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Meditation on Leslie Jamison’s THE EMPATHY EXAMS (Part Two of Six)

[Continued from Part One]

Earlier, I almost took off on a tangent, using a fairy-tale metaphor to describe Jamison’s initial reaction to West Virginia. I loosed my mind on some metaphors and and spun a fairy-tale yarn from her starry-eyed description of meeting West Virginia for the first time. I described her as “a love-struck princess who, knowing she should know better, selects a circuitous path around the piercing, dark thicket of her intelligence.” (A little over-wrought, okay.) I conjured an ill-fated courtship scene: my imagined princessayist circumscribing the “beautiful” light-limned edge of a dark forest, hand-in-hand with an iconic mountaineer/Prince (Who Will Eventually Be Revealed to Be Not Quite as) Charming (as Initially Meets the Eye). I place “beautiful” in quotation marks, because Jamison herself uses that word three times in this paragraph. “The land is beautiful, really beautiful,” she writes. “Freeway exits promise beautiful, luminous places” (139). How do you read this repetition? At first I think she intends to convey simple astonishment, but then, I listen closer and hear her to be not so much astonished, more like dumbstruck. And then I listen even closer and hear her more pleading than describing—trying to convince herself, despite latent doubts, that this place is, indeed, what it seems to be: beautiful. Please can we just agree it is “beautiful,” and leave well enough alone, I almost hear her say. Alas, no. The writer can never leave well enough alone. The writer has to ask “But what is beauty?” The description Jamison provides is textbook cliché, pastoral, fairy-tale beauty: “endless lush forests, pristine and unblemished, countless shades of green on hills layered into drifts of fog.”

When I read this description, I initially think, Ahh. Home sweet home. And then, once it settles in on my mind, I think, Nah. Nope sweet nope. There’s more to the story. As a West Virginian—someone to whom this beautiful, dark forest is home, and who knows coal mining to be, alas, not just “something they like to talk about on NPR”—I know to wait for the other shoe to drop. There’s always another shoe. That said, I would be expecting more to the story even if I were not an insider but merely a careful, analytical reader attuned to tone and narrative tropeography. In fairy tales (back to my so-called tangent!), the dark forest often symbolizes the unknown and the unconscious, a place for reckoning with external threats and internal demons. We know Little Red Riding Hood is in trouble the moment she sets foot in the woods; we know that the path Hansel and Gretel take into the woods will not be the path that leads them out, and their meticulous attention to breadcrumbs only exaggerates that fact. Jamison knows all this as well as her readers do; she exaggerates her diction so we can see how deeply she is in the fog-trough and to foreshadow her eventual disillusionment. I marvel at how, in this essay and others, she slowly unfolds the act of observation, revealing the process of revelation and understanding, the complex acts of attention and interpretation. I marvel at how much she can convey in carefully variegated diction, tone, and style. These essays show how, in language, even something as mysterious as fog can be counted, known, articulated…

[Continued in Part Three]