Tuesday, September 25, 2007
The Nature of Enemies (Books - The Welsh Girl)
I'm continuing to read The Welsh Girl and want to write about one theme I'm enjoying. I've mentioned that a small Welsh village becomes the sight of a German POW camp following the D-day invasion, so the war is still on. The German soldiers spend a lot of time fighting boredom in a fenced in yard behind their barracks. The boys of the village come to watch them in fascination, sometimes taunting them, later tentatively playing. Eventually they tire and leave but the youngest of the group, Jim, is an evacuee who is temporarily housed in Wales. He feels very much the outsider and continues to visit, befriending Karsten, the prisoner through whose eyes we experience the story of the Germans. Eventually he accepts a gift from him. Then a telegram arrives of a friend gone missing and presumed dead and Jim's new friend becomes his enemy.
Esther, the title character, also secretly watches the prisoners. The Germans are her enemy. She has never known anyone German, but through the stories of their deeds in the newsreels, papers, Winston Churchill, etc... they have become her personal enemy, as often happens in a war. Yet she watches Karsten, admiring his warmth to Jim and his attractiveness, and becomes jealous of their relationship. At the point I've reached in the book I can see the potential for her falling in love with him.
This reminded me of Jonah's post at The Frontal Cortex a few days ago - about a Bosnian couple who, tired of their marriage, spent hours in computer chat rooms with newly found loves complaining of their horrible spouses. They decide to go on a date with their new paramours and end up meeting each other. The kicker is - rather than realize that they do still actually find each other desirable, now they're divorcing each other because they feel the other has been unfaithful.
Jonah rightly chalks up their behavior to something psychologists call fundamental attribution error - in which one person (call him the viewer) attributes another person's behavior (call him the actor) to their disposition, their character, rather than seeing that behavior in the context of its situation. But it is really the viewer's disposition, not the actor's that is to blame. It is making the behavior more meaningful than the context. That is probably because it is the easier job. As the viewer, we are stuck at first having to use the actor's behavior - it is visible - whereas the situation is a subjective experience that is only completely available from within the experience of the actor. That is where imagination becomes vital, useful - it is the tool that allows us to get inside the experience of another. Sure we can laugh at the idiotic Bosnian couple, but while we carry around our own context with us wherever we go (much of it unconsciously) it is much harder to consider the context of others, and we can't know for sure we are right without getting to know them. Creating an enemy really depends upon fundamental attribution error to an extent, and that "error" is not an anomaly, it is very much a part of human nature, leading me to think that it will be a long time on the evolutionary scale before either the generals or the marriage counselors are out of business.
The Welsh Girl is proving a satisfying read. It's story is not merely domestic, it is subtly provocative on a philosophical and even a political level. I won't say too much more about the book as I finish it up so as not to completely spoil it for those of you who are planning to read it.