Intimacy and Experiment in Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's Empathy
[Empathy,Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1989)
Yet there seems to me no alternative but to risk everything McHugh feared. Emotion is now a cutting edge topic in the humanities, bringing not only the drawbacks McHugh saw so clearly but also creating a distinctive problem for those who care about poets who take on difficult projects. When topics draw everyone's attention, we tend to let basic formulations of them provide allegorical keys for reading a wide body of materials. And that mode of generalization makes it all too easy to ignore what is most demanding and challenging in particular writers. So I turn to Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's Empathy because thi text insistently repudiates the now standard allegorical framework yet makes very strong appeals to be engaged for its affective intensities. Therefore I hope that concentrating on Berssenbrugge will help us appreciate some of the pressures requiring some contemporary poets to try new kinds of experiments. And the better we see how these experiments engage these pressures, the more likely we are also to appreciate the possibility of taking fresh tacks in our efforts to understand the personal and interpersonal dynamics that circulate around affective energies.
Here I cannot dwell at length on the theoretical issues involved. Suffice it to say that most theorists now concentrating on emotions dwell on the importance of framing them within narratives and treating our investments in emotions as means of making discriminations and establishing the salience necessary for supple and accurate practical judgments. For these theorists the emotions have become the allies of an enlightened rationality, at the cost of letting their intransigent as well as their aesthetic, self-sustaining qualities drift away as irrelevance or mere immaturity. Resisting that cost then offers powerful reasons for attempting to make it new. Poets have both the need and the resources for rendering aspects of affective life sharply opposed to this version of enlightenment. Berssenbrugge in particular devotes considerable energies to exploring aspects of the emotions that become articulate in the lyric's ways of resisting narrative. For she finds in that resistance a range of needs and powers shaping human desires that nonetheless do not have a substantial place within these contemporary theories.
Because she resists Englightenment models, Berssenbrugge's treatment of affective life turns out to have a good deal in common with standard postmodern concerns for mobility, fluidity, and indeterminacy. But stressing these similarities in such standard abstract terms would seriously diminish the force of her experiments. For she has a commitment to description and denotation completely at odds with orthodox pomo. Her poetry does not avoid the referential powers of language--it suffuses them with an excess of investment that makes clear the limitations of what Englightenment thinking at its best can accomplish. Such denotative language ties us to the physical world, but it also expresses a multi-surfaced set of affective engagements of that world that are anchored in description but not reducible to it. Berssenbrugge the poet shaping distinctive affective states cannot be separated from Berssenbrugge the implicit theorist linking postmodern mobilities to the referential commitments of contemporary science. And Bersenbrugge the lyric poet cannot be separated from the apparently anti-lyric flirtation with the seductions of objectivity. No wonder then that we have to use what often seems an outdated language of experiment if we are to bring together the energies of Berssenbrugge's refusals with the forms of power articulated in her actual renderings of affective intensities. She seeks ways to force us back from narrative and drama to the more elemental phenomenological aspects characterizing how language helps make it possible for us to connect to a world beyond the ego.
In order to foreground these phenomenological relations Berssenbrugge has to evade the two obvious poles for gathering lyrical energy--the rendering of subjective need and the articulating of how the world rewards what language can make of our efforts to pay attention to objects. Instead she treats as primary the need to identify with a condition of possibility for moving between the ego and the world that I am going to call a distinctive "imaginative site." By "imaginative site" I mean something close to what critics like Kenneth Burke meant by "attitude," the articulation of dispositions toward the world which allow us to reflect on the kinds of emotions and lines of connection that might follow if we identify fully with the speaking presence of the text. But I prefer the rubric "imaginative site" because that foregrounds the constructed nature of the attitude and calls attention to the need for readers to occupy a particular ground if the text is to have exemplary force. The early Auden's characteristic site was a generalized process of self-examination addressed to readerswho were offered the possibility of viewing their own engagements in cultural life through his distanced yet engaged eyes. At the other pole, Hopkins made the extremes of ecstasy and anxiety his entries into poetic speech, and his readers were invited not to speculate on their cultural lives but to reach for the moment beyond what practical concerns are likely to mask.
