Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story

“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us.”

—Cormac McCarthy, “The Kekulé Problem,” Nautilus, April 20, 2017

I. The Smartest Person in the Room

I often say that one of the great pleasures of teaching — writing, or any such thing I teach — is that in front of a room of students, a captive audience, I have a few hours almost every day to work out ideas I’m puzzling over with smart people who are ostensibly there for many of the same reasons I am: to puzzle over ideas. Students don’t always know that’s what we’re doing; they often think I have the answers — and with the simplest questions I often do: yes, you should feel free to write with the word “I” — see, I do.

But more often that not, I don’t have the answers, or, my thoughts on a matter are shifting, still in motion. Ten years ago, I might have tried to hide this fact from my students, if I even recognized it then at all; I might have made it seem like I knew definitely more than I did — or do — in the fear of losing my authority in the lecture hall. I might have avoided certain lines of inquiry — steered the conversation down safer paths — because I couldn’t be sure where we might end up, which may have been in a place where a student knew more than I did, or where I might have simply to say, I don’t know, without the wherewithal or the experience to trust this group of people I was with to figure out something new, together. Without the awareness that I don’t know is probably the most exciting place we can be both in the classroom and in a life of writing, too. So here goes.

‘I don’t know’ is probably the most exciting place we can be both in the classroom and in a life of writing, too.

Once, long ago, teaching an essay I had never taught before — but one I now feel like I know like the back of my hand, Michael Pollan’s 2002 “An Animal’s Place” — I reached a point in the conversation with students known as Awkward Silence. I looked up from the head of the seminar table. Blinks. The shuffling of papers. This was before the ubiquity of smartphones, so they weren’t ignoring me with those yet. I looked back down to the essay. My heart sank — then raced. My mouth went dry. Perhaps you know this feeling. Perhaps you can relate, empathize. Back to the essay, maybe I read aloud:

It can be argued that human pain differs from animal pain by an order of magnitude. This qualitative difference is largely the result of our possession of language and, by virtue of language, an ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine alternatives to our current reality. The philosopher Daniel C. Dennett suggests that we would do well to draw a distinction between pain, which a great many animals experience, and suffering, which depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a few animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not just lots of pain but pain intensified by human emotions like loss, sadness, worry, regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation and dread.

I looked back to my students. Still nothing — from me or them.

“Excuse me,” I said, just barely holding onto my vision — it was fading fast — and I fled the room. I was gone for about five minutes and returned with a Tropicana and a Kind Bar, blaming it all on my blood sugar — not shame, humiliation or dread, though I certainly felt all that. We went on. Class dismissed. The semester ended. I survived.

* * *

In fall, 2016, I taught a superb group of undergrads in a journalism class. One of the students, a woman in her first year of college, had written a piece that was being workshopped, and another, perhaps the most generous workshopper in the room — our best reader and our best writer, simply because he’d just read and written more — was looking for something else from the essay, for the author to go deeper into the story of the scam, to stop skating the surface of New York City’s store-front astrologers. These are things we often hear in writing workshops: go deeper, stop skating. After some keen insight, the workshopper said to his classmate, “Look, you’re the smartest person in the room, that’s clear. But — ”

Whatever followed the “but” I didn’t hear — he said something useful once again, and class proceeded. We workshopped another essay. The woman’s final piece was better than the original, based on the suggestions he and others made during class. She went deeper. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But did you catch what he said? “You’re the smartest person in the room, that’s clear.” Quite a compliment. And he didn’t mean only that she was smarter than the other students in the room; he meant she was the smartest person, period. Me included. I sat there. I did not panic. I did not flee. He was not wrong.

In any case, I use this introduction to get at something I’ve been considering — or, really reconsidering — sometimes with students, sometimes on my own, sometimes in my writing, about empathy and its place in our creative work. I’ve long believed empathy is essential to what we do when we write — that we engage our ability to feel with, or, as psychologist Paul Bloom puts it in his recent book Against Empathy: that you can come “to experience the world as you think someone else does.” Bloom’s not talking about writing, really, but his definition, and my own summary — the act of feeling with — as I say, has long shaped my own thinking about how I write, and probably how I have taught others how to write.

