Sunday, December 21, 2014

Empathy (part II): The Writer . . . sort of

I've had this post done for almost a month now, as a follow up to the first about Empathy. It was going to be even better than the first, make a bunch a brilliant points on the subject, add more clarity to my already proposed suspicion on the word Empathy. In short, it detailed how the writer is simultaneously a Masochist and a Sadist, the one feeding the other. How the writer takes pleasure in creating characters and scenes of misery, sorrow, death, destruction, all things negative (and yes, I know some writers also write happy thing) while also enjoying the ability to inflict the pains of those experiences on readers. It was going to be my opus.

Then I read over it again.

And again.

I couldn’t figure out what it was, but the whole thing was just off.

So I let it sit for a few weeks. Then read it again.

Still, something was just not right. All the awesome ideas and conjectures and conclusions were right, they were clear, and they would change everything. I left nothing to chance, making sure that the progression of how a writer is a Sadomasochist could not be argued.

Then this morning I realized: who cares? Who cares what I think about Empathy? Or anything? As a writer I should know better. The job of the writer is to show the reader all things, including the writer's thoughts and feelings about life, the universe, and everything. Not to explain them. That’s all I’ve been doing on here for the last few years, explaining myself, my experiences, my thoughts and ideas and ideals. I’ve been telling.

No more telling. Hopefully. I’ll just end with two quotes that were going to be in the original post by one of my creative writing professors:

“The only job of the writer is to make the reader see.”

“You should care about what you care about, write about what is important to you.”

Monday, November 3, 2014

Empathy (part I): Masochism

I have a complicated relationship with the word Empathy. In past posts I have skirted the issue of Empathy, touched briefly on my distain for the word, but I have yet to explore my reasons for disliking (in the nicest of terms) the word Empathy, and what that means, etcetera. You will find this word capitalized throughout, because I believe that is, on a whole, how the English speaking world views its importance.

But first: why do I harbor a loathing for the word Empathy? Because Empathy, in referring to the meaning of the word, does not exist; or, more succinct, it is impossible. Let us look at some definitions, so that I can try an explain myself (I attempted to pull from various sources for definitions and such, but Merriam-Webster just dominates my bookshelves):

Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler (1926)
This guy devotes no space in his book for the word Empathy. I am uncertain as to why, but there it is. This is important because it signifies one of three things: one, the word’s usage was well enough known and used for its defined purpose; two, that Fowler cared so little for the word as to omit it from his text; or three, that the word was in little use and therefore required no attention.

Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms (1951)
This text also skips over Empathy, suggesting to me that there are no other words that can possibly resemble Empathy’s meaning. Again, there are two possibilities here: one, that the word is so specific and acute in its meaning, that no other word/words can resemble or clarify its meaning; or two, that Empathy as a word is not possible, because there is no other way to understand the word except in its own self-existence. The text does, however, contain the word “sympathy”, offering the following as synonyms: attraction, affinity, reciprocality, correspondence, harmony, consonance, accord, concord, pity, compassion, commiseration, ruth, condolence, empathy, bowels, tenderness, warmheartedness, warmth, responsiveness, tender, kindliness, kindness, benignness, benignancy, kind.

A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957)
Another text that does not contain the word Empathy, nor sympathy. I am certain there is some intriguing research that could be done on why these texts do not contain this words, but the drive is not there for me, so someone else will have to do it for me.

The new Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language (1971)
-Greek empatheia, from em, in, and pathos, suffering, passion.
-The imaginative projection of one’s consciousness into the feelings of another person or object; sympathetic understanding.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1998)
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it;
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

The American Heritage Dictionary (2001)
-Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.
1: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2: the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself:

Merriam-Webster Online
-The feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings;
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it;
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

Oxford Dictionary Online
-The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Origin: early 20th century: from Greek empatheia (from em- 'in' + pathos 'feeling') (it’s main comparison to pull this list of words was “understand”)
affinity, appreciation, compassion, insight, pity, rapport, sympathy, warmth, communion, comprehension, concord, recognition, responsiveness, soul, being on same wavelength, being there for someone, community of interests, cottoning to, good vibrations, hitting it off.

Throughout the decades (at least what I have on my shelves and searched on the internet), the word has changed very little, if at all. In the simplest terms, Empathy is the act of one human vicariously experiencing/understanding the experiences and emotions of another human. That’s the problem I have: that we think we can understand the experiences of another; that we think we can vicariously know what it is like to go through something without ever partaking in said experience. Even if we have traversed a similar event, say the death of a parent, Empathy is still impossible. Which parent was it? How did the parent die? Was it cancer? Old age? Drugs? A car accident? An almost limitless litany of possibilities can separate us.

