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empathy

When I was 19, I read the Iliad, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which I enjoyed, except for the endless lists of boats. Later, I came to realize the Greeks who were listening to this were from the various tribes mentioned, so when their group of ships came up, they were probably shouting out like soccer hoodlums. This didn’t make me enjoy the list, but it gave me a modicum of empathy.

A list, structured with rhythm and imagery in mind can be one of the chief structural devices of both epic/bardic poetry and free verse. Whitman has more listings than an anal retentive suburbanite. How many people here have at least one parent who loves his or her to do list as much as they love their children? Whitman is a list nut: Whitman lists. One of the syntactic clues to listing is an excess of participles and gerunds, what we will call verbs murdered by “ing.” Whitman is the only great poet who gets away with having more “ings” than metaphors. He’s the “ing” champ. Ginsberg, for all his ings, can’t make a pimple on Walt’s gluteus maximus.

Gerunds are often a sign that a poet hates sentences. Maybe he or she hates them on aesthetic grounds. We tend to think poetry should sound floaty, ephemeral, pretty. Maybe he or she hates sentences because he or she does not know what a sentence is. Some people, especially very poetic middle class people, dislike strong verbs. They don’t like strong anything. It seems brutal to them. Strong verbs are violent. They don’t float. They commit. They create the action of the noun: shit happens. I try to make my classes brutal. I say, “From now on, you are allowed only two ‘ings’ per poem, even if you list. Anymore than that will result in ten points off your grade, unless, of course, with great brilliance, you can defend your excess of gerunds to me and the whole class. Screw Whitman!”

Meter is not rhythm. It is a kind of rhythm, but it isn’t rhythm. We can create rhythm without meter, or rhyme. We can even create a pattern of rhythm without meter or rhyme. We can do so by enumeration (a type of list), repetition, refrain, by a system of alliterations. All these devices are used. We can create rhythm by emphasis: a series of imperative sentences, for example, or by suspense (holding off the payoff of a sentence until the very end–something gerunds are good for). I would suggest you all read Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter, Poetic Form because it is a beautifully written and lucid book, especially his chapter on free verse. Every time I read this chapter I grow warm and fuzzy, the way people do during slow dances at proms. I am weird that way. Intelligence and lucidity make me stupid with pleasure. So let’s take a look at a list, or enumerations that does not indulge in “ing.” Let’s look at Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane (My Student Thrown by A Horse)”:

I remember her neck curls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a side long pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought…

This is a list and it gives us information: not only about Jane, but about the voice of the poem. The “I” of the poem seems, at the very least, charmed by her. He is both listing her qualities and building his relationship to her, and the reader’s sense of his feelings for her and it is all done by a list. Let’s steal the technique for a moment:

I remember her nose, red nostrilled by a cold;
and the way she said “danks” when I tossed her a tissue;
and how, she fell asleep, head on my shoulder,
all the way to Chattanooga…

See how we can steal? Musicians cop chord changes all the time. We have thousands and thousands of effects we can build on. Why not? Poets must find a way to render the emotion. Expression depends on devices, on tricks. Sincerity depends on a strategy of approach. By the way, this use of enumeration is also common to prose. Most devices of rhetoric belong neither to prose nor poetry. They belong to utterance. Okay, so here’s another device: parataxis.

In some ways parataxis the opposite of what we just did. There are no conjoining words such as “and”, “but”, “as”, and so forth. An example of parataxis:

Pluck It– Janet Lynch

It is late. The moon rises in the east
over the Episcopalian church.
Why did I give my heart to an idiot?
The moon in the East will not answer me.
Oh moon, oh eastern rising moon,
why do I expect you to say something?
Idiot! Idiot moon. Idiot me.
I keep hoping he will call.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
Pluck it.

There is little order of priority here. Parataxis is what translators of Chinese and Japanese poems often employ. It’s one thing after another.

A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.