But here’s what happened. I often teach — and often make mention of in my writing — the novel Elizabeth Costello, by South African writer J.M. Coetzee. This is a thing I did in the spring, 2017. In two central chapters of the book — “The Lives of Animals,” Parts One and Two — the title character, an Australian novelist, lectures on animal suffering at a fictional Appleton College, in an American town called Waltham. She draws controversial comparisons about the citizens of Waltham, who sit by and do nothing while industrial farms carry out “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it.” Written here in the limited third person, assuming the consciousness of Elizabeth Costello’s son, John, this section of the novel includes several long quotations from Costello’s lectures, including this, in which she justifies her own authority, as a novelist, to speak in philosophical terms about the lives of animals:

“Despite Thomas Nagel, who is probably a good man, despite Thomas Aquinas and René Descartes, with whom I have more difficulty in sympathizing, there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination. If you want proof, consider the following. Some years ago I wrote a book called The House on Eccles Street. To write that book I had to think my way into the existence of Marion Bloom. Either I succeeded or I did not. If I did not, I cannot imagine why you invited me here today. In any event, the point is, Marion Bloom never existed. Marion Bloom was a figment of James Joyce’s imagination. If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.”

Reading this with my class, an argument that seems to bring together aesthetics and ethics, I repeated Costello’s claim: “There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.” But we began that day in March to investigate whether what Costello — and perhaps Coetzee — was talking about in terms of sympathy had anything to do with what we often describe now as empathy — what Paul Bloom characterizes in his book as “everything good, … a synonym for morality and kindness and compassion,” or what we find in so much facile writing instruction nowadays, which consolidates under headlines like:

“Why Empathy is the Key to Story”

“Writing as an Act of Empathy”

“On Writing with Empathy”

Or the absolute worst: “Writing with Empathy Will Effortlessly Improve Your Business.”

All this is a simple Google search away.

But does the creative act, the aesthetic act, really depend on such a thing? Is the boundless sympathetic imagination that Coetzee believes in — meaning, the boundlessness of the creative impulse and its potential — really the same as experiencing the world as you think someone else does? Is empathy what we need to write?

Faced with the questions, I answered my students as I’m inclined to do these days when it’s true: I don’t know, I said. But we set to work trying to figure it out.

II. A Little Boy in the Dark

Of course many people know lots more than I do. Many of the people close to me — the psychologists, therapists, mediators, yogis, and pastors, there’s at least one dentist — know lots more than I do about empathy. But the conversation we had in class that day led me to say certain things I was not sure I believed — about ethics and writing and the overlap — until I found myself saying them. Like Flannery O’Connor, who says this about writing — “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” — it may be that I’ve found teaching leads me to say new things that I think, or, with help, can come to believe in watching their effect on people and in myself.

Here’s what we came to understand, and what I came to say, about the relationship between empathy and the sympathetic imagination: first, they’re not the same thing. And second, what I’m calling sympathy is more useful, more effective — in life and in art — than empathy.

In June 2014, my wife underwent surgery for breast cancer. The night of the surgery, which was successful, she lay asleep, still drugged I think, at NYU Langone Medical Center, about twenty blocks from our home on New York City’s East Side. Her closest friend was staying with us, taking care of our son so that I could be at the hospital throughout the day and into the evening, and the house was dark when I returned. I’d head back to the hospital first thing in the morning. I was exhausted but not exactly tired when I got home — and I’m not sure I’ve ever told my wife this — I went to a Mexican place called ¡Vamos! across First Avenue from where we live, and read in the dimmest of candle light, under booming techno music, the final essay of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Reading this essay takes about two margaritas.

I think it’s true that the act of reading, in this case, involved a kind of private longing, in my worry, to know what my wife was going through and had gone through already. Though not always the smartest guy in the room — and this reading I did may be more proof of that than anything else — I’ve always been studious, and an essay that offered a grand unified theory of female pain seemed like a good bet for someone seeking understanding, a way to empathize.

But the moment was more complicated than that, because of the performance involved: imagine me there at the bar, hunched over, straining my eyes, alone in a crowded room on a Friday night, reading, and hoping, I suppose, to draw some attention my way. Not to be talked with, but to be seen in pain, perhaps, grieving something. Under the circumstances, sort of ugly. But I was also doing the other thing — right? — seeking understanding, trying to experience the world as someone else does. Not my wife, necessarily, but someone like her — a woman, at least, in pain. And there’s also the truth of the worry, the actual grief involved in a spouse’s illness, her surgery, in visiting hours and the helplessness of having to walk away through the revolving door toward home.

