Can literature prevent people from becoming fanatics? Israeli author Amos Oz, who sees fanaticism up close in his part of the world, believes that it at least provides “a partial and limited immunity to fanaticism.”
In his book How to Cure a Fanatic, Oz puts Shakespeare, Gogol (“The Nose”) and Kafka (The Trial) on the front line of those fighting the good fight. Here’s the passage that caught my eye:
I do believe that imagination may serve as a partial and limited immunity to fanaticism. I believe that a person who can imagine what his or her ideas imply when it comes to the crying baby may become a less complete fanatic, which is a slight improvement.
I wish I could tell you at this point that literature is the answer because literature contains an antidote to fanaticism by injecting imagination into its readers. I wish I could simply prescribe: Read literature and you will be cured of your fanaticism. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Many poems, many stories and dramas throughout history have been used to inflate hatred and nationalistic self-righteousness.
Yet there are certain works of literature that, I believe, can help up to a point. They cannot work miracles, but they can help. Shakespeare can help a great deal. Every extremism, every uncompromising crusade, every form of fanaticism in Shakespeare ends up either in tragedy or in a comedy. The fanatic is never happier or more satisfied in the end; either he is dead or he becomes a joke. This is a good inoculation.
Gogol can help, too: Gogol makes his readers grotesquely aware of how little we know, even when we are convinced that we are 100 percent right. Gogol teaches us that your nose may become a terrible enemy, may even become a fanatic enemy, and you may find yourself fanatically chasing your own nose. Not a bad lesson in itself.
Kafka shows us that there is darkness and enigma and mockery even when we think we have done nothing at all wrong. That helps.
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