Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Friday, June 01, 2012

Imagination and feeling

We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character's pain, we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.  --David Foster Wallace

I read these lines today and was struck by them because I disagree so simply and utterly. Yes, we suffer alone. But no, empathy is not impossible. Utter identification is impossible; we would have to become the Other in order to do so. But empathy is an act that used to be commonly taught in all classes of society; it began often in a young child's observation and instinctual feelings and proceeded to grow through the learning of manners and courtesy. It is still so in many places.

What startled me most in these lines was this: "we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own." That had never crossed my mind as a writer's motive for creating fiction until I read those words. In fact, a great deal of my life has been devoted to a role--mother--which one would be mad to undertake if hoping that "others" would "identify" with "our own" feelings. That's not why one becomes a parent. I don't believe that I've ever thought much about others identifying with my feelings; i never thought that there was some special need in me for them to do so, though I appreciate sympathetic feelings as much as anyone. And when I write fiction, I desire my readers to identify not with my feelings but with those of a created character, a being independent from me. My sensation as a writer is one of out-pouring; the sense of a single self or "me" is lost in the deluge.

I have spent many hours as a writer, a worker, a mother, a child, a relative, a friend, and as a simple passer-by on the world's road in identifying with the feelings of others. And I do indeed find the act to be "nourishing" and "redemptive."  Not only am I "less alone," but I am changed and charged with feeling by becoming, for a little while, linked to another person. The inside of me is a little bigger and a little more multitudinous than it was before.

So right now I am thinking hard about what it must have been to be David Foster Wallace, needing the knowledge that others could imagine feeling the way he felt in order for him to feel less alone. While I am most joyous when I turn outward in life or in creation, he needed the nourishment of others turning toward his inwardness and knowing his pain. And now it is empathy and imagination that will tell me what that means, and exactly how sorrowful it is...

8 comments:

  1. Garino, what does that mean? XD

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  2. I'm rather with you on this, Marly.
    I read the quote and was getting a little surprised that you had it there (you are not the kind of person to often post things you disagree with!).
    Empathy is something that moves into us, not something we are aware of moving into (or expecting it to move into) others.
    It is like saying "There is no real love in the world for I am not loved as I would wish to be".

    What a strange thought indeed!

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  3. It is rather sad to read Wallace's quotation and think that perhaps this was why he killed himself: fiction was not enough to help him escape from the solipsistic prison he evidently inhabited. He was honest to say this, and I think there are many people who truthfully feel this way.
    Perhaps he, and so many, lacked the caring parent that you clearly are, and your kindness extends to your many contacts and friends as well as to your readers.
    I have always said that reading is a way to teach others compassion and empathy. The writer has already been blessed with the ability to morph into the semblance of another mind, but we read to visit worlds we never imagined or could imagine until we opened these pages.

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  4. I think there was a time when those words of DFW's would have made sense to me. I used often to have the feeling that a wall of glass separated me from other people -- the thing Camus called alienation. I have to work really hard now to recover even a twinge of that feeling.

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  5. Paul,

    Terrible to think that David Foster Wallace might have felt precisely that way at times. Of course, we are all so myriad in mood...

    Robbi,

    What a kind thing to say! I certainly think that I was not always the person I am now, and that until the age of 30 I was still struggling to become something different than what I was.

    Dale,

    A wall of glass... You who are so good at expressing your feelings and touching others! Well, in one lifetime we are many.

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  6. Yes, that's true Marly. We are many, and Dale, I can say that I once felt like a Martian among humans. But as I grew, I met others who were like me, and then I learned that it was okay to be different, and even a badge of honor at times.

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  7. Perhaps you were a human among Martians...

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.