Performances are complicated, which is something we learn in particular about female pain by reading Jamison, who writes, “The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”

There’s no doubt that Leslie Jamison values empathy, and little doubt that she’s empathic — that she spends some fair portion of her life attempting to experience the world as she thinks other people do. I’m sure she tries to feel with other people. You can see it behind her reporting about sufferers of Morgellons Disease or a family who believes their son has experienced a past life. She doesn’t typically believe in these things as the sufferers do — and she’s clear that she’s not agnostic about these things — but you can imagine her trying to feel what they feel. Often in her writing, she’ll describe that act. She’ll perform empathy on the page. Here she’s concluding her essay about the Leningers, whose teenage child, they believe, fought in World War II:

Did I leave Louisiana thinking James Leininger was a reincarnated fighter pilot? No. …

Did I leave feeling that the Leiningers were sincere in their beliefs about reincarnation? Absolutely. … Something more complicated was going on with the Leiningers — and something simpler. It seemed to me that they were just a family seeking meaning in their experience, as we all do. In this case, the human hunger for narrative — a hunger I experience constantly, and from which I make my living — had built an intricate and self-sustaining story, all of it anchored by the desire to care for a little boy in the dark.

Look right in there for the signs of empathy — “as we all do,” she says, “a hunger I experience constantly, and from which I make my living.”

But is it empathy that allows her to write about the Leningers, or to write her grand unified theory? Or her essay “The Empathy Exams,” which I’ve often used as an example of how to borrow forms as a way to arrive at deeper truths than one might be able to by approaching a subject, even oneself, straight on?

Or, is it empathy that allows me to write about my wife — about whom I believe I have felt, and often feel, empathy — when I mentioned her just above, or wrote this about her illness in 2016?

My wife’s health, even after she discovered the cancer, has always been basically good. Surgery required its own recovery time, the emptying of drains, pain medication, and lots of sleep. In the weeks following the surgery, as soon as it was safe to travel, we spent some time on a California beach we love, where she thought she might recover best. She took long, solitary walks and considered her next steps, even while we both knew that, because of me and our son, she’d been stripped of choices that veered too far from what the doctors had prescribed.

Is it empathy that allows Coetzee to write this from the point of view of his character John, Elizabeth’s son, as he drives her to the airport after what’s really been a disastrous few days lecturing on animals and being lectured in return?

“Yet I am not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?

She turns on him a tearful face. What does she want, he thinks? Does she want me to answer her question for her?

They are not yet on the expressway. He pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms. He inhales the smell of cold cream, of old flesh. “There, there,” he whispers in her ear. “There, there. It will all be over soon.”

Is it empathy? I’m venturing to answer no in all these cases — that while Jamison and Coetzee and I are all arguably empathic in our lives, that we may often set ourselves to the task of empathizing with others, when we write, we’re engaged in another sort of activity, tapping into a different, more expansive, more complex, mysterious — and maybe even more ethical — mode of being. Again, Coetzee calls this the “sympathetic imagination.” And soon I’ll explore why I think he means something different with this phrase than empathy.

III. As Weightless as All Others

Vivian Gornick is a writer many writing students know well, especially her book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. In a key passage from early in the book, in which she addresses not just personal narrative, but also poetry and fiction — which is why I’m quoting at such length — Gornick is mainly interested in what it takes to create a persona out of what’s often only of interest to ourselves.

To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot express directly — inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires — but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public — and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.

“Detached empathy,” she writes — something, I’d say, like the performance of it we see in Jamison’s essays, and perhaps something like the performance I’m carrying out in this very writing while relating stories about panicking in the classroom and drinking margaritas while my wife lay alone and bandaged in the recovery ward. The persona who does all this performing, Gornick says, is vital: “It is the instrument of illumination.”

