Last night I watched an episode of Futurama, where Fry discovers his fossilized dog from a millennium before and attempts to bring him back into existence with the Professor’s cloning machine. Fry ultimately decides to forgo the cloning process when he discovers the dog had lived fifteen years, a full thirteen years without him. Fry says, “He lived a full life without me. He forgot about me long ago.” The episode ends in flashback, showing Fry’s dog waiting patiently for Fry outside the pizza shop, day after day, for twelve years, until he quietly closes his eyes, presumably to die. The scene affected me greatly, and I have to admit I got choked up. There are few things as raw as the bond one has between man and dog. For most of us, that’s the first encounter we have with death. For about ten minutes, I was distraught. (Yes, I hear your chuckles 😉
But it also struck me as odd that this dog never existed. It was a cartoon! It was dreamed up by a writer in some office! So why did I still feel sad? The dog was a construct of my imagination, and yet the emotions evoked were very real. To me it seems that this effect, the ability to empathize with a fictional character, even a dog, is hinting at the nature of human emotion. Empathy does rest, partly, in the imagination. We imagine what another is feeling. And it is this empathy, I believe, is what makes all fiction possible. We can follow a fictional character through their trials and travails and feel what they feel, mourn when they mourn, even though they never existed in the first place. That’s incredible, a form of magic.