Posts Tagged ‘empathy’
October 11, 2016 | by Robert Polito
Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” —The Editors
When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?
Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.
But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More »
August 24, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in occasions for self-satisfaction: a new study suggests that readers of literary fiction have an improved understanding of other people’s emotions, which doesn’t explain why that guy reading Shalimar the Clown on the train was such a jerk to me. “Academics David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from the New School for Social Research in New York, put more than 1,000 participants through the ‘author recognition test,’ which measured exposure to fiction by asking respondents to identify writers they recognized from a list … Those who had recognized more literary fiction authors in the list were better at inferring others’ feelings, a faculty known as theory of mind.” (People have gotten very excited about this on Twitter, but no one seems to have reached the article’s devastating conclusion: “ ‘It doesn’t mean you can give Don DeLillo to an autistic child and they’ll be fine.’ ”)
August 28, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in Houellebecq: the author has inveighed against Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, for publishing a series of unauthorized pieces about him. Calling journalists “parasites” and “cockroaches,” Houellebecq dismissed the articles for their “malicious sneakiness,” noting that he’d refused to meet the reporter and had explicitly instructed his friends not to speak with her. “Knowing which Monoprix I shop in is not a subject of national importance,” he wrote—somewhat mystifyingly, as the Le Monde piece made no mention of said Monoprix. (He’s also recently announced an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, where he’ll show “photographs, installations and films, along with commissions by other artists such as Iggy Pop and Robert Combas.”)
- Reading: Why bother? What’s all the fuss about? Four new books aim to show that reading makes us thoughtful and empathetic—“training” for the art of being human. “We might describe it as paideutic criticism, the term taken from the ancient Greek idea of paideia—the original foundation of humanistic study. Paideia meant the pursuit of self-knowledge through examination of the beautiful and the good … By reading and rereading the classics in the company of these genial guides, Virgils to our Dante, we can, in a more modestly modern way, achieve some similar serenity.”
- We can also find serenity in forgetfulness, which allows us to let go of that ultimate nuisance, personal identity: Going along with Locke’s view of memory as identity is the narrative theory of identity—the idea that one forges and maintains an identity by weaving a coherent narrative out of memories, tying one’s present to one’s past. Memory and the process of remembering are essential to this. Forgetting is an enemy, causing narrative gaps and undermining the sense of having a coherent narrative … Some people court forgetfulness. My students like to quote the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’ when we talk about memory and forgetting; from this they think it follows, as night follows day, that ignorance is to be preferred to knowledge when such knowledge undermines happiness. If forgetfulness serves the goal of bliss, who wouldn’t pursue it?”
- In the wake of the controversy surrounding Duke and three students who refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sam Stephenson remembers his time teaching at the university’s Center for Documentary Studies: “ ‘There are people teaching at Duke that barely graduated from UNC,’ I’d tell my students on the first day of class. The ones who laughed usually proved to be the more engaged and thoughtful documentarians … The outlying students—the ones frustrated by the emphasis of their fellow students on linear, pre-professional tracks—tended to find their way to our building, on the wrong side of the tracks, literally … These three students who are objecting to Bechdel’s book could use a dose of good documentary engagement. (I doubt they would have thought my introductory class joke was funny.) The words document and doctor come from the same Latin root, docere, which means, variously, to teach, to learn, to pay attention, to care, and, ultimately, to heal.”
- There’s a highly advanced, deeply treacherous form of storytelling far beyond the realm of mere literature: dating. Specifically, sugar dating, in which courtship between a sugar daddy and a sugar baby is clouded by the exchange of money. “You can tell yourself whatever story you want, and eventually you'll forget you’re telling a story and you’ll find yourself in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno getting sucked off by someone who thinks she’s getting the better end of the deal. And the worst part is, you’ll think you’re helping her. And she’ll give you that blow job, all the while wondering how she could get so lucky, how you could be so dumb. Everyone gets what they want. And, sure, what’s so wrong with that?”