Now Gornick will use the word “empathy” elsewhere in The Situation and the Story while writing about work by D.H. Lawrence and V.S. Naipaul and the role of what she also calls “sympathy” in “imaginative writing” — in her case, sympathy for the subject one’s writing about. Lawrence fails in his essay “Do Women Change?” because, says Gornick, “There is not a single moment in the piece — not a paragraph or sentence — when the narrator sympathizes with his subject; that is, when he sees the modern woman as she might see herself, finds in himself that which would allow him to understand why she is as she is.” It’s also in this section that we find another oft-quoted moment from the book: “For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” And Gornick ultimately uses the two words — sympathy and empathy — somewhat interchangeably, or, she uses one to define the other: “What I mean by sympathy,” she says, “is simply that level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the ‘other’ as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing.”

And I do not disagree with her here — not really — though I like that for Gornick sympathy and imagination are set close by one another in her prose. I also like the notion that for Gornick there’s some aloofness — that detachment — to whatever empathy she’s describing as concomitant with the development of a persona, a character, or a speaking voice. Yet, the matter we were concerned with in my class that day while reading Coetzee — and still the one I’m concerned with now — is an effort to suss out the differences between the sympathetic imagination and empathy as an effort to feel with someone else.

And so back to that day with Coetzee. In her lectures on animal rights and her invocation of the death camps, Elizabeth Costello takes serious interest in what it is that makes us human, and what might disqualify us from a shared place in humanity. It’s happened before, she says, that people have been expelled:

“It is not because they waged an expansionist war, and lost it, that Germans of a particular generation are still regarded as standing a little outside humanity, as having to do something special before they can be readmitted to the human fold. They lost their humanity, in our eyes, because of a certain willed ignorance on their part. Under the circumstances of Hitler’s kind of war, ignorance may have been a useful survival mechanism, but that is an excuse which, with admirable moral rigour, we refuse to accept. In Germany, we say, a certain line was crossed which took people beyond the ordinary murderousness and cruelty of warfare into a state that we can only call sin. … Only those in the camps were innocent.”

She’ll go on to say in the lecture that those of us who ignore — who can’t know about, for our own sakes — the horrors of industrial agriculture are like those who ignored, for their own sakes, the death camps, to which she returns at the end of the lecture:

“The particular horror of the camps, the horror that convinces us that what went on there was a crime against humanity, is not that despite a humanity shared with their victims, the killers treated them like lice. That is too abstract. The horror is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else. They said, ‘It is they in those cattle cars rattling past.’ They did not say, ‘How would it be if it were I in that cattle car?’ They did not say, ‘It is I who am in that cattle car.’ They said, ‘It must be the dead who are being burned today, making the air stink and falling in ash on my cabbages.’ They did not say, ‘How would it be if I were burning?’ They did not say, ‘I am burning, I am falling in ash.’

“In other words, they closed their hearts. The heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another. Sympathy has everything to do with the subject and little to do with the object.”

It’s here, and with Leslie Jamison in mind, that I began to explore with my students what the differences between empathy and sympathy might be. We tend to think about empathy as mirroring, both feeling and expressing one’s shared experience of pain in full awareness of all that we cannot know about the individual whose pain we’re feeling. “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must be really hard,” Jamison writes, “ — it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. … Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”

The heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another. Sympathy has everything to do with the subject and little to do with the object.

Empathy sounds so eminently reasonable; it’s problem solving; and in its way — in the ways it can be tested say, part of an empathy exam — it means to reveal just how good the subject is at performing his emotions. “Empathy is a kind of care,” Jamison writes, “but it’s not the only kind of care, and it’s not always enough.”

For Sheila Heti, who has a chapter in her book How Should a Person Be? titled “What is Empathy?,” in its wake, the performed quality, and the mirroring involved in the emotion, are its greatest threats to the individual:

Forever after, though, it would be really hard to untangle how you imagined other people wanted you to behave from how you wanted to behave. How would you even know what you wanted, when at such a young age, desire had been mixed up with empathy and guilt?

How could I castrate my mind — neuter it! — and build up a resistance to know what was mine from what was everyone else’s, and finally be in the world in my own way? That endless capacity for empathy — which you have to really kill in order to act freely, to know your own desires!

