Month: September 2015

Empathy and essays

“This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.”

In Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison’s wonders, at length, about the complex nature of pain and empathy. There are a lot of components that make this essay powerful, one of which is the way it’s structured. She uses her job as a medical actor to establish a lighthearted, almost comical tone in her introduction, and the fact that she’s literally taking on these new personas in her job allows her to remain, at first, somewhat distant from her topic. This distance helps to create a certain comfort in the reader that prepares him for the gradual decent into “deeper levels of honesty” that she divulges a quarter of the way through, as the essay becomes considerably more personal. At first, she is describing empathy in terms of her job and the doctors that are being evaluated by how well they can convey it; she is describing empathy through the lens of Stephanie Phillips. In a way, this is similar to how McPhee uses the game monopoly as a gateway into his views of society and urban life.  Emerson would be pleased, as these authors have succeeded in “put(ting) the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them.” Although McPhee accomplishes this in a way that is much more tangible- through the use of a well known board game, Jamison’s abstract examinations and ideas are made palpable by her anecdote’s. Her revelations resonate with readers not just because of their power, but also because of how they are delivered.

A lot of the essays that we’ve read have been, at least to some extent, about the act of essay writing itself. There are only a few moments in which Jamison explicitly mentions that she’s a writer, but her reflections on empathy could also be read as examinations of her feelings towards essay writing. She writes, “This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.” Isn’t this (amoung other things) what essay writing is? Often times, we start with a feeling, an event, an object, a board game or occupation, something that resonates with or at least strikes us in some way, and we have maybe just the smallest inkling that if we examine it further, it could lead to a deeper understanding of something and others might be able to relate to that. We want them to relate to that, but sometimes this thing is so personal that we don’t want to share it, or we fear we don’t do it justice. “I felt simultaneously like I didn’t feel enough and like I was making a big deal out of nothing.” This is how I feel almost every time I sit down to write. I want to break down whatever it is that I’m trying to describe so that I can finally understand it, and at the same time, I am constantly asking “myself what’s the point? Am I not just over thinking this?”

Well, I guess one of the points we do this is sort of summed up by Susan Orleans in Introduction to The Best American Essays:

“Our voices matter to each other; we do wonder what goes on inside each other’s heads; we want to know each other, and we want to be known.”

Things that live within concepts

In “The Essay as a Form,” Theodor Adorno stresses the importance of the essayist’s ability to reconsider our traditional idea of truth and deconstruct definitions as we have come to know them. He notes that, unlike methodical, organized dissertation, the essay remains skeptical of fundamental definitions, and recognizes that “the longing for strict definitions has long offered to eliminate the irritating and dangerous elements of things that live within concepts.” In “Red Shoes,” Susan Griffin examines several preconceived notions about the color red, the boundaries of fiction, and matters reserved for “private life.” Throughout the essay, she transitions from her intellectual examination of these concepts into italicized font that describes her adolescent experiences, and the two “aspects of (her) argument interweave as in a carpet.” This unconventional structure gives the reader the impression of reading two essays at once, and thus exemplifies her assertion that “the form of the essay circumscribes imagination. At its edges, many other imagined possibilities are hovering,” Though she never explicitly connects the portions written in italicized font with the ones written in straight font, memories of her grandmother and her mother “hover over” her thoughtful examination of gender roles in today’s society. Not only do they physically frame her intellectual discussion, they add perspective and experience that further enhances her theories. These snippets from her past illustrate the “private life” that she refers to, and she keeps them separate from the rest of the essay to highlight the mainstream understanding and distinction of private and public matters. As Griffin notes in her essay, “what goes on in the private body, in the inner quarters of the mind, cannot fully be redeemed, or even understood, without public acknowledgment.” The reader gets the sense that as she writes this essay, she is trying to bring to light observations from her past to further understand the public’s perception of “the private sphere of life, which is also the sphere of life given over to women.” She is revisiting her adolescent view of things like red lipstick, the difference between her grandmother and her grandfather’s dresser, and the significance of a hidden black robe in order to deconstruct our own definitions of larger issues at stake.

A central theme of this essay, as signified in the title, is the color red. Griffin discusses the color red in several contexts, and uses it to provide a concrete reference point for her more abstract discussion about gender roles. Adorno notes that “the way in which the essay appropriates concepts is most easily comparable to the behavior of a man who is obliged, in a foreign country, to speak that country’s language instead of patching it together from its elements, as he did in school. He will read without a dictionary. If he has looked at the same word thirty times, in constantly changing contexts, he has a clearer grasp of it than he would if he looked up all the world’s meanings; meanings that are generally too narrow, considering they change depending on the context, and too vague in view of the nuances that the contexts established in every individual case.” Griffin examines the color red in several contexts, including shoes, lipstick, hair dye, and an overheard remark on the color of roses. She also refers to the color white and black and uses this color association to subtly suggest to the reader that we can deconstruct ideologies the same way we can deconstruct color implications. The reader can almost visualize her, staring at her outgrown, scuffed up red shoes, wondering why they appealed to her so much when she was younger. Maybe she started asking herself questions, like what made the color red so appealing, despite its “impracticality?” and instead of reducing her affection for the shoes to a physical, juvenile attraction sparked by the vibrant color, she began to understand what the color represents to her. This is just speculation on my part, but the unusual composition of the essay combined with its inquisitive manner and the use of “free association artistically controlled,” helps her accomplishes what Aldous Huxley considers to be the most satisfying type of essay. Griffin is able to blend “generalization with the anecdote, the homily with the autobiographical reminiscence,” and “makes use of the concrete particular to express some universal truth,” and presents it in a way that suggests she is coming to these insights at the same time as the reader.