Month: January 2015

David Foster Wallace On Empathy


“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self- centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.”

– David Foster Wallace, excerpt from The Is Water

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Occasionally, I’ll read a claim here or there that we learn empathy from reading fiction. While I love reading fiction and I think that most people will agree that there is something of understanding gained through reading about and relating to diverse personalities, I also think we can easily deceive ourselves about how well this serves us. More often than not, it can delude us about our practical capacity for compassion.

If I don’t know how to relate to my downstairs neighbors, is this thing I call empathy valuable? Is assuming I can fully understand someone else’s life experiences respectful of them? Is understanding and comprehension really the goal?

David Foster Wallace goes on to claim that learning to consider others and serve them mentally is the point of higher education, what he describes as being well-adjusted. I have a difficult time knowing what to think here, because I find myself wanting to agree with him and also feeling that empathy, or perceived comprehension of another’s circumstance, is perhaps not the best resource for learning to care for them. Perhaps intellectual assent is useful, but is it the most genuine and natural route to caring?

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Further Reading

Mary Berry Reflects On Her Heritage

Want to change the world? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Wendell Berry On His Children

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55 Classics Review # 14 – Watership Downs by Richard Adams


Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.

Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.

Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.

The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.

This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.

Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.

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Further Reading

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary

Mister Rogers And Parental Anger


“I received a letter from a parent who wrote:

‘Mister Rogers, how do you do it? I wish I were like you. I want to be patient and quiet and even-tempered, and always speak respectfully to my children. But that just isn’t my personality. I often lose my patience and even scream at my children. I want to change from an impatient person to a patient one, from an angry person into a gentle one.’

Just as it takes time for children to understand what real love is, it takes time for parents to understand that being always patient, quiet, even-tempered, and respectful isn’t necessarily what “good” parents are. In fact, parents help children by expressing a wide range of feelings–including appropriate anger. All children need to see that the adults in their lives can feel anger and not hurt themselves or anyone else when they feel that way.”

– Fred Rogers, excerpt from the text of The World According To Mister Rogers: Important Things To Remember

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Living in a world where parents are constantly placing themselves and one another under a microscope, it’s refreshing to think on these words from the greatest of child (and parent) advocates. The most valuable asset we can impart to our children is the first-hand impression of a vulnerable adult facing their own inadequacies and growing through all sorts of positive and negative experiences.

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Further Reading

Wanna Change The World?

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, and the Importance Of Play

The Tragedy Of Having A Baby

How To Get Rid Of Faith

Book Review: Sobriety by Daniel Maurer


Note: I recieved Sobriety for free through Speakeasy in exchange for an honest review. No opinions given have been suggested or coerced. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255

Sobriety is a graphic novel following five diverse addicts who share their stories with one another from different stages of substance abuse recovery. It begins with and is occasionally broken up by sequences where the author and illustrator step into the plot as characters in a manipulable comic universe. They take opportinity to provide historic and exotic detours to explain the development and concepts of the 12 steps in AA and NA.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the illustration style used in Sobriety. I like a pretty wide variety of styles, everything from Jeff Lemire to Art Spiegelman, but this one left me feeling mostly uninspired. It seemed like a very difficult text to illustrate in many parts. The illustrations didn’t often further the plot in any way, and any time the writing content stalled on a point, the images didn’t really seem be able to keep up any momentum. I occasionally found myself skipping the illustrations just because the text didn’t seem to benefit from them.

The writing of Sobriety is good. Even for a non-fiction graphic novel, its really information heavy. It reminded me immensely of an episode of The Magic School Bus. A story (in this case a series of personal stories) is broken up by the quirky delivery of facts and details on related subject matter by a fun-loving and endearing narrator who can manipulate the universe for any metaphor or detailed explanation they desire. If they had ever made and episode of The Magic School Bus concerning the creation and details of the 12 Steps, this book would make the perfect script. I found the passages that followed character’s lives and the history flash-backs really engaging.

As someone who has not personally dealt with addiction, the format felt a bit too long to keep my attention. I think this may be the delineation point for the engagement quality among readers. Perhaps those interested in pursuing the 12 Steps and those already in recovery can appreciate and connect with the entire book more readily, while those who haven’t had such experiences might lose interest in certain passages.

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Further Reading

Review Of The Life And Remembrances Of Martha Toole by Jason Derr

Adaptations And Creative License

Bill Watterson, Michaelangelo, and The Importance Of Play