all Mexicans!” “Barack Obama wants to destroy America!” “This meme DESTROYS such-and-such political position!” What’s worse, we seek out such voices in order to confirm our own opinions and avoid voices that contradict our views.
Because of this shallow, self-serving kind of discourse, we are becoming more and more unable to respond with any kind of thoughtfulness to those who disagree with us. We exaggerate their positions; we call for apologies; we cry outrage; we assert; and—worst of all—we insult and call names. But all too rarely do we respond with reasoned argument. Nobody has the patience for that sort of thing. But to discover the truth takes time and commitment and—perhaps most importantly—a willingness to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. It even takes—gasp!—a willingness to consider that Those People (whoever They are) might have a few things right. It takes a willingness to consider that the reason someone disagrees with us might not be ignorance, bigotry, willful stupidity, or evil.
Fiction can provide a cure for our inability to see the world from the perspective of those who think differently than we do. Good stories help us to see the world through other eyes, and fiction does it best because fiction connects us intimately with the thoughts of people other than ourselves: Hamlet, Nick Carraway, Elizabeth Bennett, all of the freaks and sinners in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, pretty much any character in A Song of Ice and Fire—these and others have helped us to escape the confines of our own little minds and to see the world with understanding, compassion, and humility.
The fact that fiction seems to be increasingly neglected is a worrying sign. In a world where we’re all Narcissus staring at our reflections in social media, we need windows to let us see outside. We ought to rediscover the power of storytelling to not only delight us, but to help us become better people.