Sunday, June 6, 2010

Empathy and the Individual Talent

A friend recently sent me a link to a post by Mike Young on <HTML GIANT> that started out with a promising mention of Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness; the post fairly quickly moves on to something else, but it does point out Damasio’s interesting distinction between emotion and feelings. The distinction brought to my friend’s mind Pound’s declaration that only emotion endures, and it brought to my mind Eliot’s discussion of emotion and feeling in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”.

Damasio and Eliot seem to be working off diametrically opposed conceptions of emotion/feelings. Eliot argues in essence (and Pound seems to have a similar idea in mind) that emotion is, well, an affective idea—an abstraction that is available commonly to many individuals simultaneously (we all are able to understand the emotion in Lear’s downfall, for example)—whereas feelings are hermetic, limited to individuals. Damasio, meanwhile, (according to Young) defines emotion as grounded in the body and defines feelings as our awareness of emotion.

While these two ways of looking at emotion and feeling are essentially flip-flopped (for Eliot emotion is the more general, while for Damasio emotion is the more specifically grounded), they have a link. What both Damasio and Eliot are attempting, at least in part, is to come up with a way of thinking about emotion/feelings that leave some portion accessible only to the individual while some other portion is available to a communal experience. Young’s characterization of Damasio’s distinction seems to be that there is some function in having both feelings and emotions—namely, that being conscious of one’s feelings or emotions has some evolutionary value. So what we’re really talking about here is empathy (which clearly has evolutionary value to social creatures); and I suspect that when Pound says “only emotion endures” he really is talking about empathy as well.

Whether we call them feelings or emotions or neurochemical reactions, those individual, internal moments can be pushed out into the world (ex-pressed) by description, by metaphor, by association, by rhythm and music, but they can only be felt by the expressing individual, who must hope that the individual affect rises to the level of public affect (which seems a bit different from the truism of the specific rising to the level of the universal--or is it?). You might have feelings after reading one of Pound’s poems, but they’re not the same feelings he felt; you certainly have access to the same emotions as Pound, though (the River Merchant’s Wife’s sorrow, for example). MUST empathy be the goal, then, in poetry that seeks an emotional connection, because it provides the path between those internal states and those more publicly accessible states?

One common criticism of contemporary poetry is that it either is without empathy (though it’s usually expressed as a total absence of emotion or human feeling) or, on the contrary, is limited to expression of private, personal feelings. My sense is that a lot of the (“experimental”) work that is accused of lacking emotion, feeling, or empathy is usually work that seeks to find connection on levels other than the affective; a lot of the work that is accused of being limited to mere expression of feeling (confessional) is rarely, at least among the most successful practitioners, without empathic availability.

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