Berssenbrugge's characteristic site in Empathy combines two basic affective orientations along lines that I hope to show open into significant value stories. The most fundamental of these orientations for me is her attempt to focus directly on the desire for intimacy--with herself, with other people, and with the reader as an extension of both those projections--while struggling against pressures to theatricalize or thematize or otherwise flatten intimacy into idea and the dynamics of person into the elements we attribute to character. Accompanying and sharpening that effort is a corresponding fascination with the idea of empathy as a mode of organizing imaginative energies and disposing affective intensities. I think we have to ask why she entitles her book Empathy in order to make it her preferred imaginative vehicle for such intimacy. Why stress empathy rather than, say, sympathy? And why make the term so abstract in her title--without any preposition or object, so that it comes to represent a state in its own right?
It is important to realize that intimacy need not be a basic instrument for lyric feeling. Many lyrics are content to provide articulate accounts of emotions that retain their distance from us. Some even challenge us to try provisional identifications that require us to assume stances resisting or defamiliarizing our desires to achieve intimacy with the poet. Think for example of Williams' short lyrics or Yeats's imperious ones, or Plath's paranoid projections. But many lyrics use defamiliarization as a means of invoking from reader's new realizations of how flexible and intense their powers of achieving intimacy are. And most lyrics, even Yeats's imperious ones, use rhythm and metaphor and concision to bring bodies into play and to establish familiarity over time. Berssenbrugge knows all this, but as Yeats might say, she is not content. She sees the thematizing of intimacy as the displacing of its dynamics into clear subject-object polarities. And she seems to think that too easy an entrance into psychological discourse blinds us to where and how in the psyche poems may want to live. It may not be enough to think in terms of psycological subjects because that presupposes an organizing unit much more abstract than the actual synthetic processes attaching psyche to world. So Berssenbrugge must develop her own version of the paradox fundamental to the modernist lyric. For intimacy to appear in its most elemental properties poetry has to risk a level of difficulty and flatness that for many readers will preclude there being any intimacy at all.
Stressing the experimental energies in Berssenbrugge also helps us avoid a second debilitating tendency in contemporary criticism--the disposition among critics identifying with the avant-garde to rely on an imaginatively crippling binary opposition that honors experiment almost exclusively as a radical attitude toward the poem's language while relegating values like intimacy to the reactionary egocentricity of an ennervated romanticism. Only those experiments are honored as progressive and worthy of academic attention which focus on subject positions rather than on subjects, on the absorptive materiality of the signifier rather than on its evocativeness, and on the work of resistance to social forces rather than on the phenomenology of affective life. Yet this binary simply does not hold for many of the most interesting contemporary poets who consider their work a radical departure from dominant contempory styles. In addition to Berssenbrugge one could cite writers like Ann Lauterbach and Lyn Hejinian, and one could turn to Rob Kaufman's effort to make analagous cases for poets like Michael Palmer and Norma Cole. In all these cases experimenting with the language of lyric remains deeply committed to challenging dominant contemporary cultural values in the service of the developing emotional intensities and exploring their consequences.
Now it is time for particulars; so I call your attention to how the first two sections of Berssenbrugge's "Honeymoon" configure the intimacy she pursues. The critique of representation directly opposes the now dominant models for what we seek in our expressions of the emotions, yet it manages to provide a gorgeously denotative framework equally at odds with most contemporary experimental poetry:
Like Lacan, Berssenbrugge wants to challenge the essentially visual, pictorial ways that we now take as central to imagining closeness with other people. For her the visual confines feelings to an essentially "mystical" mode in which we are constantly drawing inferences from particulars. In the place of that visuality she projects a "conjectural" model of feeling (38). Conjecture differs from interpretation because it is an ongoing process of constant mobile adjustments content with a series of imaginative leaps. Conjecture here is opposed to the synthetic building of hypotheses by combining sets of signs in accord with received vocabularies for what counts as expressivity. Conjecture is metaphor that knows it has to remain analogically positioned toward what its chain of metonymic "like"'s bring into play as circumferences for the self's sense of its placements. So, with Lacan, Berssenbrugge stresses the ways that efforts at representation and self-representation seem to elicit intimacy but in fact block access to many dimensions of the psyche that might enable intense closeness between people. The ideals of representation prove as frustrating as they are seductive. For the basic role of representation is to provide a stable object promising to assuage anxieties over what we actually desire and how we want to be understood. But suppose that both our desires and our intelligibility to others cannot be fully realized within such stabilities. If that is so, then we purchase self-confidence at the cost of entering self-protective illusions.
