The Only Black Box I Have Access To

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see […]

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (Jn 9:39)

There’s been a lot of talk about “empathy.” It has been a beloved moniker for what the nation most needs today and, like most cultural buzzwords, ’twas only a matter of time before it became the next concept in a graveyard of truisms. Empathy is one more expression of love that ran dry—it’s insufficient, it’s coercive, it’s biased.

But empathy is a good thing! It’s something every good counselor hopes to extend, something every preacher every Sunday morning is hoping to communicate. The proclamation of the gospel message means little comfort if its messenger has not connected it with or positioned it with life as we know it. The question, then, is how? How do you connect with a fellow sufferer, without coopting their story or simply diving further into your own?

The New York Times Magazine last week published an article about the famed French writer, Emmanuel Carrère, and his odd, unclassifiable writing style. Carrère, who has a new book out this week about the founding of the Church called The Kingdom, is France’s most highly respected writer of nonfiction, though “nonfiction” is not exactly a word that Carrère is comfortable with. He writes in the first-person, even as a journalist, and his reason for doing so has to do with his own limits of understanding.

In this interview, he tells the story of a French general, Jacques Massu, who tortured Algerian prisoners in the 1950s with a cattle prod, or “generator.” Massu told Carrère that the prods weren’t a big deal, that he used it on himself and stopped when it hurt. According to Carrère, “The nonsense of that statement! What’s atrocious about torture is that someone else is afflicting you, and you don’t know when he will stop.” In a move of total humility, and dare I say, empathy, Carrère argues that some of his third-person, nonfiction writing has done the same damage to others:

“To write bad things about yourself…it’s like Massu using the generator on himself. You decide yourself when you’re going to stop. When you write about others, there’s a huge responsibility. For my part, I have used the generator on people other than myself. And that bothers me. I don’t like that idea. I’m not a good man, unfortunately. I would like to be a good man. I admire goodness and virtue most. But I am not very good. I am, however, very moral. Which is to say I know where goodness is, and badness. I do not believe that literature gives you the right to immorality.”

Writing, in other words, should always be in one’s own first person perspective. Even in “nonfiction,” it cannot be written from the illusion of universal objectivity. For Carrère this does not mean there is no objectivity—it just means that we are not capable of grasping it. The only way you can empathize, in other words, is through the humility of personal excavation.

Which gets to Carrère’s “black box” idea. In his book The Adversary, Carrère’s subject is the mass-murderer Jean-Claude Romand; a subject with whom it would prove very difficult to empathize. After six years of attempting to write it from multiple points of view, he realized he could only write it from his own perspective:

“I’m not an idiot…I very quickly realized that this impossible book to write was now becoming possible, that it was practically writing itself, now that I had accepted writing it in first person…Others are a black box, especially someone as enigmatic as Romand. I understood that the only way to approach it was to consent to go into the only black box I do have access to, which is me.

…A little girl once said something in front of me that I just loved. She had misbehaved and her mother was scolding her, saying, “But put yourself in other people’s position!” And the little girl answered, “But if I put myself in their position, where do they go?” I have often thought of that since I started writing these kinds of ‘nonfiction’ books, the rules and moral imperatives of which I was starting to become acquainted with. I don’t think you can put yourself in other people’s positions. Nor should you. All you can do is occupy your own, as fully as possible, and say that you are trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, but say it’s you who’s imagining it, and that’s all.

While at first this perspective may sound circuitous or even narcissistic, to always be thinking about yourself or how you see the world, I find it to be not only honest, but extremely humble. It is the only way we see the world around anyways! And it is the only way we might actually communicate something like empathy to another. It happens not by embodying another person’s suffering, walking in their shoes—you simply can’t do that—but instead by understanding your own self, your own needs and compulsions and fears. Only by inhabiting yourself are you able to communicate a message that might speak to more than yourself.

This is the heart of PZ’s Breaking the Fourth Wall notion, that, contrary to the notion, “every man is an island,” and the only hope for real connection is when you stop trying to the cross the seas and pay attention to the ground you’re standing on.

I see the preacher as a channel for the uninterdicted compassion of Christ that connects with the listener who is in some kind of need. How does the preacher get through to the real issues of a person’s need? The expression in drama is “breaking the fourth wall.” The chancel in a basilica church is based on Greek drama: a stage surrounded by three physical walls. When I say break the fourth the wall, I want to break through an invisible wall that separates the listener from the speaker. Great artists have been breaking the fourth wall forever.

How can I break the fourth wall? The answer is very simple: by communicating with myself. You know yourself well enough to be able to identify with that part of them that you have in you. If you do that, you’re on the same level playing field. And that is the essence of communication.

When you do that, people will ask, “were you a fly on the wall last night in our house?” Or worse, “How dare you preach about me?!” (The preacher says to himself, “I hardly know you”). But if you’re in touch with yourself even to some extent, you will connect at that point.

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One response to “The Only Black Box I Have Access To”

  1. Sean says:


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