Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Empathy Exams | Leslie Jamison

First, allow me to preface, dear readers, that I have changed my mind. In lieu of Carlo Rovelli I have decided (based on recommendation from a friend) to review and consider Leslie Jamison's THE EMPATHY EXAMS for my little project, instead. It's an essay collection and it is very, very good. Next time I will find some other book not listed in my original outline for the project, and I will hope that it is enough.

Readability ★★★★☆

Leslie Jamison's THE EMPATHY EXAMS is a collection of nonfiction essays published by Graywolf Press in 2014. The narrator in each story ruminates in some form or another on the idea of human connectivity, on how we can feel or assume or adapt someone else's pain into something that we can ourselves understand. The book has over 11,000 ratings and 1,400 reviews on Goodreads, and with Leslie Jamison currently teaching at the Columbia MFA program, I think she'll be perfectly accessible if the Honors College chooses her book as the 2019-20 read. She's still a BFD (Big Freaking Deal), but I think that our program would be right up her alley. What's the worst that can happen? We make our freshmen more empathetic?

The fact that THE EMPATHY EXAMS is comprised of essays is what makes it so attractive as a potential Honors Read. Classes can easily take this book one essay a week, or otherwise just pick and choose whichever essays are most interesting/applicable to the course topic. Which brings me to...

Applicability ★★★★★

The essays cover such a broad range of topics that I feel absolutely positive that any genre of study or method of thinking will be able to find an essay that pertains to them. I see particular interest points in the fields of Latin/Mexican-American Studies, Biology, Physiology, English/Creative Writing (especially non-fiction), Spanish, Gender/Women's Studies, Russian Literature, et alia. 

The new Center for Compassion Studies would be an excellent on-campus resource for students researching this book, and I am absolutely certain that classes would be able to speak with faculty from almost any department who would have something to say about this book. 

Transformation ★★★★☆

Thankfully, thankfully, the Honors College seems to have moved on from its minor obsession with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and thus my life as a reader can continue without frantically searching for books I like that feature AI characters or robotic whosiwhatsits (not that robotic whosiwhatsits are bad, but let's be honest, my readerly interests are generally more aligned with fairy tales and essay collections and books that make me feel something, which are not categories that have to this point included books about robotic whosiwhatsits. Sorry, Andrew).

If anything, the theme of transformation will apply most directly to the transformation inherent in people who become more empathetic. Whether that be the students reading these essays and realizing what it means to connect to people through empathy, or merely the understanding that Leslie Jamison herself has transformed in some way to become more aware of instances of empathy, there is a transformation worth its weight here. 

Don't believe me? Here we go.

The Empathy Exams
The narrator is a student medical actor. She receives scripts about her character's illness and must inhabit the body of this sick person. This narrator is, herself, a sick person, one who gets an abortion (successful) and has heart surgery (unsuccessful) within a one month span of time. The narrator considers what it means to be empathetic, and whether or not empathy can be veritable. 
"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" (8). 
"Part of me has always craved a pain so visible - so irrefutable and physically inescapable - that everyone would have to notice" (12). 
"Empathy is a kind of care but it's not the only kind of care, and it's not always enough. I want to think that's what Dr. G. was thinking. I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo" (17). 

Devil's Bait
The narrator attends a conference for people who have self-diagnosed themselves with Morgellans Disease, a sickness that plagues them through the intense and evergreen feeling that there is something happening underneath their skin, and that no matter how much they pick at themselves or how many anti-parasite medication they consume, whatever is alive under their skin will continue to exist there. The narrator wonders if her belief that these people believe in their disease counts as empathy.
"It can be so difficult to admit what satisfactions certain difficulties provide - not satisfaction in the sense of feeling good, or being pleasurable, but in granting some shape or substance to a discontent that might otherwise feel endless" (35). 
"I wanted to do nice things for everyone out of a sense of preemptive guilt that I couldn't conceptualize this disease in the same way as those who suffered from it... A confession: I left the conference early. I actually, embarrassingly, went to sit by the shitty hotel pool because I felt emotionally drained and like I deserved it. I baked bare skinned in the Texan sun and watched a woman from the conference come outside and carefully lay her own body, fully clothed, across a reclining chair in the shade" (53). 

La Frontera
The narrator attends a bilingual literary gathering held in Tijuana and Mexicali known as an encuentro. She contextualizes the cities she passes through during the entirety of the trip by her experiences as an outsider, as a projector, and as a listener. She thinks about the narco-wars, her own privilege, a faux-versus-true-to-life experience. This is a test of her empathy, in a way. 
"The soldiers empty out our bags. It all feels pro forma, but still - of a climate, of a piece, setting a tone. As we drive away, I glance back and notice that another soldier, this one standing on a truck, had his machine gun trained on us the whole time" (61). 
"The night before coming to Mexicali, he stayed up till one thirty to finish grading a batch of papers, then decided to reward himself the next morning by hitting the snooze button. Fair enough. As it turned out, a grenade explosion woke him anyway, two minutes later, followed by a volley of machine-gun fire. "Like a conversation," he says, "one voice and then the response." He says it wasn't anything unusual" (62). 

Morphology of the Hit
The narrator explains her time as a teacher in Nicaragua using Vladimir Propp's organizational techniques from MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE. The narrator was punched in the face. The narrator gives Proppian context to what it means to have been punched in the face. The empathy of this essay may exist in its broken bones, in its unwillingness to ask for empathy but its need to receive it, anyway. 
"Some functions describe villains stealing body parts. You break something and you steal the way it used to look. That never comes back. // "He took your wallet?" someone asked me. "And your camera?" // I nodded. I wanted to say: he took my face" (73). 

Also featuring:
Pain Tours (I): La Plata Perdida / Sublime, Revised / Indigenous to the Hood
The Immortal Horizon
In Defense of Saccharin(e)
Fog Count
Pain Tours (II): Ex-Votos / Servicio Supercompleto/ The Broken Heart of James Agee
Lost Boys
Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

Monday, October 8, 2018

Bluets | Maggie Nelson (Take 2)

(Tattoo: "I wrote it because I had something to say to you.")

"But Hannah, haven't you already read this book like, eight times?"
"How are you going to make your freshmen interested in a book that's basically poetry?"
"You have over 60 books sitting in your apartment. Pick one of those up instead."

(...says my inner voice, who is currently being ignored because c'mon guys, I can totally get freshmen interested in a poetic nonfiction book that I read over and over and quote all the time and got a line printed on a temporary tattoo that I stuck to my collarbone for two weeks until it peeled off.)

Behold, BLUETS by Maggie Nelson. I've reviewed this book before, sampled my favorite little quotes, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. Originally, I read BLUETS for my Honors 222 nonfiction writing course that I took with Daisy Pitkin last spring. It's about personal suffering and leftover love and taking the time to just exist wherever you are and notice the things around you, like the little blue tarp wavering over a building, or a blue strip on the ground that you realize, somehow jarringly, is a poisonous trap for termites. So how would this book, so small and so lovely and so floridly stoic, be successfully translated into a book fit for a cohort of Honors freshmen who may never have read any creative nonfiction before?

Readability ★★★★★

This book is tiny. I mean, teeny tiny. Teeny, teeny, teeny tiny. So tiny that you might miss it. BLUETS clocks in at just 98 pages. It's available in hardback and soft cover, and I doubt that ordering a couple hundred copies would set the Honors College back too far financially. On Goodreads, it's been rated over 11,000 times and reviewed about 1,100. While Maggie Nelson is quite a big deal (as the youths put it), I think she's vastly more accessible than some of the other authors I've reviewed, and thus there's a complete chance that she would be interested in coming in. According to her Goodreads profile, she currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches at USC. 

The language of the book isn't too formal/"literary" and I think any high school graduate - especially those with the academic interest in the Honors College - would be able to read it without a problem. Its length will make it attractive to people who may shy away from large books, as well. 

There are a few "explicit" vignettes. (One says the word "fuck" and "came" but to be fair, we are all adults, and chances are the people reading those words will have heard them before.) Nothing about this book is vulgar, though, and if anything, the overarching storyline benefits from the moments of raw emotion/truth apparent in the vignettes that may be NSFW. I don't think any parents will call in to complain that their child had never before had the sex talk and how DARE the Honors College suggest that procreation happen in any way other than a stork setting down a baby on the doorstep of sinless people! Who knows. Maybe it'll be a field day for those interesting in reproductive studies. 

Applicability ★★★★★

BLUETS, perhaps most obviously, is a collection of vignettes all somehow related to the color blue, each falling under the category of:

1. Personal Narrative
2. Science/Psychology
3. Art/Music/Poetry
4. Philosophy/Literature/Social Theory
5. Faith/Religion/The Divine
6. Outside Oracular Voice/Your personal sage friend or relative
7. Mythology/History*

*(as per my last review.) These different strings can be broadly applied to pretty much any major at the University, and it's worth saying that when my class read it last spring, every student was able to locate their favorite genre of vignette. To address points of interest specifically:

1. Personal Narrative - English, Creative Writing
2. Science/Psychology - Psychology, Neuroscience, Anthropology
3. Art/Music/Poetry - Music, Creative Writing, Art History, broader humanities
4. Philosophy/Literature/Social Theory - Political Science, English, language studies, PPEL
5. Faith/Religion/The Divine - Religious studies, Human Development
6. Outside Oracular Voice/Your personal sage friend or relative - any major
7. Mythology/History - History, cultural studies

Transformation ★★★★☆

One exciting (for me, at least) update about the Honors Read is that we're no longer within the confines of books that absolutely have to do with some semblance of transformation. But let's be real: I wasn't staying wholly attached to this theme anyway, and any moments of transformation for my characters so far have been internal or plot-related. 

