All the good things about borders are contained in another word: boundaries. Good things have boundaries. A friend who shows up at your door drunk at two a.m. is a friend who doesn’t understand that friendship has boundaries. Boundaries are real and necessary. Borders are imaginary and unfortunate. Borders are a political extrapolation of ego-thought: me vs. you, self vs. other. Borders are a primary symptom of a fundamentally delusional state of mind.
People on the other side of a border are never human enough. They are always a little bit below par in some way—or ridiculous giants. In her diaries, Virginia Woolf mentions the experience of meeting a person in the flesh after how daunting they have been in your anticipation. The great surprise and relief of it. They’re human after all. They have flaws and weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is their reality and their strength. They’re a lot more like you than you could ever have imagined. Bob Dylan puts it this way: “What looks large from a distance, close up is never that big.”
Art is all about crossing, dissolving, undoing borders. It is all about refusing the lie that the solitudes created by the ego and the state are all that there is for human beings. In his Nobel Lecture, Pablo Neruda talks about an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song—but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.
As a fiction writer, I’ve been thinking of this more lately in the terms the novelist Ian McEwan recently put it. That all atrocity comes from a lack of imagination. That the refusal or incapacity to imagine ourselves into other people’s realities is what makes possible every degree of human brutality. You create a border, and it doesn’t need to be spatial, it can be ethnicity, gender, age, physical or mental affliction, a religious dispute, a remembered historical difference, and all you have to do is look at what we do to animals to know what we are capable (in a flash) of doing to human beings.
People are infinitely more intelligent than their daily ego-driven, fear-driven responses. Literary art, like all art, appeals to that larger intelligence, touching it, keeping it alive, reminding the mind that it does have that capacity. Every sentence I write, every character whose mind I inhabit, is a refusal of borders.