Now I’m not sure I’d go that far in dissuading people from developing and deploying empathy, but it does reveal another limit, even as Heti suggests our “endless capacity” for feeling with others. (In this case, the empathy she’s describing is being extended, in her imagination, for an adult who has abused a child — more of that “loneliness of the monster” argument.) But when we consider Heti’s take on the matter — and bear in mind we’re reading her fiction — I actually think there’s really something to her rejection — her murder — of empathy and her embrace of what seems like selfishness.

Bear with me, but here’s a little more of what we realized together in our class while reading Coetzee. After puzzling over the difficult problem of whether those in the class who eat factory-raised meat might still be thought of as within the human fold, we took up Elizabeth Costello’s claim that sympathy — and so, the sympathetic imagination — has everything to do with the subject — one’s consciousness and unconsciousness, presumably — which, when we consider it in light of Heti or Jamison, sets it in stark contrast with empathy, which has the object as its focus. In this way, empathy creates a number of problems for both ethics and our writing life, I think. Consider, just for instance, one of Paul Bloom’s major criticisms of empathy in his book against it: “[Empathy] is a spotlight that has a narrow focus, one that shines most brightly on those we love and gets dim for those who are strange or different or frightening.”

If Bloom’s right, and here I think he is, what’s to say it wasn’t the spotlight of empathy — a bright focus on those they loved, that dimed for those who were strange, they who were in the cattle cars — that led to what Costello describes here?

“The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka — Poles, for the most part — said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake.”

For the sake of those they loved.

Bloom has studied this stuff. He calls empathy both parochial and racist, for the way it focuses on characteristics individuals share — they’re gentiles in Treblinka, say — which seems to rely on our ability to see ourselves in someone else. It’s very easy to see ourselves — to recognize our own pain — in our parents and children. Our wives. And there’s some personal relief to be found in relieving the pain of those we love with our empathy. This is selfish, and it’s also the personal reward of empathy — of which there are many: perhaps most notably, to bask in the glow of our own performed goodness.

But the selfishness Heti is talking about is different, I think, and something akin to the focus on the subject — the self — that moves Costello’s argument for sympathy forward. What Costello is interested in — and here, specifically to encourage people to extend their sympathies to animals — is to make the absolute most of the self and our creative abilities. To recognize them. To realize them. She rejects the limitations of empathy and its ever narrowing focus on the object; she rejects the centrality of reason and even emotion in our consideration of where our sympathies can and must lie; and by focusing on the subject — on what our consciousness and unconsciousness makes possible, which is boundless — identifies the only thing that matters, the only limit to our sympathies, when we consider what existences it is possible to imagine — that limit — “the substrate of life.”

And there’s some personal relief to be found in relieving the pain of those we love with our empathy. This is selfish, and it’s also the personal reward of empathy — of which there are many: perhaps most notably, to bask in the glow of our own performed goodness.

Now, Paul Bloom might say that working within this limitation, which is hardly a limitation at all, is an antidote to problems he sees with empathy. He mainly talks about concern and compassion as more diffuse and workable ethical modes. (“We do best,” though, he says, “when we rely on reason.”) And in her acts of sympathy, I like considering the ways Costello stretches an understanding of “the substrate of life”: Beyond imagining the existence of Molly Bloom, and bats and oysters and chimpanzees, Costello also imagines life beyond life — not the afterlife, but the life of the dead, her life as a corpse. And indeed, it’s her own coming death that animates many of her concerns throughout the novel, and her son John’s concerns, too — up to that last moment when, smelling cold cream and old flesh — what deathly things to notice — he says to her, “There, there. It will all be over soon.” But here is Coetzee, pushing the limit, imagining a woman who has never lived confronted with the knowledge that she will one day die.

“For instants at a time, … I know what it is to be a corpse. The knowledge repels me. It fills me with terror; I shy away from it, refuse to entertain it.

“All of us have such moments, particularly as we grow older. The knowledge we have is not abstract — ‘All human beings are mortal, I am a human being, therefore I am mortal’ — but embodied. For a moment we are that knowledge. We live the impossible: we live beyond our death, look back on it, yet look back only as a dead self can.”

