Empathy as One of Literature’s “Goods”

If you pay attention to the digest news blurbs that flow around the Internet and clutter our mental worlds these days, you might have caught various announcements of studies that prove that readers of fiction rate very highly on “empathy scales.” These tests measure the ability of an individual to understand the feelings and attitudes of other people, broadly known as social acumen. We probably take this premise for granted over in the Liberal Arts building, which houses not just English but our sister departments in the Humanities (History, Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, Philosophy). What’s interesting is that some of the studies use as a “control” a group of individuals who read more expository non-fiction than narrative fiction, and it turns out that “reading” in general does not cultivate empathy: readers of fiction scored much higher than readers of nonfiction in social acumen. The studies were conducted by a team that allowed a psychologist, novelist, and literary theorist, Keith Oatley, to work with a cross-disciplinary team of scientists, headed by Raymond Mar, to design studies that attempt to account for the specific ways fiction cultivates empathy. (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/chaning_our_minds). A key factor is apparently the ability to enter into a simulated world in a comprehensive way, to be “sucked into” a narrative, one of the fundamental pleasures of reading that so often draw us to the study of literature. And of course, many readers take a keen pleasure from engaging with the characters, who simulate—in admittedly dynamic, exaggerated, and intentionally distorted form, from time to time—the human beings about whom our brains are primed to be curious. The study found that nonfiction reading, generally lacking such a “peopled” environment, does not allow us to cultivate those social simulation skills to the same extent. (See, among many other papers, “Bookworms vs. Nerds,” 2006: http://www.yorku.ca/mar/papers.html).

While humanists typically respond to such studies with something like self-congratulation or utter mystification as to why one would need to study something so obvious, I’d argue we increasingly need a new vocabulary to describe the importance of reading literature. For example, to see the study as obvious might suggest we do not recognize how rare such sustained, absorptive attention is in our present cultural climate, which rather encourages rapid-fire response that tends to fall back on existing beliefs and values. Despite the theoretical access to a world-wide community dizzying in its diversity, we tend to fall back on the “like-minded” folks with whom we already share a system of values. Empathy—the real, hard, and life-changing kind that challenges what we know about ourselves—requires a certain courage, and literature has historically been a powerful tool in cultivating that courage.

In literature we find a means to “simulate,” as our cognitive scientists tell us, the forms of life and the forms of feeling of people we have never met, and can never meet. Through that encounter, clothed in language that dazzles our mind and tickles our brain’s creative chemistry, we grow a whole new set of cognitive muscles, become more capable, more capacious, and yes, more empathetic with our fellow human, and non-human, beings. In a world of hurry and haste, rush and rash action, the slow, patient attention required to read and think with a great author offers us more than a respite, but a survival skill that sharpens our minds to be our best social selves. In a culture in which we have been seduced into adopting a pernicious notion of life as a good to be consumed, literature offers the goods in a much fuller sense: an inexhaustible supply of rich questions to be pursued, rich experiences to be drawn upon, that do not merely affirm what we already know, but tell us something new about the world in which we live.

We don’t need science to tell us why we love literature; but we can use this science as a way of re-thinking what that love might mean, and how that love might grow. Our students, our alumni/ae, and our faculty are engaged in an ongoing social experiment, one that is at least 3,500 years old, of shaping imaginative worlds out of words. To keep that experiment vital, we’ve got to keep reading, and telling our story about the power of the written word to the wide, wide world.

If you want to share your own story about the way reading and writing literature has helped to shape your life, post a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

Yours from the margin of the book—
Ashby Kinch
Associate Chair / Director of Graduate Studies

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Snow Florilegia, by Ashby Kinch

If you watch Saturday Night Live regularly, you might have caught this recent sketch, in which three gangsters pull up to a brownstone, preparing to execute a hit (http://www.hulu.com/watch/588245#i1,p12,d1). The getaway driver is immediately distracted by snowflakes falling across a quiet city street, and his infectious mood of gleeful awe rubs off on one of his companions, who nostalgically conjures images of playing in the snow that trigger a boyish giddiness, clashing tonally with the violence they’ve set out to perform. It’s SNL, so the episode has a dark comic turn on the horizon: one of the gangsters spots a fuzzy white bunny and, getting out of the car to pet it, gets shot by his would-be target. But I happened to watch the skit on a day that clouds pregnant with snow finally—after long anticipation—filled Western Montana’s skies and our two-week mid-January false spring of blue skies and 40-degree temperatures scuttled back into April where it belongs. We got our thick blanket of snow back, and with it that powerful mélange of emotions that snow triggers.

