Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
As a term, Empathy, from the Greek em-pathos, in-feeling, is the translation that Edward Titchener, a psychologist working at the turn of the nineteenth century, gave to the German Einfühlung—sympathetic understanding, or, literally, feeling into another’s subject-position. Since the late 18th century the concept has had more, and then less, and now more attention in the fields of psychology and aesthetics. As affect, as one of the ways we act and are acted upon, this state of being has likely always been with us. It comes upon us unwilled, but we also consider it a state that can be cultivated, practiced, and theorized. The desired end of such projective feeling is to understand another from his or her perspective.
Such feeling into another’s subject-position on the one hand seems like a happy answer to the self’s well-worried solipsism. However, in the hands of so many writers, attempts at empathetic projection become a sort of “crude empathy” (Brecht’s worry), a feeling into not based on real understanding of an other, but based on the assimilation of the other’s experience. This problem is embedded in the way we think about what makes us individual selves and the necessarily singular experience of one’s own first-person perspective. Inhabiting another’s first-person perspective in the same way that he, she, or it, does, not only seems psychologically impossible, but also would efface the very thing that ensures the existence of all that is not-me in the world. As Husserl among others points out, had I the same access to the consciousness of another as I have to my own, that other would cease being another and instead become part of myself.
Thus the bind: one cannot inhabit anyone else’s first-person experience, and it is precisely this limit that makes another other to me. At the same time, we don’t want to say that we have completely no access to another’s first-person perspective. We want to say that what we feel in affective, empathetic moments is not merely a solipsistic self-projection.
While studies on the problem of mind hash these problems out via the discipline of philosophy, worries over the lyric I reflect the way these problems circulate in the language of poetry. As we know, the lyric I is the poster-child for the expression of first-person experience. And while we might grow tired of the limits of this perspective—of the hemming and hawing of these I’s, aching through their embodiments, bemoaning the fleeting nature of relational connection—we balk at lyric expression that “feels into” the first person experience of another. The ethical risks of such attempts at empathy include the effacement of fundamental difference with fantasy—and passing fantasy off as some sort of emotional truth.
But this need not lock us into a Cartesian box, for “Je est un autre” (Rimbaud). Or, if you prefer philosophy, “The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake” (Merleau-Ponty). We can open the box from a trap door built into its bottom: there are many ways that we experience ourselves as other to our first-person experience of the world, for we exceed our pronouns. And this first-person experience of excess, of self-as-other is kin to an experience of the otherness of that which is not the self. The otherness of other humans, animals, nature, and objects.
Perhaps we first recognize otherness because it is a fundamental relationship that we have to ourselves. Simply touch your right hand with your left and you are both touching and touched. Catch your image in a mirror unexpectedly and who is that, for a moment, you wonder. Leafing back through old poems—through a poem you wrote yesterday—you have the distinct feeling that you did not write what is on the page. As such, one way to think about empathy is along the self’s subject/object edge, considering the fact of the self as simultaneously occupying a subject and object position and exploring the object-self’s relationship with other objects.
A genre of contradiction (prose/poem) and of addition (prose + poem), the essence of the prose poem is a tension of opposites, creating a space for writing into territories of seeming-contradiction. This makes the form an ideal vehicle for exploring the subject/object edge of empathy. The form, in the right hands, accommodates a deeply embodied lyric I as it inhabits a first-person perspective while, at the same time, affording a meditative self-reflection that articulates the object-nature of the self. When practiced together, these impulses form an empathetic field.
By “deeply embodied lyric I,” I am thinking of poems that work like the first stanza of Plath’s “Ariel:” “Stasis in darkness/ Then the substanceless blue/ Pour of tor and distances.” This moment arises from and into embodied experience, conveys in language the feeling of a first-person experience of embodiment. By “meditative self-reflection,” I am thinking of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, a textbook example of thinking about thinking: “…I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, hence I am…” Such movements of mind make of one’s own mind an object of speculation to be considered just like one considers the articulations of another. In prose poems that combine these impulses, the pulsing embodiment of the lyric spans through the meditative essay’s self-reflective articulations of thought.
Known for her phenomenological poetics, and author of a 1989 book titled Empathy, it will come as no surprise to her readers that Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s newest book, Hello, the Roses, performs such tensional, empathetic work. The book’s 18 prose poems explore empathetic connection with humans, animals, and nature on physical, conceptual, and spiritual levels. This is evident in the poem-titles themselves.