Here, through a radical sort of imagining by the subject, is the absolute diminishment of the self. Sympathy for one’s own corpse, terrifying as it may be, creates a world beyond personal pain and the ability to feel with another person. In this case, sympathy is the end of empathy because it removes personal pain — the suffering self — from the equation altogether. This sort of imagining eliminates empathy in ways Bloom advocates for — echoing others like Elaine Scarry. Recognizing the difficulty of imagining other people — other real people, including those we’re close to, but more significantly, “those who are strange or different or frightening” — in an essay that, like Bloom’s work, is really about policy, Scarry describes what it might take to achieve equality between the self and the other. She proposes, as others have before her, not “trying to make one’s knowledge of others as weighty as one’s self-knowledge, but … making one ignorant about oneself, and therefore as weightless as all others.” This is the exact opposite sort of ignorance that plagued those in Treblinka who ignored the death camps.

Now, this is strange advice, perhaps, in light of all I’ve said of the necessary focus on ourselves — the subject — that sympathy requires. How can we take advantage of our boundless imagination while also striving to become ignorant of ourselves? Well, again, Scarry and Bloom are not really talking about the life of the writer. And yet, what if we look back to what Gornick advises about creating a persona? In that process, she warns of the “the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.” Isn’t “making one ignorant about oneself” just another way of saying that in our personal writing — or through our characters or speaking voices — we “transform low-level self-interest” into an aloofness about the self that makes possible the very self-implication or dramatic irony, or what have you, that turns life into art, our ideas into stories. Christians call this the way to salvation: dying to self.

IV. Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story

I have a few other writers to bring up in this final section, mainly Vladimir Nabokov and Barry Lopez. One gives me the title of this talk. The other a final example of, and also an elaboration on, the boundlessness of the sympathetic imagination and the power of making oneself ignorant about oneself.

I began in the fall 2016 teaching Nabokov’s 1948 lecture “Good Writers and Good Readers,” which addresses in certain ways some of the themes I’ve been addressing so far. For instance, he talks about the relationship between the beauty of literature, its enchantments, and the moral education books can contain. He speaks too, about how reading should be done — certainly not in an effort to identify with a character in a book, but rather “with impersonal imagination and artistic delight.” (Identification, he says, is “the worst thing a reader can do. … This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.”) In what we’re all here learning and practicing to do — all of us — there’s a balance at play, he says, between the mind of the reader and the mind of the writer, the enchanter. Indeed, if you’re convinced by my claims about the relationship between detachment and the creation of art, and you either write this way already or will give it a try, Nabokov’s ideal reader will meet you halfway. “We ought to remain a little aloof,” he says, “and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy — passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers — the inner weave of a given masterpiece.”

But if that’s the reader’s side of things — that aloofness and detachment, not exactly absorption — where does literature come from? Nabokov offers us a version of its birth:

Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

We’ve all faced the wolf in the tall grass — or, maybe it was a bear, as we’ll soon see. Maybe it’s a panic attack; the wolf of being outsmarted by a first-year writing student; maybe it’s a spouse’s cancer; for me it’s very often the death of my father when I was a kid. Sometimes it’s our aging parents and our aging selves. I’ve recently been writing about the wolf that is my mysterious son. But, what Nabokov’s formulation suggests is that when we write literature, we must find our ways — like readers — into detachment and then remain a little bit aloof while we write, maybe a lot aloof if we’re writing a Humbert Humbert. Because neither the immediate fear of the wolf, nor the empathy we feel when we face a dying parent and smell her cold cream, is what makes for literary illumination — or, the way that what we write sheds light on the world, or the substrate of life we share. Those experiences — for the fiction writer and the poet and the factual writer alike — must pass through a prism, says Nabokov — of our minds, perhaps, or what Orhan Pamuk described in his 2006 Nobel Lecture as a sort of second self, one who revels, in a sense, and is surprised by the ignorance of the other:

As I sit at my table, for days, months, years, slowly adding words to empty pages, I feel as if I were bringing into being that other person inside me, in the same way one might build a bridge or a dome, stone by stone. … If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my life, I am most surprised by those moments when I felt as if the sentences and pages that made me ecstatically happy came not from my own imagination but from another power, which had found them and generously presented them to me.