Our poets have been attuned to snow’s emotional depths for centuries. And of course poets are attuned to it in part because we all have that capacity to resonate with the potent analogy between our lives, our emotions, our minds and the natural world that changes shape in ways that inspire creation. So here, I offer to you a miniature snow florilegia, the medieval Latin term for the “flowers of reading” one collects as one reads, storing up moments of beauty, insight, and inspiration for later recollection. I’ve got a lot of snow poems tucked away, but these are the ones that sprung to mind here as January turns to February in Missoula.

In “The Snow-Storm” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson re-casts accumulated snow as the raw material with which the north wind, “a fierce artificer,” could sculpt buildings: “to mimic in slow structures, stone by stone, / Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work, / The frolic architecture of snow.” His own poetic act re-frames the forces of the natural world as an aesthetic agent, making art for our edification and delight. A similar analogy lies behind Emily Dickinson’s images in “It sifts from leaden sieves,” in which she works carefully across a landscape from images seen from afar (“It powders all the wood”), to the roads that link the spatial geographies of the poem together (“It fills with Alabaster Wool / The Wrinkles of the Road”), until she pivots to the human world, whose fences and field stubble are wrapped in “Celestial Vail.” When that work is done, as with Emerson, the “artist” disappears, and the “it” that moves the poem and the storm—the snow never named in the poem—“stills its Artisans—like Ghosts— / Denying they have been.”

While Dickinson’s gorgeous poem asks us finally to linger on an image with no human in it any longer, the same kind of mania for multiplying analogies for snow drives the great medieval Welsh poet, Daffyd ap Gwilem, to lace his poem, “The Winter,” with a kind of restive discomfort. His tumbling sequence of analogies accumulates like the snow itself into a collective effect beyond the individual snowflake: “a swarm of white bees”; “a load of chalk”; “White flour is milled”; angels lifting planks “in the flour-loft floor heaven”; snowdrifts like “swollen bellies”; and the great fall lying on the country like a “wide wall” (architecture again), “stretching one sea to the other,  / greater and graver than the sea’s graveyard.” And that clear emotional turn, precipitated by the poet’s refusal to go outdoors even to chase a girl, reminds us that the snowbound world of the 14th century was also a place of claustrophobia. The poem looks forward to spring, but not in the lush verdant images of convention; the speaker’s state of mind is so beaten down by winter, that all he can do is plaintively ask: “When will rain come?”

It’s no surprise that we would write and think of snow here in Montana, where snow is a crucial physical and emotional resource, framing out lives in all sorts of ways, from the pain and inconvenience of moving around town after a big fall; to the epiphanies of moonlit walks with the sounds of owls heard distinctly through the still quiet; to the adrenaline rush of those first few deep turns off a snow-draped cornice to which you skinned for an hour or two, traversing a back-country landscape seemingly purpose-built for your pleasure. So I’ll end my snowy meditation with a brief discussion of a few of my favorite snow poems from two great poets right here at UM.

Bob Pack’s “Snow Rise” converts the well-observed image of snow that drifts up from a lake on a windy day to muse on the way memory can sometimes make us feel as though our lives are moving backward, or as his speaker puts it: “Dreaming time has reversed, I watch drowned snow / Appear to lift up from the lake.” The image and its link to the unstable mental experience of time creates a powerful analogy for the speaker’s memory of an unnamed interlocutor whose “picture” forms in his mind though brief, imagistic glimpses: “Your red cheeks radiant against the wind, “Your gloved hands covering lips’ good-bye.” While we never get a narrative from the experience, we participate in a powerful meditation on the spontaneous link of images and analogies that we form when we patiently attend to the simplest observations of snow, its delicacy, its individuation, and, at the same time, its cumulative effect.

