Sunday, December 03, 2006

What would George Eliot have said to Captain Jack?

Captain JackWhat would George Eliot have said to Captain Jack ?George Eliot

Back in October, when my kids were starting to look forward to Xmas, I began to look forward to Torchwood.
"Dr Who for grown-ups" said the trailers. What could be better? Well, call me a kid that's never satisfied with his presents if you like, but watchable as it is, I was hoping for more than gore and sub-Bond excitement. I'm not alone. As one
blogger put it "Torchwood is a bit like a teenager who wants to be cool and grown-up; it wears lots of black and hangs around moodily, but it hasn't yet quite grasped that swearing and trying to shock aren't really the key to the thing."

For me, a real "Dr Who for grown-ups" would share the intelligence of the best science fiction. Like Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem, it would play around with ideas to stimulate and illuminate our own thinking.
Last week's episode of Torchwood seemed promising - "what if you could read other people's mind". "Would that really be a good thing?" Would telepathy be useful? Or embarrassing? Or overwhelming? Well, it turned out to be all of these, and Tosh, Captain Jack and the gang decided that telepathy was something of a Greek gift. It wasn't a bad episode, but personally I find more illumination on the subject in the most unlikely of places - a classic Victorian novel.

In Middlemarch, George Eliot wrote:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,
it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat,
and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of that silence.
As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

It's the last word of the last sentence that really gets to me. The first sentence - the roar which lies on the other side of silence - suggests the same answer as Torchwood. We can't afford to be too empathic, or too compassionate, or too caring. We just have to protect ourself with indifference. But for Eliot, it doesnt end there. Indifference doesn't just make you bad - it makes you stupid. Not knowing how other people feel is an intellectual as well as a moral failure.

If you were offered the gift of telepathy, should you accept it? Probably not. Should you try to be more compassionate and empathic? I wouldn't have guessed it from watching Torchwood, but reading Middlemarch suggests an emphatic "yes". And reading books like Middlemarch - unlike watching Torchwood - is one of the best ways to become more empathic, by entering into the world of the characters and gaining a better understanding of human nature.

Which leaves me with my disappointment over the BBC's pre-Xmas present. Well, I now realise that, like many an aged relative, Auntie doesn't always remember what she's already given you. In fact I got "Dr Who for grown-ups" a long, long time ago. So get out your towels and - Don't Panic!

Don't Panic!

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