If you feel the tension here of mixed metaphors, that’s fair enough: Nabokov is describing writing at the speed of light; Pamuk emphasizes the slowness of what we all do. But the basic point is the same, I think: our words will not shimmer without invention, without the application of what I’ve been calling, with Coetzee, the sympathetic imagination involved in building worlds. Unless our experiences are, in some way, refracted — not just felt, but transformed, by time, by a focus on the telling detail or by the selflessness involved in making ourselves weightless, by deception and invention — of worlds, of the second self — we will not produce art.

I think: our words will not shimmer without invention, without the application of what I’ve been calling, with Coetzee, the sympathetic imagination involved in building worlds.

For Nabokov, Nature provides our model. “Literature is invention,” he says,

Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

And perhaps, too, does the writer of poetry, and even the factual writer — we follow, if we can, Nature’s lead, in how it deceives us and it how it reveals the truth. Because even if we can agree there may be no true stories — that all art is invention — I’m a believer in truth. Which leads me then to Barry Lopez and the bear in the woods.

In May, 2017, I was in the audience to hear a public conversation between Barry Lopez and the composer John Luther Adams. They spoke about their collaboration over the decades, their appreciation of the other’s work and processes, even the place of birdsong in their lives and art. To open the event, the actor James Naughton read a recent essay by Lopez called “The Invitation.” It was published in Granta in November 2015. Here’s how it opens:

When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.

The details that come alive in this essay are mainly those describing a bear in the woods, a bear feasting on a caribou carcass. Or that’s what it seems at first. Encountering that scene, Lopez writes, “I would tend to focus almost exclusively on the bear.” But as he continues, he reveals the limitations of that approach, what might have led him, long ago, to write something called “Meeting the Bear.” What his companions knew of nature, however — what they could imagine — was that this moment was part of some vastly greater unfolding of events, what Lopez describes as an “immersion in the current of a river.”

They were swimming in it, feeling its pull, noting the temperature of the water, the back eddies and where the side streams entered. My approach, in contrast, was mostly to take note of objects in the scene—the bear, the caribou, the tundra vegetation. A series of dots, which I would try to make sense of by connecting them all with a single line. My friends had situated themselves within a dynamic event. Also, unlike me, they felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning. Their approach was to let it continue to unfold. To notice everything and to let whatever significance was there emerge in its own time.

If you read this essay, you’ll see notes within about the desire to come to know a place deeply — and to be known, in return, by that place and to feel a sense of belonging. Lopez offers rules to live and write by: pay attention, be patient, be attentive to what the body knows. Here’s the conclusion — if we can call it that — he draws.

A grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket is more than a bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket. It is a point of entry into a world most of us have turned our backs on in an effort to go somewhere else, believing we’ll be better off just thinking about a grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket.

Now, I can’t quote lines like this, about an alternative way of experiencing Nature, for an audience of avid readers and then doubt that I’m among people who love language. Nor can I doubt much that we also love that through language we possess an “ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine alternatives to our current reality.” That’s writing, right? That’s also Michael Pollan again; and our ability to generate these alternate realities is also what he suggests makes our pain qualitatively different than animal pain: the pain of the caribou, say. Who knows about that? Like Pollan, I’m a meat eater who tries to be careful about the meat I eat. And the details of what this means we can save for another time, a private conversation — I may not always eat meat; I haven’t always; I’ve become, over the years, both less and more sure of myself, which is sort of the point of all I’ve been saying.

But Pollan’s focus on our pain and the way it differs from animal pain — which, to be fair, is ultimately something he’ll concern himself with very little — reveals the limits, once again, of empathy. It’s a habit of mind that rushes to meaning. Cartesian certainty. (And perhaps — if the parochial spotlight of empathy turns us racist, say — Cartesian cruelty.) It’s no wonder I panicked and had to leave the room.

The writers I’ve been turning to, and teaching lately, lead us to a different habit of mind. This habit resounds in what Pamuk and Nabokov and Gornick and Scarry say, Lopez and Pollan, too, if you read him fully, about building detachment — time, boundless sympathy, another self — into the writing life, resisting whatever need I have to know immediately what a thing means to me. I’ll be a better writer if I resist the pleasure of my own weightiness — and my ability to prove my weightiness and significance to others: I feel your pain; I know the answer; look out, here comes the wolf! If I — and ultimately WE — can get lost, and then eventually found, in the vast weight, in all that’s shimmering, in all of what surrounds us.