For argument’s sake, however, let’s consider that two individuals of the same sex and gender identification (to allow for the most similarities) have a mother that dies when they are 17 and the conditions for both are as follows: mother developed breast cancer in her early 40s, fought the debilitating disease for two years with extensive chemotherapy, died in the hospital (we’ll even say the same hospital), and was then buried in the local town cemetery. And let us assume that all other circumstances too numerous to list surrounding the deaths are exactly the same in both scenarios. Even in this example, Empathy is impossible, because Empathy will presume that both children have had the same day to day lives for the previous 15 before the mother took ill, and the same two years during her illness. That is not possible. We are not compartmentalized creatures, we do not and cannot separate experiences in our lives from others. Each second we live is informed by the entirety of our life lived previous to that second, a continuous updating of our personalities based what we try to define as the present. We are compilations of experience. We are variegated beings, unknowable even at times to our own consciousnesses. As much as I have a difficultly believing that every human on the planet is a unique individual, the sum of all personalities possible is infinite. No two people are exactly alike. Of course similarities are possible, even expected, but similarities are not exactitudes.

The trouble is we often confuse Empathy with sympathy, which is a gross misunderstanding. Sympathy is: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other. Unlike Empathy, sympathy does not pretend at individuals being able to comprehend the lives of each other, but instead indicates that we are emotionally connected, that the sorrow or joy of one affects the sorrow or joy of another, which is not only possible, but necessary. Sympathy is essential. It is vital to the existence of the human race. If we did not have sympathy, no one would have reason to care for or even consider another person, all would eventual devolve into chaos and disorder, selfishness would overpower all other emotions, bringing down humanity as a whole. We need to care about each other in order to keep the world functioning (if we want to keep humans on the planet). Sympathy binds us together in families, in marriages, and in friendships. Sympathy is was keeps total anarchy and slaughter from reigning. Sympathy is what makes us human, it is what separates us from other animals (in theory).

But Empathy, well, Empathy does not exist. Because in short, Empathy is not possible. Simple as that.

Now, to get to my point. What intrigues me (or confuses, or perhaps disgusts, I have yet to decide), is that we believe we have Empathy, or more accurately, we WANT to have Empathy. We WANT to feel the pain of others. Not all of us, mind you, but a large portion of humans on this planet DESIRE the pain of others, to know what others feel, to know why others feel what they feel. Since it is not possible to experience every feeling, every scenario, possible, we yearn for the pain and suffering of others, to fill in the gaps in our experiences (we do not consider someone Empathetic who can feel happiness with others, we use the term when someone is exceptional at feeling the pain of others, hence I focus on the negatives aspects of human relations when discussing Empathy). I believe it is why we read, watch movies, listen to music, view art, spend hundreds of hours just talking to people, study the sciences of the brain and culture, why we crave history; we want to feel the pain of others.

This brings me to the whole point of this tirade: Empathy is just another term for Masochism. Masochism is (in the non-sexual meaning): pleasure in being abused or dominated: a taste for suffering. Perhaps Empathy is not a pleasure, persay, but it is a desire for suffering. Empathy is the act of taking upon ourselves the pains of another, without experiencing that which caused the pain, and without being able to remove the pain from who we are vicariously living the experience. Empathy is a willingness, and I say a desire, to share the pain of another, especially when that pain cannot be shared and has no need to be shared. There is an attraction towards the suffering of others, to say “I know what you are feeling, I feel it too” even when we do not, or cannot. We want to feel that pain. We want to feel that suffering. It is almost reaches the level of pleasure to say that we are Empathetic, that we carry the pain and suffering and misery of others, or that we have the propensity to deprive ourselves of happiness to be like one who is struggling. Empathy is not sympathy, seeing others experience difficulty which in turn makes us sad for them, not in the least. Empathy, this masochistic conjunction, attempts to recreate the horrors of living that another has experienced, in someone who has not traversed said horrors (just ask Leopold von Sacher-Masoch). I do not understand such a desire. Life, whether you believe in a God or not, is about being happy; finding that which uplifts your consciousness and enlivens the body. Why, then, do we aspire towards Empathy? To our own self-inflicted pain and destruction? What does it do? What do we accomplish? We think we are becoming better people: better friends or siblings or lovers or whatever, because now we know what it means to be someone else, how it feels to be the ‘other’. Except, we do not. We are still, and forever will be, stuck inside our own flesh, our mind encased in fluids and bone interpreting external stimuli and converting them into electronic pulses that somehow get translated into what we call meaning. That neuronic electricity cannot be translated by another human brain. We can study it, even try to map it on computers and determine what pain and joy and confusion and creativity and so on, look like in the brain, but we cannot connect one brain to another. Whether by God or evolution, we have been placed in separate bodies for a reason. That reason being far too complicated for my personal understanding, but in the very least I believe it is because no one body can handle the full encompassing sorrow and pain that is human existence. Our weak flesh cannot handle such an overwhelming burden.

