Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

In her brilliant collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison examines the qualities that make us human, like pain, fear and compassion. She also questions how best to write about these things.

In "Morphology of the Hit,' Jamison builds a story out of her experience of having her nose broken by a mugger in Nicaragua. She uses Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, a storytelling map with a catalog of plot elements. None of them exactly fit, and Jamison finds herself examining the way she "looked back at [her] own life like text."

Jamison considers "the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos" in 'Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.'

  "People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but why does "just" apply? A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial -- as if "attention" were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn't wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human -- and isn't granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?"

If I had to pick a favourite piece, it would be 'In Defense of Saccharin(e).' By posing so many questions, Jamison helps me to understand my own resistance to sentimentality.

  "Sentimentality is an accusation leveled against unearned emotion. [...] Artificial sweeteners grant the same intensity -- sweeter than sugar itself -- without the price: no tax of calories. They offer the shell of sugar without its substance; this feels miraculous and hideous at once. [...]
   The gut reacts toward and against, seeking a vocabulary to contain excess, to name and accuse and banish it: too much sentiment, unmediated by nuance; too much sweet, undisciplined by restraint. The hunger for unmitigated and uncomplicated sensation carries on its tongue an unspoken shame."

  "At what volume does feeling become sentimental? How obliquely does feeling need to be rendered so it can be saved from itself? How do we distinguish between pathos and melodrama? Too often, I think, there is the sense that we just know. Well I don't."

  "Isn't this the problem of saccharine literature? That it strokes the ego of our sentimental selves? That we're flattered when something illuminates our capacity to feel? That this satisfaction replaces genuine emotional response?"

  "As Oscar Wilde said: the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. [...] you need to earn your reactions to art, not simply collect easy sentiment handed out like welfare.
   How do we earn? By parsing figurative opacity, close-reading metaphor, tracking nuances of character, historicizing in terms of print history and social history and institutional history and transoceanic history and every other kind of history we can think of. We think we should have to work in order to feel. We want to have our cake resist us; and then we want to eat it, too."

  "I resist something in sentimentality too. I'm afraid of its inflated gestures and broken promises. But I'm just as afraid of what happens when we run away from it: jadedness, irony, chill."

While the passages above give some idea of Jamison's style, her careful crafting can only be appreciated by reading these essays in their entirety. I highly recommend that you do.

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