I can say the same about BLUETS. While this is nonfiction (and Maggie Nelson is a real person, not a character), we can treat the narrator of the text as some type of persona because she is, effectively, the Maggie Nelson of when she wrote this, not the Maggie Nelson she necessarily is now. If we need a strong connection to the theme of transformation, we can very easily track the genres of vignette that I've listed above and see how their dynamics shift/their stories unwind throughout the book, attacking analysis from a pathway that Nelson has already provided for us. 

There's not much more I can say on this front. BLUETS is nearly perfect for the Honors Read, and I have a feeling that I'll be carrying this one on through to the final round of elimination. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Final Girl: A Look At Literary and Film Archetype

Long, dark hair. Eyes like pools of honey in the sunlight, slowly melting as she pores over the pages of a novel usually considered above the reading comprehension of whatever age she is (she's over eighteen, hopefully). Maybe she wears plaid. Maybe her jeans are ripped, her earrings dangly, her fingernail polished chipped endearingly.

She's lovely in every sense of the word, though she barely knows it, and even though she may come across as occasionally holier-than-thou, she's actually a little insecure about the fact that she's never kissed a boy before, never been in a veritable relationship outside of the romances that she hides, demurely, underneath her twin-sized virginal mattress. 

She's not like any girl you've ever met before, and that's why she's going to survive this. She is, of course, the Final Girl. 

The Final Girl is the girl who gets to survive a horror movie. She takes an axe to the serial killer's own stomach, sets an ingenious trap laid with expert, former-Girl-Scout hands, or calls the cops because the bad guy's forgotten to chop the phone wires. (In most horror movies, she gets to live because she's a virgin, but sometimes she just gets to be smart.)

Horror movie history has shown us this Final Girl in her many, mostly-brunette iterations: Marilyn Burns from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Kristen Connolly from The Cabin in the Woods, Danielle Harris from some of the latter Halloween movies and Jamie Lee Curtis from the former ones, Neve Campbell in the Scream movies, Anya Taylor-Joy in Split, et alia. The list continues. One of my favorites is Taissa Farmiga, who plays Max in The Final Girls, an aptly-named movie that plays on the typical tropes of the sexy, mildly edgy virginal brunette who gets to survive the psycho killer at a summer camp. 

(But I digress.)

The reason that I write this to you - an audience used to rambling book reviews - is because I feel it appropriate in this lovely month of October to tackle some of the film tropes that dominate the horror/thriller/murder-mystery genre and look at them through a literary lens. It is my opinion that effectively, the Final Girl is just as much an archetype as the Magician or Mentor or Sidekick or Hero. Let's get into it:

In Aristotelian poetics, the idea of what is "character" is entirely secondary to the idea of "plot": here, it's held that characters cannot exist on their own without a plot in the way that a plot can exist without characters (Barthes). But let's be real - Aristotle was alive literally thousands of years ago, and we've made some progress since then.

Later on in the critical viewpoint, Aristotle's semi-simplistic views of what makes up a character are expanded upon and manipulated until we get closer to how we see them today: characters are given a selfhood that proceeds/supersedes any action on their part. In short, characters become actual people. Yet we're still able to talk about characters in an archetypal way, basing 'who they are' "not on psychology but on the homogenous nature of the actions assigned to them by the narrative (giver of the magic object, Assistant, Villain, etc.)" (Barthes). What this means is that while we can get complex and delve into the psychology of characters like Harry Potter or Gandalf or Aslan, we know that on a base level, their function within a plot depends on the most obvious facts: that they are an Orphan, a Mentor, and a Savior respectively.

So who is our Final Girl? If we look at the bits of what she does in a horror movie or scary story, we know that she's just a wee bit different from the other characters around her, the characters who die (maybe it's a Sorority Queen, or Jock, or Nerd). She's physically different enough for the audience to recognize that they should pay attention to her, but she's also got to be some level of cunning or smart, because just finding a really good hiding spot on the haunted campground does not a Final Girl make. There's action associated with what she does - oh, hey, maybe I should go back to the freaky locker and grab those bullets I saw earlier, because then I can kill the guy who just ate my friends - but she's someone on her own before any of that necessarily needs to happen. After all, she grew up going hunting with her dad, so she's resilient and resourceful already, which is pretty darn important if she's going to be a good shot once she gets those found locker-bullets into the gun.

I'm a Creative Writing student currently enrolled in a class about the American Gothic (basically, scary stories set in the U.S.). The reason that I'm so interested in the archetype of the Final Girl is because I want to ultimately use her someday in a way that she hasn't yet been used. There's so much potential for a character who we're familiar with already, who we feel like we know even before we've met her. I want to take whatever action my narrative seems to assign to her and convolute it somehow, maybe making her exist across several archetypes. What if our Final Girl was also a Jock, or a Savior, of a Giver of the Magic Object?

Or... and stay with me, here... a redhead?

Barthes, Roland, and Lionel Duisit. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” New Literary History, vol. 6, no. 2, 1975, p. 256. JSTOR.
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