Empathy is the attribute of a God, an immortal perfect being capable of handling the immense pressure that true Empathy requires. The ability to literally, metaphysically, and metaphorically enter into the minds and hearts of others, to lift the weight of hardship. That is Empathy, and man cannot hope to come close to such a feat.
We may aspire towards Empathy, to one day be able to physically handle what it means to be Empathetic, but as mortals, as fallible flesh, our attempts at Empathy are nothing more than masochistic endeavors fulfilling selfish desires.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Musicality of Punctuation

I’ve been trying to write this for months. But every time I flex my fingers over the computer keys, something gets in the way. First, it was this infographic a professor posted on Facebook months ago:

Brilliant, to say the least. My first thought: “I wish I had that in college.” And my second thought: “This will be great to use with my students.” And then I realized, looking it over, that I hate grammar, and more importantly, the arbitrary rules of punctuation used to explain grammar. And even more importantly, I don’t teach anymore. But I digress.

Then, last month I saw this video that Weird Al posted back in July of this year:

Also brilliant. I love Weird Al’s witty disdain for society’s failures (and if you don’t, you’re just lying to yourself).

Then I moved to Idaho (which is a whole other story).

Anyway. If I put this off any longer, what I have to say will already have been said. Hopefully it makes sense written down, because it does in my head.


So. What is the point of grammar, anyway? I mean, really the point. Or for that matter, textual communication in general? From all that I’ve learned so far in my short life, text is the means by which we represent speech. For thousands of years humans spoke without written language: developed grammars and complete languages, with none of it written. Then, someone thought it would be a good idea to start carving shapes into rocks and clay, on wood, and then eventually paper. All of which led to where we are now with typewriters, computers, cellphones, etc. Grammar, of course, is not a byproduct of textual language; but text does present the ability to more meticulously dissect, analyze, and debate it. For hundreds of years, at least in English, we’ve had roughly the same grammar, thanks to the unification that text-type creates. The last hundred years have really solidified what we now teach in schools as technology has attempted to control textual language (i.e. Microsoft Word). However, through this exacting of textual language, we’ve lost the original (and I believe more important) purpose of punctuation, grammar, and language: to represent the spoken idiom. Text serves no other purpose than to represent our verbal communication. It has never been a means by which to replace it. To control how we speak. Only an endeavor to capture the intricacies of human sound.


But we don’t speak with punctuation. Now, I can only attest for myself, but I do not think about commas and semi-colons and periods when I’m speaking with my friends or family or whomever. Nothing of the sort.

As a child, I loathed Language Arts. The title itself made no sense to me. How is punctuation and sentence structure diagramming art? Or language? Or anything that an elementary school students would care about or want to practice? Point being, I never understood or learned proper grammar and punctuation usage until Graduate School.

In the U.S. we are taught that punctuation serves one purpose: the grammatically correct organization of written language, as deemed acceptable by dead white men through thousands of years of trial and error and debating. It was not something to be read, but only a way to separate ideas on the page. Grammar, to me, is something to loathe, because it makes no sense. There are rules. Lots of rules. Rules that even the best grammarians really don’t understand. Independent and dependent clauses, conjunctive phrases. I would list more, but I don’t know any, because I don’t care. Punctuation made grammar possible, as I saw as a child. But even after taking a History of the English Language class (one of the coolest classes I ever took, and one that I think all English speakers need to take in order to understand the language we speak and write), I still don’t understand why we perpetuate most of the grammar rules we use today.

As a creative writer, however, punctuation is very different. The rules aren’t as concrete, or adhered to at all sometimes for that matter. Punctuation, to the creative writer, is about breath. It’s about rhythm. Joseph Campbell said this about mythology: “Mythology is the song. It is the song of the imagination, inspired by the energies of the body.” As writers, we are constructors and participators in this Mythological song. We are the musicians of imagination. We create voices and scenes and experiences in the minds of others. That’s our goal. We manipulate little black symbols representing phonetics representing meaning into stories that have the power to alter an individual’s perception of their own reality, and the world, and universe in general. But, in order to facilitate that interaction between writer and reader, these symbols need some sort of organization, agreed upon by those who use them.