Joanna Klink’s recent poetry has several beautiful snow poems, like “Antelope” and “Winter Field,” both of which use emotionally freighted images of snow to push toward meditation on questions of fragility and perseverance in the face of, and in the light of, despair. “Antelope,” which reaches out in deep sympathy to a herd of antelope stranded on a frozen lake whose ice breaks, captures an intense vulnerability in a simple phrase “They came / Because they believed they would be held.” We naturally project our awareness of their demise—or discover our awareness of our own demise—onto the corollary moments in our lives when we, similarly, believe we will be OK, testing the ice of our lives. The diminuendo in the simple image of snow in the final lines allows us to release that pathos, and accept what we’ve witnessed, as the poet converts this scene into a moment of close observation, as we see both a luminous natural beauty and an ineluctable association of our final mortality: “All day the snow fell. Around the lake, the air / filled with moths, light as pencil outlines.” In “Winter Field,” Klink sets the “dull math of cold inside the bones” against the “dark moods of snows—/ a sense of peace so deep we extend out / into the blackness of our lives…feel no hint of terror.” The white tapestry of snow offsets the darkness of winter, and allows us to live in those “dark moods” without needing to fight them off. Klink’s pluralized “dark moods”” also reminds us of the rich range of emotions that the winter unlocks in us, and aligning her poem with this tradition of poets stretching back hundreds of years cinches that human, cyclical link, both in our own lives, and in the lives of human experience, with which she closes her poem: “You were here once; you will be here again.” Indeed. And the “you” here extends back in time to those mediating ghosts of ages past whose minds are partly embedded in the poems that have pushed forward in time to us.

I hope you get out and enjoy the snow, and, while you’re doing so, take time to dwell on the rich, inner resources our poets have trained us to cultivate. Build your own “folic architecture of snow,” like my son, Griffin, who, even as I write this, is putting the finishing touches on a frontyard snow couch, where he and a friend intend to drink a cup of hot chocolate as they gaze out on the “Celestial Vail” this fine winter evening.  I think I’ll go join them.

Ashby Kinch
Professor of English

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These Crisping Days

Well, it’s a time of turnings, isn’t it, with the leaves largely now composting on the ground, and our especially beautiful 2013 autumn in Missoula yielding to its annual heir. I’ve been reading some of Mary Oliver’s poems recently (from her wonderful volume A Thousand Mornings), and I was taken by her sense of the season’s transformational “rich mash”:

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will we do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Let me first apologize for the long period of silence on this blog. I could make excuses that involve citing the lack of support we receive for our web endeavors, but, well, let’s just say we resolve to do better henceforth! And I expect you will hear from others besides me in the coming months!

As for the Department of English, there have been other kinds of “turnings” in recent months, as well. Professor John Hunt became Chair of the department this past summer, taking over for Professor Jill Bergman, to whom we owe great thanks. In our main office, we were sad to see Karen Sturm leave (and we wish her much happiness in her retirement), but thrilled to welcome Leisa Nelson into the position. And then there are our students, of course: we celebrated another wonderful group of graduating seniors in our commencement ceremony this past May, and were proud to honor our Mortar Board Outstanding Seniors: Kelsey Fanning (Literature), Ashley Gaumer (English Teaching), Kelsey Hom (Creative Writing), and Kevin Tuttle (Film Studies).

My colleagues have been busy, as ever, being unfailingly dedicated teachers and brilliant scholars. Their accomplishments since the last posting are too broad to represent here, but I do feel I must mention Professor Joanna Klink, who this past April was one of only eight writers in the country to receive an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. We’ve also seen some significant scholarly books published in recent months — including Professor John Glendening’s The Evolutionary Imagination in Late-Victorian Novels and Professor Ashby Kinch’s Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture — as well as an historical novel by Professor Casey Charles, The Trials of Christopher Mann.

We have another diverse and exciting selection of classes — indeed, a “rich mash” — available to our students in this Spring’s schedule. Anyone looking for reading recommendations for the longer nights that await us might check out our faculty’s most recent suggestions on the Top Threes page. Finally, do consider visiting (and “liking”!) our Department of English Facebook page, and, in a test for echo kind of way, leaving a comment here on the blog to remind us that, if anything, we should post more frequently!