November 25, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Vernon Lee—the pen name of the English writer Violet Paget—was a travel writer, novelist, musician, and critic with a strong interest in aesthetics. One of the first to bring the concept of Einfühlung, or empathy, into English criticism, she was also an outspoken follower of Walter Pater’s aestheticism. “An engaged feminist, she always dressed à la garçonne,” someone has written, amazingly, on Wikipedia.
Lee’s work is included in any collection of Victorian ghost stories. Her work is haunting in the true sense and not merely because it deals so frequently with possession. Her stories are graceful, engaging, surprisingly strange. There are often lesbian subtexts; the supernatural was a vehicle for a writer like Lee to indirectly explore such themes.
I first came to Lee through a novella called A Phantom Lover in a collection from the 1960s. As with many of Lee’s works, the narrator is male. This one also features a woman given to cross-dressing, specifically period Elizabethan cross-dressing. A nameless painter is invited to an isolated, beautifully preserved country house to do portraits of the young squire and his wife. The latter proves to be a mysterious and somewhat perverse creature, remote and self-absorbed, utterly obsessed with the story of a long-dead ancestor. The love triangle that arises is not what one might expect: it’s far creepier. Find it if you can, and then if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to seek out the 1890s collection Hauntings. Read More »
April 7, 2014 | by Merve Emre
When Leslie Jamison and I met outside the Glass Shop, an airy café in Crown Heights, I noticed her left arm was sporting a wide, wordy tattoo. It was in Latin, and she spared the embarrassment of translating it—“I am human; nothing is alien to me.”
Too often, Leslie says, people treat tattoos as an invitation to intimacy. Strangers on the subway ask her to relay the story of her tattoo without a second thought, much as they would, in offering a seat to a pregnant woman, ask for the details of what’s growing inside of her. But in Leslie’s case the tattoo does point to an intimate story—or rather, to a whole constellation of intimate stories that Leslie offers in her essay collection The Empathy Exams.
“I am human; nothing is alien to me” is the epigraph to the collection. It is a quote that has been casually misattributed to Montaigne, John Donne, Karl Marx, and Maya Angelou, but it actually comes from The Self-Tormentor, a play written by Terence, the ancient Roman slave turned playwright. It is the thread that connects such different yet equally luminous works as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “Pain Tours,” and “The Devil’s Bait”—meditations on how to feel pain, both physical and psychic in nature, and how to regard the pain of others in a way that respects their humanity. Having read The Empathy Exams, I can begin to appreciate why Leslie has made the small, if painful, jump from writing about the body to writing on the body.
Leslie and I circled this conversation so many times at the Glass Shop that we decided to revisit it one morning in late October at my apartment in Brooklyn, and later that day, on the Metro-North to Yale University, where we are both finishing Ph.D.s in English literature. Most of the time, the tape recorder was on, but sometimes I switched it off so we could gossip idly, and forgot to switch it back on until Leslie was already halfway into a thought on feminism I wanted to preserve. But if this interview reads like the midpoint of a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now, that shouldn’t prevent you—the reader—from making sense of it. After all, you are human. This will not be alien to you.
The most ungenerous criticism of the collection that I could imagine is, Oh, she keeps putting herself in these positions to experience pain or woundedness so she can have something to write about. How narcissistic. I can see people thinking as they’re reading, She’s a real glutton for pain.
I guess that’s why it felt right to put “Grand Unified Theory” at the end of the collection. That idea of being drawn to pain is starting to emerge as a pattern in the essays themselves, and the final essay speaks to that directly. What position of pride do I have in relationship to these experiences?
There’s a basic and important distinction to draw between positions I inhabit as somebody who has experienced some kind of trauma and somebody who’s seeking out pain. Going to the Morgellons conference is a choice in a way that getting hit in the street isn’t. But the collection chooses to bring all of those experiences together in a certain way—what kind of appetite is being spoken to there? In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain, and there’s a way of seeing that profit that’s wholly inspirational—in terms of turning pain into beauty—and a way of seeing it that’s wholly cynical—in terms of being a “wound dweller” in a corrosive or self-pitying way. The honest answer—to me—dwells somewhere between those views. Read More »