And suppose that our desires are severely distorted by the same visual imperatives because they project an outside and an inside, with the outside then somehow having to express or symbolize what cannot be seen but can apparently be given a definitive psychological space to inhabit. Ideals of representation foreclose what counts as depth and block possible perspectives that might give access to the traits most profoundly characterizing us as persons.
Lacan offers for this critique of representation his mirror stage and his brilliant analysis of how and why we project imaginary versions of ourselves as subjects. Berssenbrugge adds to that mix an insistence that we examine how the ideal of visibility forms and deforms the logics of distribution shaping what we invest in as subjective identities. How we conceive visibility as emotionally charged will also shape how we characterize the invisible as well as how we establish links between the two. In our culture, she suggests, we formulate these links primarily in the epistemic terms we have inherited from the success of Enlightenment science. We rely on a tight but problematic connection between how ideals of representation function for empiricist practices and how they function for our visions of what it means to know and to get close to other human beings. We want to be knowable in almost the same way that we feel we have confident grasps of what objects are and we understand using these objects to perform various tasks. Correlatively, we want this visibility supplemented by something invisible, something hidden that confers on us a depth and a mystery making us different from objects. Then our humanity consists largely in our efforts to bring this depth to the surface by making visible or expressing in a world of objects what makes us subjects. We are most human when we can communicate by bringing the invisible into pictures that we construct of ourselves and of others.
This logic has substantially affected contemporary American culture's ideas about lyric poetry. The dominant styles over the past forty years at least have made intimacy with the audience a basic ideal, and have based that intimacy on two basic principles. The first locates the source of the poet's power to communicate in his or her ability to make visible for an audience what the poet can represent as most intense or most focussed in his or her inner life. At one pole such work continues confessional ideals (Gerald Stern or Alicia Ostriker); at the other, now more popular pole, it offers as the locus of intimacy the engaged reflexive distance that poets like Robert Hass and Frank Bidart present as they reconstruct the subtle and elemental emotional moments and patterns basic to their affective lives. The second alternative takes a more rhetorical stance. Rather than focus on the poet's efforts at personal expression it concentrates on constructing dramatic scenes that build towards emotional climaxes, with the event projected as a means of providing a symbolic embodiment of emotions that the entire audience is led to share. By virtue of the surrogate situation a basic emotion takes dramatic form, and as we participate in that form we become visible to each other.
These alternatives seem to me to provide the backdrop motivating Berssenbrugge's experiments because the models of representation and expression on which they rely prove terribly confining--both as dramatic events and as rhetorical means of engaging audiences. Persons remain objects with predicates about mystery vaguely attached to them. And responders are forced into roles that are far too monocular. In her view rich intimacy requires gaining access to "perspectives" that an agent "cannot see or direct." And it involves realizing how temporality modifies, extends, and complicates our experiences of intimacy. So both spatial and temporal access to other persons is best achieved if we can imagine ourselves as cubist painters bringing multiple overlapping perspectives together as a kind of parallax view projecting beyond what can only be dimly realized in specific images. Moreover we best attune our reflexive lives to these others, as well as to our own needs and desires, if we replace the idea of an invisible core lurking below the visible surface by a notion of spirit as simply an extension of bodies into something like auras of energy and processes of attunement. Spirit becomes manifest as the folding and unfolding of surfaces that we produce as we engage in various relationships. That is why Berssenbrugge stresses the sublime passage between the volume of a bright cottonwood and "a lack of volume or lack of space inside the tree."
Light flattens the tree, combining figures of pure space with figures of entry that requires no penetration. Analagously that is why Berssengrugge's own flat descriptions flow so easily and often incomprehensibly into complicated physical analogies, since attachment is an alignment of surfaces as they keep morphing into different possible forms. Finally, that is why at the end of the poem she concentrates on what is involved in treating the goal of the honeymoon as learning to treat the other as "the color of a seam, not a doll" (75):
Here Berssenbrugge's understanding of empathy helps explicate what the site of intimacy involves. Suppose one were to ask what attitude it takes for this person to understand herself or for an audience to engage her. One would have to accept the fact that "the person" is always concealed, like a mountain beneath clouds. But what conceals also reveals, in this case by eliciting a sense of conjecture about the body beneath the cloud, so that questions of motive are now inseparable from registering such strange conjunctions of the purely physical and the densely metaphorical.
No wonder then that Berssenbrugge's title Empathy calls attention to so abstract a form of that quite common mode of response to other persons. This title does not project any particular object of empathy. Nor, for that matter can we identify a particular subject experiencing the empathy. The title offers empathy as a state that can fluctuate between what subjects feel and what objects elicit, each readily folding into its opposite. And the title suggests a sharp opposition to sympathy, relegating sympathy to states that impose
conventional emotional plots, establish a suffering ego, and afford the beholder a satisfying, self-regarding relation to the plot so constructed. Rather than give empathy a dramatic context, Berssenbrugge asks us to reflect upon this potential interchangeability, this floating possibility for subject and object to occupy the same space. To engage the mode of agency that situates itself in relation to flanks of mountains and then lets related metaphors unfold one has to locate subjectivity not in any identifiable dramatic agent but in the specific modes of care that get articulated by the fluid, intricately expanding chain of associations.
As her title poem sets the stage, engaging this fluidity requires opening oneself to a "feeling of mystery" that "adheres to" a manner of asking/ where is the space, instead of what space it is" (57). Where sympathy defines what the space is, empathy attunes itself to a manner of asking that is itself distributed between what the agent's manner makes visible and the mode of questioning elicited for a responder. So by the end of "Empathy" the speaker can define intimacy in terms that give priority to modes of response that can be content to treat persons in terms of the "parts" that give them luminosity. Keeping these parts in relation in turn requires reading against all our tendencies to turn process into substance:
Empathy conjoins the need to make certain that meanings stick with the effort to make particular meanings stick, as particulars--how we engage the site determines what the site can be.
Finally, we may be able to see an ontological side to Berssenbrugge's empathy because it requires such elemental responses to other persons and to the world. Consider the following passage near the end of her poem "Naturalism," which I think sets against socially oriented models of representation a "phenomenological materialism" offering a much more intricate sense of what it means to come to feel one's way into another person's situation:
Emotion may have more to do with the quality and relatedness produced by motion and by time than it does with the theaters produced as we try to represent inwardness. First we are told that "feeling is the after-image of yourself." Then Berssenbrugge's marvelous "Or" makes the force of this afterimage literal by simultaneously extending the self into a range of possibilities and inviting us to read those possibilities back into our understanding of the speaker, from a perspective that the speaker cannot quite control. Intimacy in the present brings versions of the past and the projected future into play, only to gather all those possibilities into two versions of moderate plenitude--the first developed in the expansive sense of landscape, the second in the possibility of correlating what the landscape figures into abstract talk about how emotion is folded into motion.
I cannot be sure that my abstractions quite get Berssenbrugge right or that they can provide a compelling case for trying on this way of envisioning our own possible affective investments. So I want to shift to a more practical mode of thinking about her work by elaborating three distinctive imaginative attitudes that her work helps us both inhabit and appreciate.
The first attitude models possible orientations we can take towards persons with whom we seek intimacy. Critique of the expression and communication models leads Berssenbrugge to envision engaging other people by attuning oneself to those features of a life suppressed by or displaced by efforts at self-representation. A passage towards the end of "Honeymoon," the poem from which I first quoted, brings the anti-representational model of emotion elaborated in the opening stanzas to the core of personal relationships:
Here intimacy is beautifully defined as being able to refer to what someone is feeling at the site where the person enters the expressive process rather than at the site produced by the representation. So the need for multiple perspectives now enters time, or enters a sense of the richness and evocativeness of dealing with objects and persons in terms of their ways of being present in what unfolds out of them. And intimacy then can take on the marvelous subtle physical analogues that the poem figures in its treatment of color, light, and the movement of clouds. The visual returns with a vengeance, but as metaphorical extensions of affective states, not as objects compelling our fixed attention.
Among the many aspects of this subtlety that Berrsenbrugge explores, none is more important than this sense of how intimacy modifies our sense of time. Gaining closeness to another person, or to a poem, requires not simply understanding what is said or pictured but recasting the saying and the picturing so as to incorporate protentions and retentions evoking possible futures and impinging pasts. And then a new idea of the sublime enters, based simply on what is involved in opening oneself to how background and foreground fold into each other. Recall that for Kant the sublime consisted in those judgments where the mind finds itself powerless to impose understanding yet finds its thwarted efforts opening into a realm of the supersensible. The sublime would be manifest in quantity as infinite magnitude and in dynamic quality as power that cannot be framed successfully by the understanding. Berssenbrugge wants a sublimity based on empathy, on our awareness of the dynamical power of the small quantities to make large differences by keeping processes in constant processes of folding and unfolding.
Probably her richest succinct rendering of this sublimity takes place at the center of The Carmelites, a great poem on the relation between withdrawing into privacy and discovering how that can lead to new visions of connection:
"Interval of the exposure" brilliantly correlates time and space: how we adjust exposures establishes the intervals creating the formed silences which reach beyond what had been seen only as limits of discourse. With such a lens we need be neither audience nor wall, figures which analogously no longer signify the limits of intersubjectivity. Once subjectivity is a matter of these intervals, intersubjectivity becomes a process definable primarily by how it establishes substances then reaches beyond them into an awareness of something like pure relational fields.
The second imaginative attitude modifies how we envision art works relating to their audiences. In Berssenbrugge the crucial issue is not whom one addresses but where the address can be envisioned as fully taking place. Questions about identity prove much less important than concerns for being able to shape whatever identities we have to the specific configurations of intimacy that the poems offer. And that in turn alters how we approach intimacy. If one relies on models of communication by self-representation, intimacy takes place as a function of making the self sufficiently visible so that an observer can recognize what the speaker offers. Berssenbrugge is less interested in such recognition than she is in the force that the desire to be known has in composing something like a distinctive site that an observer comes to share. Intimacy is less a matter of coming to know the other better than of learning to enter the space created by the desire to give another access to one's energies as they extend beyond what communication can contain. What intervals produce in time, awareness of the constructive energies of desire composes in space.
Berssenbrugge's "Recitative" makes the bold leap of locating intimacy at the core of opera, since recitative depends so much on the music becoming quiet and the stage itself coming back into focus, so that the bodies there can take on an expressivity that parallels what the orchestra invites when it is fully present:
Theater space modulates into figurative space and space itself becomes the potential for registering how desire takes on material form. Now form extends, by the figure of the eddy, to include rests and sites of grace that keep their place in the larger opera even as they give the plot its human significances. These eddies become sites of grace where diagonals can linger and doubleness be experienced as itself a fully expressive condition.
The third imaginative attitude I want to develop involves Berssenbrugge's distinctive way of dealing with self-consciousness. There are very few poets more concerned with an excrutiatingly exact rendering of the modulations of self-consciousness. Yet for Berssenbrugge one major value in so attending to the self is the capacity one finds to gain access there to what has to remain other about the other person. In our standard communication models, self-consciousness seems to destroy the transparency necessary to know the other as other. But for Berssenbrugge the other only comes into focus because of how the self feels itself being modified and led to enter the kind of silences that become rests in music. Feeling is conjectural and not mystical because it is not direct access to object but a mediation through states that the subject attaches to the object? And we have to regress " from conscious recognition" to "remembered involvement" if we are to develop the framing necessary for transforming silence into a sublime interval?
Berssenbrugge's most searching engagement in these issues occurs in the intricate and complex meditation of "Fog." There she seeks to understand how the kinds of luminosity distributed within fog might complement Enlightenment idealizations of the power of daylight to dispel dreams and superstitions. Fog is not darkness or fantasy. Yet it manages to provide a figure insisting upon an irreducible but never specifiable doubleness in our efforts at clarity. We know there are objects in the fog, but we only grasp these objects as pervasively mediated by an element that also creates strange interconnections within a constantly shifting field. Fog is an anthithesis to realism: where realism seeks a transparent medium, fog thickens the mediations sustaining the "contradicting ambition of consciousness to acquire impressions and retain strong feelings" (41).
Ultimately fog provides a figure for the pressure of subjectivity on objects of attention--both in its tendencies to displace what realism can render and in its capacity to retain an atmosphere where one feels the framework and the framed intricately suffusing each other, as if both temporal and spatial differences proved indispensable to grasping how one is held by and held within what unifies the particulars of the scene:
Perhaps most impressive in this poem is the way that Berssebrugge creates a framework for understanding the tensions within her own style. There must be denotation, description, and direct expression because we cannot evade the Enlightenment. Language has to take responsibility for its claims and persons have to try to make visible what they can offer to others. Rhetorical manipulation, on the other hand, separates language from objects and conceals desires while creating for its audience a false confidence in what becomes visible. But resistance to rhetoric need not require Enlightenment fixations on clarity. Lyric poetry can establish this fog-like effect, so that its various luminous tangents quickly lead beyond what can be seen or known. In this kind of poetry we are asked to make frequent leaps of faith enabling us to stay in touch with a mobility of mind always on the verge of dissipating into pure contingency. When the poetry works, it continually regathers those tangents--not into a clear synthetic whole but into the audience's sense that it is beginning to find its way around within a field of loosely related but evocative tiltings of the sense-making process. As we grow more confident within this field we realize that the ultimate aim of the writing is not to convey something we can know but to engage us in processes of attuning which align us with others without providing pictures of either the object known or the knower's confidence. Such work can honor the specificity of its objects, but this specificity is no longer something that can be appreciated solely in cognitive terms. Rather than treat the specific object in terms that characterize its manifest traits, the basic principle of engagement becomes a feeling for how emotional connection can be maintained through fluidly shifting perspectives. In the space conventionally idealized as the site where we come to know what another expresses, there Berssenbrugge wants us to understand relationships as a complex play of shifting and reflecting lights. As Dante might have put it (were he forced to speak post-Enlightenment prose), we enter a field where brightness intensifies because surfaces are constantly active and reflections double back on one another.
There will be times when this fluidity becomes so frustrating that one wants to stress "Fog"'s last line: "It is almost as if the complete dark would be ideal." But complete dark is simply the inverse of complete visibility. It has to ignore the tentativeness, the intricacy, and the seductiveness of all the qualifying utterances in this sentence. It has to ignore everything that makes it virtually impossible to provide a paraphrase adequate to the tones being sounded. In Berssenbrruge's imaginative world the notion of an "ideal" is inseparable from the indecipherable precision of the chain of qualifiers that come to inhabit and to transform the dark--without allowing anyone to think he or she possesses power to flood that place with unequivocal light. Yet in Berssenbrruge's imaginative world that indeterminacy becomes a means not an end. It provides a vehicle for keeping us aware that there are things we desire from the world and from other person's more important than clarity: