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Herb Rothschild Jr.: The body snatchers

I read very little science fiction, not because it isn’t a fruitful literary (and cinematic) genre — I think it is — but because it’s not much to my taste. But a strength of science fiction is that, more readily than other genres, it estranges us from what we regard as ordinary.

Years ago I read Jack Finney’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (pub. 1954). In it Dr. Miles Bennell becomes aware that the bodies of some people he knows are no longer inhabited by them but by alien beings. So he begins to wonder, as he looks at people, whether they are the persons he has assumed they are. During this state of uncertainty he gets his shoes shined by a black man, and for the first time he really looks at the man. Suddenly he realizes he has no idea who this person is.

That scene struck me then, and it has instructed me since. Finney’s choice of a black shoe shiner was smart, because the readily apparent gulf between him and the white doctor persuades us that “alien” is not solely an extraterrestrial condition. From there it’s not a big leap to realize that we all inhabit different worlds.

If other people inhabit different cultures than ours, we’re likely to acknowledge that their internal worlds—what goes on inside their heads—are also different. But so are the internal worlds of the people we grow up with, work with, live with. Because their statements to us and their responses to ours are almost always intelligible, often even predictable, we assume that they’ve arranged their experiences into a mental order like our own. That wrong assumption isn’t often disturbed, because we expose to each other only what we deem presentable. The rest, prudently, we keep to ourselves.

It doesn’t distress me that inside each human head exists a unique world. The condition doesn’t doom us to personal alienation unless our mental order differs so radically from others that there are few points of overlap (which is the only non-judgmental definition of insanity). Actually, I would be distressed if every mind mirrored back to me the mental world I’m all too familiar with. There would be no reprieve from myself. And I find it wondrous that I can look at my wife and hold as true two seemingly contradictory thoughts: that I know her so very well and that I hardly know her.

Do these musings have more than personal implications? Indeed. The most obvious is the enormity of taking a human life. It’s like deliberately killing off an entire species. There’ll be nothing like that life on earth ever again.

And then there’s privacy. Under constant surveillance we cannot construct our own worlds. If our parents or our leaders insist they know exactly who we should be for our own good, they will try to eradicate the private space we need for our unique formations. They will enter our rooms without knocking or break into our homes without a warrant. They will read our diaries without permission or tap our phones and collect our emails. They will interrogate us and tolerate no lying, that last desperate defense of privacy.

Both psychoanalysis and totalitarianism took root in the 20th century. One created a safe space to explore our individual worlds in all their unpresentability. The other sought to eradicate such worlds. Cannot we pledge allegiance to a shared world that is strengthened, not subverted, by our singularities?

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.