In the first section, loosely organized around human-animal empathy, we have poems such as “Animal Voices,” which features “Barney” “an ordinary terrier with hair over his eyes” (7) who “shows me his dream of smelling violets” (5). The second section, which features connections with nature we have poems titled “DJ Frogs,” “Green,” and “Hello, the Roses” wherein “The entire rose, petals in moving air, emotion of perfume records as a sphere, so when I recall the emotion, I touch dimensionality” (58). With poems titled “The Lit Cloud,” “Karmic Trace,” and “Immortals Having a Party,” the third section extends the themes of the first two sections, but focuses them on a spiritual plane. One of the last sentences of the book reads: “She imagistically transforms uncertain space into a cosmos from watery time, the pre-forms of plants, stones, animals, by drawing them” (92).
The book’s work with empathy is, however, much more deep-tissue than merely thematic. Berssenbrugge uses the tensional space of the prose poem to inhabit both the embodied perspective of the lyric and a meditative, self-reflective perspective. As such she simultaneously foregrounds first-person experience and also the otherness embedded in one’s own embodiment. Let’s look at “DJ Frogs,” the first poem in the second section, as an example of the way this simultaneity works throughout the book. Here are the first 7 sentences of the “DJ Frog’s” first section:
We stand in a vernal marsh surrounded by spring peepers so loud I feel like a tuning fork vibrating.
The half moon rising over trees sends shadows across water in complexities of light reflections, of opaque grasses, skunk cabbage, violet, indigo streaming into saturation like blowing sand.
Why don’t we enjoy night more often?
A density of peepers, bullfrogs, crickets, cicadas rounds the corner of my hearing.
Where rhythm should be, there’s space around an expected beat I don’t hear; my pulse falls through subtracted space.
It’s not communication breakdown or break in feeling, it’s abstract.
Frogs communicate para-acoustically with the future, grabbing the potential beat (silence) and materializing it from far off in light years.
The second sentence of this section particularly exemplifies the embodied perspective of the book. Descriptive of the world outside of the speaker, locating the speaker in physical context, it unfolds in a way that reflects the unfolding of perception. It conveys to us as much about the perception of the speaker as it does about the landscape context. Notice the present tense of the sentence (nearly all of the sentences of the book take place in the present.) Notice the focus of the sentence, which is upon the action of the tree-sent shadow, tracing the shadow from its play across objects (opaque grasses, skunk cabbage) to pure color (violet, indigo). With its simile translating indigo into blowing sand, the end of the sentence shifts emphasis from the visual into the tactile—from seen to felt. This motion perhaps registers the path of shadow from the foreground, where distinct objects can be recognized, to distance, where all is indigo blur. Or, perhaps it registers the shadow’s fade and flux. Or, more likely, the movement of the sentence outlines the simultaneous transformations of perceiver and perceived as they interact in time.
The sixth sentence of the section exemplifies the self-reflective, conceptual aspect of Hello, the Roses. This perspective is distant from the sense-based experience at hand and categorizes experience into larger, abstract systems. Notice the definitional quality of the sentence, which serves to objectify experience in order to name it. Notice also that the pronoun “it” succeeds in bundling the preceding experience into an object, into a singular entity. Notice that this conceptual utterance is, like the other sentences in the sequence, also written in the present tense. But while sentences exploring physical experience are weighted towards detailing-out nuances of perception, sentences exploring concepts are condensed and succinct.
The oscillation between these two kinds of sentences proposes that when we perceive the world—when we live in it—we simultaneously identify ourselves with our experience and objectify our experiences. It proposes that any present-tense moment unfolds in excess of what a first-person perspective can contain. And we have access to this excess. We are not trapped solely in our first-person perspective but are of this excess, this energy common to all matter. The simile with which the poem begins—a tuning fork vibrating—encapsulates this commonality. The tuning fork, a purely physical object, resonates according to its surroundings. As bodies we resonate with our surroundings in ways that our minds can only attempt to conceive. In such resonance empathy resides.
Berssenbrugge’s particular form of the prose poem affirms these tensions between embodiment and concept, between the self that identifies with experience and the aspects of the self that transcend identification but are no less part of the fabric of being. By giving each sentence its own space followed by white space, she invites her reader to engage in a pattern of identifying with experience and then reflecting upon experience. When I read “We stand in a vernal marsh surrounded by spring peepers so loud I feel like a tuning fork vibrating” all of my language and focus is given-over to the sentence, dwelling within its sounds, imagery, syntax. As Lisa Robertson articulates in Nilling: “As I read my self-consciousness is not only suspended, but temporarily abolished by the vertigo of another’s language. I am simply its conduit, its gutter. This is a pleasure” (26). Berssenbrugge leads us to be filled with the not-I, practicing self-as-conduit. And then to fill the white space that follows with self-reflection, or silence, which may be another name for pure presence. In this way the poems do much more than model or depict empathy; they engage readers in its practice.
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