Eric Reimer
Associate Professor

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Comings and Goings

It has taken an extra good while this year, it seems, but summer has (meteorologically speaking) at last arrived — Nature’s first green was gold, as always, but it was also cold! The biggest cause for celebration, though, would be our 2011 graduates: the Department salutes those 126 students who received their B.A. degrees this past Spring and those 33 graduate students who received their M.A. or MFA degrees. Congratulations, as well, to our four Mortar Board Outstanding Seniors — Jacob Kahn (Creative Writing), Stephen Scheier (Film Studies), Tara Udall (English Teaching), and Nathan Miller (Literature) — and those students who were recognized with departmental scholarships and awards during the 2010-11 academic year (Jacob Kahn, Jamie Rogers, Zachary Carlson, Brett DeFries, Theodore McDermott, Hannah Soukup, Mehgan McKenna, Alice Bolin, Nathan Miller, and Troy Smith).

We look forward to working with our new and returning students when the Fall semester classes begin on August 29; descriptions and reading lists for nearly all of those classes are available on our courses page. The Department is also excited to welcome back Professor Joanna Klink after her time as the Briggs-Copeland poet at Harvard University, as well as two new colleagues: Dr. Quan Ha, a specialist in Vietnamese and ethnic-American literature, will join our Literature faculty in the Fall, and the esteemed journalist and novelist David Gates will join our Creative Writing faculty.

We wish everyone a happy and restorative summer. If you’re looking for reading recommendations, be sure to visit our Faculty Top Threes page, where, once again, members of our Literature faculty have revealed three things they’ll be reading this summer!

Eric Reimer
Assistant Professor

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Season of Mists

“Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they? / Think not of them,” Autumn, “thou has thy music too.” Keats would surely have felt that this autumn in Missoula, one of the most glorious in memory, would have done honor to his great ode. And we even had a super harvest moon on the evening of the equinox. In any event, greetings from the mid-point of the semester! We have just a few announcements to share with you. First of all, the course descriptions for the Spring 2011 semester are now available on our courses page. Please note, too, that the Literature and Research Colloquium has two more presentations scheduled for this semester: Benjamin Adams (M.A. candidate, English) will present on November 19th and Professor Nat Levtow (Liberal Studies) will present on December 3rd; see our LARC page for more details and, eventually, for the Spring schedule. Finally, see the new installment of Faculty Top 3s in the Literature program’s pages, as our faculty respond to the question, “if you could rescue any three literary characters from their fates, who would they be and why?” Cheers!

Eric Reimer
Assistant Professor

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In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s narrator at one point asks “how does newness enter the world?” At this moment, we know newness enters the world through the line of English graduates we proudly watched file out of the University Center Ballroom on May 15, and also through the launch of this redesigned website and its accompanying blog. A disclaimer at the outset: this is “the Chair’s blog” and I am most certainly not the Chair. With our current Chair — my colleague, Professor Jill Bergman — out of the country at the moment, though, I figured I might mind the shop on this one occasion, if only to welcome you to our new website as it goes live and, on behalf of the entire faculty, to wish you a restorative and fulfilling summer.

Regarding those graduates, by the way, there were just over one hundred Bachelor of Arts degrees awarded in English, as well as sixteen M.F.A. degrees in Creative Writing, thirteen M.A.s in Literature, and six M.A.s in Teaching. We salute them — and we’ll miss them! We also congratulate our four recipients of the Outstanding English Seniors distinction — Stephanie Swigart (Teaching), Adam Tew (Literature), Brent Thorsen (Film Studies), and Lena Viall (Creative Writing) — and the almost two dozen students who received various special scholarships for the 2010-11 academic year. You can read more about this year’s Commencement and see a few pictures in our May 2010 department newsletter.

And the website: wow, it has taken a year to get it to this point! We hope you like it. With the Fall semester still somewhat safely distant, for now you may want to check our “Faculty Top Threes” page to see what our faculty is reading this summer. And please stop by this blog space on occasion, too, especially during the academic year, as it will no doubt be used to announce departmental events and readings, as well as to mark the accomplishments of our students and faculty. Happy and safe summering to all!

Eric Reimer
Assistant Professor

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