“I’m trying to imagine”: Attempts at Empathy

August 24, 2015 0 Comments Discussion 2525 Views
Trinity Test Mushroom Cloud.

“Trinity Test Mushroom Cloud.” Links to image source.

No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.

-Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

by Beth McDermott

In the essay “‘Tell Me if It Is Too Far for You’: On Sympathy” David Wojahn writes about visiting Trinity Site at White Sands Missile Range, the place where scientists from the Manhattan Project tested the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945.  This test took place less than a month before the bombings of Nagasaki on August 5th and Hiroshima on August 9th, seventy years ago earlier this month. Conscious of the impossibility of capturing the devastation that became possible at Trinity, Wojahn describes being there—inside the McDonald family ranch where the bomb’s assembly was completed—hyperaware of how he puts this experience into words.

To show us that he’s self-conscious about poeticizing, Wojahn gestures early on to documentary photographs casually displayed on the inside of a fence, put up for the two days per year that Trinity Site is open to visitors: “Here’s the semi that pulled the device from Los Alamos; here’s the wooden tower they erected for exploding it; here are two shirtless GIs posing beside the bomb as it creaks from chains, cigarettes are dangling from their lips” (15).  Wojahn uses the deictic and anaphoric “here” to invoke the past while including information about his subject position.  These photos require a certain degree of fidelity from him.  He can choose to describe the GIs as shirtless, and he can imagine what the bomb in chains sounded like.  But he can’t “betray the mute authenticity” (Wojahn 18) of what happened at Trinity Site; we need to know so that we don’t forget.  And yet this is an analytical act; metonymic of a larger, irrepressible context, the photos mean different things to different people:

People are taking photos of the photos; someone’s Scotty lifts his leg to pee beneath an image of a mushroom cloud; his owner wears an iPod, and I’m trying to imagine what his soundtrack for all of this might be like—another metaphor that fails me, and would probably have failed Dante as well (Wojahn 15).

Notice that Wojahn compares an image of the bomb’s ascending cloud of smoke to a mushroom, but he can’t imagine the soundtrack for another person’s viewing experience.  No metaphors swoop in from his imagination to bridge the gap between himself and the iPod wearer, whose playlist remains unheard by us all.  Is this because “the mushroom cloud” is a dead metaphor, incapable of telling us anything new?  Why employ a dead metaphor and resist constructing something new and creative?

As Robert Hass puts it at end of his great poem ‘Heroic Simile,’ ‘There are limits to the imagination.’ Some events beggar that intricate matrix of guile, observation, awe, invention and judgment that we call an imaginative act. Some events are beyond the blandishments of metaphor. Some events should refuse our attempts to shape them into satire—or to attempt the opposite of satire and imbue them with empathy (Wojahn 16).

For Wojahn, our limited capacity to empathize with people is not for lack of trying; rather, it’s symptomatic of our inability to imagine what it’s like for them during “some events.”  In place of empathy, he argues for sympathy or “fellow feeling with the ideas and emotions of other human beings” (Wojahn 17).  Sympathy maintains a degree of self-consciousness that empathy overcomes.  And yet Wojahn argues that we do want to walk beside people rather than in their shoes.  As Wojahn writes, “Sympathy cannot exist without some form of resistance and self-interrogation…and fellow feeling cannot be maintained for long” (19-20).

Wojahn anticipates that the reader may resist his disparagement of empathy, which I initially did.  As defined by The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, empathy is “the projection of ourselves into, or the identification of ourselves with objects either animate or inanimate” (qtd. in Wojahn 17).  When I described a manuscript of my poems in a recent job letter, I wrote that my speakers “attempt to get into the mindset of the human or animal other.”  Wojahn’s essay has encouraged me to refine what I mean by that statement.  By “attempt,” do I mean that I never actually achieve empathy, despite trying?  Or do I think I’m projecting myself into the passenger pigeons, American robins (yes I’ve written a lot of bird poems), and ballet dancers that populate my poems?  And what about the overwhelming subject matter of my poems?  Do I achieve empathy because I write about fairly ordinary things?  Is empathizing with a bird possible in a way that empathizing with atomic bomb survivors isn’t?

What Wojahn means by “some events” remains shrouded in mystery, and yet I think we can all list events, in and out of our lifetimes, that would be, in the words of V. Penelope Pelizzon, “risky gambits” (“Light Speaking”).  Perhaps for that reason alone I’ve avoided writing about them.  But is this correct?  Maybe Wojahn’s argument for sympathy in place of empathy provides a theoretical frame of reference—whether a poet finds it useful, or just one more piece of advice to prove wrong.  I recently began a poem about a photograph published in a book titled The Boy: A Holocaust Story by Dan Porat.  Porat provides a sympathetic view of photos that were originally taken by SS officers in the spring of 1943 and compiled in a document called The Stroop Report.  One photograph is of three young women whose bunker has just been discovered.  They’ve managed to foil Jürgen Stroop’s plan to eradicate the Warsaw ghetto in a couple of days, and I think the photograph captures some of their tenacity, a feat which the SS officer who took the picture wouldn’t have intended.  Now they’re either going to be killed immediately or set to Treblinka or Majdanek (Porat 93).  What right do I have to write about them?  I’m incapable of knowing their thoughts.  And yet I want nothing more than to know what one of the girls in particular is thinking. In my drafts of the poem, she exudes agency; the gesture she makes counteracts the officer who photographs her without her permission.  The question is how to make it seem like she exudes agency without me, and maybe that disinterest in the self is where the impetus to empathize comes from.


Works Cited

Pelizzon, V. Penelope. “Light Speaking: Reflections on Poetry and Photography.”  POETRYMay 2013. Web. 13 Aug. 2015.

Porat, Dan. The Boy: A Holocaust Story. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

Wojahn, David. “‘Tell Me If It Is Too Far for You’: On Sympathy.” American Poetry Review 39.2 (2010): 15-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Aug. 2015.


About the Writer

Beth McDermott is Poetry Editor for Kudzu House Quarterly and an editorial assistant intern forRHINO.  Her poetry chapbook, How to Leave a Farmhouse, is forthcoming in 2015 from Porkbelly Press.  She’s a Visiting Professor of English at the University of St. Francis and lives in New Lenox, IL.

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