If Sigmund Freud learned Spanish in order to read Don Quixote in the original, I learned English in order to read The New Yorker. This publication is a dangerous one: it is addictive. It robs you of hours of sleep, and of time you might devote to other reading material. You risk becoming one of those tired-looking people who define themselves as readers of one single publication. I am a slave to the press in general and in particular to The New Yorker, the publication that keeps me from reading novels, or makes me read them more slowly. The other night I was up late with an article called The Baby in the Well, subtitled The case against empathy.
The author, Paul Bloom, spoke of how empathy has become a star issue for neurologists, psychiatrists and the like; of how empathy can be castrated as a result of abuse in childhood, traumatic experience, or, the extreme case, psychopathy. He notes that empathy is a recent term, only a century old, but now fundamental to our understanding of how the human being puts himself in another's shoes. One of the cases that illustrate the piece is that of a child of three, Kathy Fiscus, who in 1949 held the American public's on-air attention as she was rescued from a well in San Marino, California. Empathy is the characteristic that makes us human, but also includes sentimentality, which can blind us too. We felt for the captive girls in Newtown, because we saw their photos and their names, but there are many children's faces we never see, or know their names; they are mere statistics which never move us. We are moved more by the story of the murdered Marta del Castillo, because her case concerns us as parents, than by the thousands of girls raped and murdered in Guatemala. And there is nothing wrong in this discrimination of feeling. We have to use our reason to keep our empathy at arm's length, or the evils of the world would drive us crazy.
We felt for the captive girls in Newtown, because we saw their photos and their names
Then I saw a connection between the article on empathy, and a number of letters I had received concerning my recent column about the forced exile of Spanish scientists. As many journalists have lately been doing, I had written about the case of Diego Martínez, the young physicist who, on the same day, received a major international prize for his work and learned that an academic committee in Spain had turned down his application for a grant. Some researchers told me I seemed to suggest that those who had been accepted deserved the grant less than he did, and that this was unfair. Which is true enough. They also said I ought to have placed more emphasis on the budget cutbacks: the committee had only three grants for physics and 22 for all the sciences to offer. Every letter I received contained a different story: that of a scientist with a brilliant record who had wanted to return to Spain, in spite of the prestigious post he held in Germany, but for whom the stagnant Spanish academic system could find no other use than a teaching post at the elementary level with no chance of a professorship; that of another whose outstanding merits, obtained abroad, were not even recognized in Spain; that of a woman who knows she will only be able to return after she retires. In all of them you saw the effects of the crisis, mixed with something far older: the torpid Spanish inertia that rewards only those who have never strayed from home.
When I wrote my column about scientific exile, I gave my indignation various faces: those of Diego Martínez and several Spanish researchers I know in New York, who have similar stories to tell. My empathy got the better of me. Now reason tells me that I ought to have congratulated the deserving people who did get their grants, and will not have to go into obligatory exile.