Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison’s final essay in The Empathy Exams is its strongest piece. “I’m tired of female pain, and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she writes. In many ways Jamison’s response to the female body and pain opposes Kate Zambreno’s project, but I prefer to see it as complementary, viewing the same issues though other prisms.

The Empathy Exams is a series of unrelated essays, memoirs, and ‘pain tours’ that focuses primarily on American culture. It is framed at by the fascinating The Empathy Exams, an exploration of Jamison’s job as a medical actor, paid to convincingly fake illness as part of medical students’ training, and concludes with Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

Jamison writes beautifully, though often without the punch of a storyteller like Joan Didion, but the collection shows tremendous power as an essayist with a journalist’s eye.

Unmoving Targets

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This concerted attempt to erase the responsibilities of thought and volition from our daily lives has produced a nation of couched-out soft touches, easily riled by the most cynically vacuous sloganeering and handily manipulated by the alibis of “morality” and false patriotism. To put it bluntly, no ones home. We are literally absent from our own present. We are elsewhere, not in the real but in the represented. Our bodies, the flesh and blood of it all, have given way to representations: figures that cavort on TV, movie, and computer screens. Propped up and ultra-relaxed, we teeter on the cusp of narcolepsy and believe everything and nothing.

Barbara Kruger
Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearances

Writing That Stops Itself

Binge-reading Anne Carson continues with Men in the Off Hours. I’ve just spent a fortnight with Eros the Bittersweet, reading it three times back to back and then a fourth to transcribe large passages into my notebook. It is simply one of the most sublime books I’ve read, and certainly the finest on the nature of desire and love, and how each intertwines with the act of reading and writing.

I keep thinking of how to write about Anne Carson’s work which I might attempt when I’ve finished this reading of her oeuvre, but my reverence gets in the way of any critical insight. Michelle mentioned Carson’s idea of writing/language that “stops itself” which is evident even in the weaker works like Autobiography of Red, with unexpected images like “He switched on the light. He was staring at the sweep hand of the electric clock / on the dresser. Its little dry hum ran over his nerves like a comb.”

But the writer who comes to mind most immediately whose language constantly disrupts thought is Derek Walcott. Last night I reread his dazzling Omeros, and wanted to share these seven exquisite lines (I can’t preserve the spacing on WordPress):

We watched the Major lift
his wife’s coffin hung with orchids , many she had found
in the blue smoke of Saltibus. Then Achilles saw the swift
pinned to the orchids, but it was the image of a swift

which Maud had sown into the silk draping her bier
and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s
birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there.

There are, so far, many poems in Carson’s Men in the Off Hours that stop me dead. I have to put the book down and inhabit the silence that her work conjures.

The Selfish Individual

Throughout this week I’ve binged on Susan Sontag’s essays and interviews. The last pieces Sontag wrote are collected in At the Same Time, which include two of my favourite Sontag reviews.

Sontag’s A Double Destiny: On Anne Banti’s Artemisia in which she writes of Banti’s “prowling” around her own text is a deeply insightful review of a stunning book, a rare work of historical fiction that is worth reading. The essay sent me dipping back into Artemisia.

I also came across an essay I haven’t read before, an acceptance speech written for the Jerusalem Prize. With great lucidity Sontag deals with the encouragement of personal liberation, the legacy of the 1960’s that far from freeing up human subjects, acted as a precursor to the selfish individualism so prevalent today in America and the UK, and being exported to a society near you year by year.

I prefer to use “individual” as an adjective rather than as a noun.

The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom”-which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandisement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without the standard of altruism, of regard for others, I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other words, other territories of concern.

Shored Against My Ruins

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) - Pepijn Sauer

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) – Pepijn Sauer

Susan Sontag’s wrote, “The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” I don’t know if Sontag was right, but I like to think so. I live as though it is a statement of truth.

This photograph, borrowed from a deeply impressive archive, reminds me of a visit to Nara, a city that brought great aesthetic delight, as much for the woodwork of the temples as the proportions of architecture.

Fly-specks: Prototype of Punctuation

FLY-:SPECK:, n. The prototype of punctuation. It is observed by Garvinus that the systems of punctuation in use by the various literary nations depended originally upon the social habits and general diet of the flies infesting the several countries. These creatures, which have always been distinguished for a neighborly and companionable familiarity with authors, liberally or niggardly embellish the manuscripts in process of growth under the pen, according to their bodily habit, bringing out the sense of the work by a species of interpretation superior to, and independent of, the writer’s powers. The “old masters” of literature – that is to say, the early writers whose work is so esteemed by later scribes and critics in the same language – never punctuated at all, but worked right along free-handed, without that abruption of the thought which comes from the use of points… In the work of these primitive scribes all the punctuation is found, by the modern investigator with his optical instruments and chemical tests, to have been inserted by the writers’ ingenious and serviceable collaborator, the common house-fly – Musca maledicta.

Ambrose Bierce
The Devil’s Dictionary

Modern Hedonism

Traditional hedonism…was based on the direct experience of pleasure: wine, women and song; sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; or whatever the local variant. The problem, from a capitalist perspective, is that there are inherent limits to all this. People become sated, bored…Modern self-illusory hedonism solves this dilemma because here, what one is really consuming are fantasies and day-dreams about what having a certain product would be like.

David Graeber
Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire

Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

Voice of the Sea

What keeps coming to mind during my current Michel Houellebecq binge is that beneath the surface of his nihilism and despair is an un-extinguished faith in the redemptive potency of love and friendship, a hope that he realises is unfulfillable but impossible to abandon.

This afternoon, feeling a little dour, I took a break from my Houellebecq bender to reread some of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I read at Francis’ recommendation some years ago. Once again I came across a favourite paragraph, underlined in pencil, which she repeats at the start and end of her novel.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

The sea, in both deadly and enriching form, is almost a character in The Awakening, and Chopin’s poetic description stands in relief to the sparseness of the rest of the text.

How Rubens Sees Orpheus

In Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of The Imagination Grace Dane Mazur asks of Rubens’ Orpheus painting, “Pretend that you do not know what this painting is about. Look at it with eyes fresh and innocent and unknowing; ask yourself what is going on.”