Over the borderline: migrant activists on the US-Mexican border near Campo, California hold a minute's silence to remember those who have died trying to cross. Photo: Getty
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Feel my pain: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

If Jamison is an experienced emotional traveller, then these essays form a rough sort of guide to the human experience. Ideas about empathy seep into every one.

The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison
Granta Books, 240pp, £12.99

The 11 essays in Leslie Jamison’s extraordinary new collection, The Empathy Exams, are about pain. Her own – a heart condition, an abortion, struggles with alcohol, a violent attack on a darkened street – or that of others, such as sufferers of Morgellons, a disease that many doctors dismiss as psychosomatic; or a trio of boys wrongfully imprisoned for decades. And, in the astonishing title essay, perhaps something approaching a combination of the two, when Jamison works as a medical actor at a teaching hospital, internalising the pain of fictional patients and weaving their narratives with her own.

When Jamison is told by a boyfriend that she is a “wound dweller”, the implication is that she is a self-pitying wallower, forever picking at scabs. By the time we reach this phrase in the final essay, the wrenching “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, we are fully aware that Jamison does dwell in wounds, but not quite in the way her boyfriend was suggesting. She hovers just past the edge of comfort; she is willing to push the knife in deeper, inch by inch. Jamison shows how, if we can attempt to understand and practise empathy, we can feel others’ pain, too.

Jamison’s first novel, The Gin Closet, was published in 2010. The Empathy Exams, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and has already been hailed as one of the best books of the year by American critics and readers. There is a sense that the appeal extends beyond the quality of the writing, or the individual subjects of the essays. Do we feel our daily lives lack empathy? Is it easy to understand another’s story, but much harder to empathise with the teller? The Empathy Exams is a blueprint, perhaps; a difficult book about a difficult prospect, but one that readers feel they need.

Jamison breaks down the concept of empathy, and then, poetically, builds it up again: “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheiaem (into) and pathos (feeling) – a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Themes of penetration and crossing borders crop up throughout the essays: a tense stretch of time spent on the southern side of the US-Mexico border, or a journey deep into the silver mines of Bolivia, or the worm that buried itself beneath the skin of Jamison’s ankle and rode with her back up to the Northern Hemisphere.

If Jamison is an experienced emotional traveller, then these essays form a rough sort of guide to the human experience. Ideas about empathy seep into every essay. It is “always perched precariously between gift and invasion”; it “requires inquiry as much as imagination”. As author, Jamison occupies a curious position: she is always present, even when writing about others, and when she turns her gaze inward she is never alone on the page. Friends and strangers, together with an impressive range of literary references, help give her stories thematic structure. Susan Sontag makes frequent, welcome guest appearances. Jamison talks about her subjects with sensitivity but she doesn’t sugarcoat her perceptions of them. She also acknowledges the limits of an essay’s lens. In a recent interview, she said, “I’m pleased by the fact that my work has been called both ‘flinching’ and ‘unflinching’, which I took to mean something like: I’m willing to look at difficult things, but I’m also willing to transcribe my own shivering and stuttering as I look at them.”

It’s easy to see the essay, in Jamison’s hands, as an inherently empathetic form: it requires the author to travel frequently into another (real person’s) perspective and to set up camp there, for the space of a few pages. The collection arrives at a time when essays, particularly by women, seem to be flourishing: offerings from Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit and the late Marina Keegan, among others, are out now or in the coming months. Jamison writes of the female inclination towards empathy; the worry that one feels too much for another. But it is precisely this abundance of feeling – and the way she constantly calls it into question with intellectual rigour – that makes these essays feel so fresh. If this is the new age of the essay, Jamison is one of the form’s most compelling voices.

The Empathy Exams is a challenging book, pushing the reader forward even when the subject matter grows gruesome or difficult. It gives us a map, drawn in fits and starts, for navigating human interaction. Perhaps it’s a comfort to remember that we are wired to want to try to understand each other, as Jamison’s epigraph from the Roman playwright Terence implies: “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for the online magazine the Millions

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis