I'm going to introduce the loose theme of the five blogs Powell's has kindly asked me to write by saying a few words about a novel I've thought about a lot since I read it several years ago, Richard Powers
's The Echo Maker
. In it, a man named Mark Schluter suffers a brain trauma in a car accident, goes into a coma, and when he wakes up, a strange thing happens. His sister, Karin, walks into his hospital room. He apprehends that she looks like Karin, moves like her, acts like her, talks like her. But he does not recognize this person as Karin. He comes to believe she is a government agent hired for some nefarious purpose to impersonate his sister. This fictional character's affliction can happen to real people, and is called Capgras Syndrome.
With Capgras Syndrome, the part of the brain that processes visual, aural, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory stimuli may be intact, but the part that recognizes them is not. Mark knows he's been in an accident and has a brain injury. He is told that the injury affects his ability to recognize Karin. And yet he persists in believing that Karin is not Karin. Powers suggests that that's because the human mind is too invested in the accuracy of its depiction of reality to allow that it might be making a mistake.
One of the brain's jobs is to be a central assembly station for all the disparate sense data that other body parts are sending to it. Visual data arrive from the eyes, acoustical data from the ears, and so on. The brain must collage together these fragments and somehow convince the person in whose skull it dwells that this collage is the world. In other words, Capgras Syndrome is just a slightly exaggerated version of human consciousness.
So here's my loose theme and maybe also a little bit my homily for this week of guest blogging: looking is always also reading, and probably always also misreading. I find this humbling: the possibility that always and everywhere, our understanding of the world and of each other and of ourselves is at best a fairly attuned and nuanced fiction. Acknowledging this has ethical ramifications, namely, don't get too cocky about believing you're right about stuff, and more importantly, about people, and try not to confuse the two — stuff and people, I mean. Which is maybe an overstated way of saying that, just as Mark in The Echo Maker was unable to recognize his sister, so it is very hard but worthwhile for all of us to try our best to extend full recognition to, well, every single person we encounter, see, hear about, or read about — your child, your spouse, your sibling, your neighbor, the security guard you pass on the way to your office five mornings a week, the homeless man down at the end of the subway car who smells so bad that other subway riders are moving to the next car, the Taliban fighter whose goal may be to kill you or your loved one or your fellow American. I present this challenge to myself and to you: What would it mean to expand the circle of people whose subjectivity and humanity we do our best to fully recognize?