Which brings us back to grammar and punctuation. And the unfortunate need for it to make meaning possible. Sounds contradictory to what I’ve already written, but such is life.

I’ve thought a lot about this, especially in the last year while trying to teach English Composition college students how to write. Then, the epiphany. Like a bolt of lightning struck my brain. Text is nearly the same as musical notation. The notated song of speech. I came up with a musical analogy for punctuation, and although it’s how I explain creative writing, I think this rule really applies to all written language (not only in English, but then again, I know next to nothing about other languages). I believe punctuation can be understood through musical notation. Just as each note/rest represents a specific beat/pause length within a measure of a song, so does each syllable/punctuation mark represent a specific beat/pause length within a sentence. I only want to focus on punctuation, because syllabic rhythm and beat timing in words is something else entirely.

In standard 4/4 time (which for the musically illiterate, means four quarter notes [1/4] per measure: it’s all about fractions, remember 3rd grade?), the following is true for rests:

There are more rest types, but they are shorter pauses more suited to speaking rather than punctuation. So. How does this all relate to punctuation? As I mentioned, we are taught in the U.S. that punctuation serves very specific grammatical purposes that must be memorized without intuition to help guide exact choices. And don’t forget the exception to every single rule that you learn; multiple exceptions, in fact. This is what happens when there is a disconnect between the arts and sciences (just trust me on that). In order for this music analogy to work, you have to unlearn what you know about punctuation. Forget independent and dependent clauses, adverbial and prepositional phrases, etcetera. Just take a moment to unload that information, it’s okay, you’ve got time. This isn’t going anywhere.

Okay. Mind clear? Good, because I’m not going to explain what each punctuation mark is taught to be, I am only explaining how I see punctuation, and how I believe it should be used. The following is my list of all the common punctuation that any one might use in a given essay, email, Facebook post (if you use punctuation at all online), stories, and so on. The punctuation that is read. There is a catch, however: you must have some sense of rhythm, of the flow spoken words follow; although you may be writing, every read word is spoken by the internal narrator of each reader, including you. So keep that in mind.

EIGHTH REST = , COMMA  — EM DASH  – EN DASH: these allow the reader to catch their breath, without losing any momentum. The EM and EN DASHES function more as information asides rather than serious punctuation/rhythm markers, but still have some sense of resting.

QUARTER REST = : COLON  ; SEMI-COLON  (PARENTHESES)  [BRACKETS]: the colon and semi-colon find themselves between the comma and period in length of breath-stop, where there is a small amount of time given to these two punctuation marks to allow the reader time to consider the information that has preceded these marks before proceeding to the next half of the sentence. Parentheses and brackets, however, do not only affect sense of breath, but of volume too (which will have to be for another post), almost like softening of the voice, a whisper from the writer to the reader, a secret that may not be needed, but adds to the story; these both vary on the intent of the author, which should be visible through context of the sentence/paragraph/story.

HALF REST = . PERIOD  ? QUESTION MARK  ! EXCLAMATION MARK: All end punctuation have the same value, a solid stop that indicates and end of information that is grouped into one grammatical unit of a sentence.  

WHOLE REST = WHITE SPACE between paragraphs, too, is a form of punctuation, of this sense of breath. Although some may argue that this white space is along the lines of a fermata, this small piece of white space is only intended to allow the reader time to process the information already provided, and prepare for a new set of information. It is a signal that the story/information is changing from the course that has been previously established.

FERMATA = PAGE BREAK: Like the white space between paragraphs, the page break is an even greater pause, an indefinite pause, but for silence. Most often we find this break between chapters in many books. This space gives the reader the necessary infinite time to process the information that has been ingested, allowing sufficient time to prepare for the next chunk of information.

. . . ELLIPSES:  Do not use unless you are removing information from an essay. There is no pause involved with the ellipsis, because it does not represent any type of spoken variations, it is only a means to visually tell the reader that something has been taken out of the information provided.

I do not include hyphens, quotation marks, apostrophes, and asterisks because these are functions of grammar only, and do not suggest any change in rhythm, but exist to show the reader when information given is changing forms.

This is punctuation to the creative writer. Punctuation is more than grammar, it is a means by which we attempt to represent how we slow and speed up time when we speak. Once you consider punctuation in this manner, it makes for a completely different writing experience, and often makes for more unique and intriguing pieces of writing. Plus, you don’t have to memorize all those arbitrary rules.