Book Review: The Question of Empathy (Carol Jeffers)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Carol Jeffer's recent book The Question of Empathy may have well subtitled, "Down the Rabbit Hole." Like the falling Alice, Jeffers asks herself more questions than she answers and, if Lewis Carrol's heroine is chasing an elusive rabbit through a topsy turvey world inhabited by a seemingly impossible range of characters, Jeffers in pursuit of empathy does something of the same. The difference is that Jeffers knowingly pulls the reader down the hole with her, switching from the first person singular to the first person plural in asking questions or making her pronouncements.

Jeffers' book opens on Moonstone Beach in California where taking in natural surroundings she comes upon an object of culture, a bench with the words "I shall always love a purple iris" carved upon it. The image of the iris with its rhizomic underground network sets her to wondering about the nature of empathy. She wonders if following a network of connections might lead her to greater understanding– our single iris linked in some way to all of the others. What would happen if she tried to follow the thread. So it is down the rabbit hole. Upon entering, she acknowledges, "if the answer lies matted in the rhizome, then we must also acknowledge that bamboo and crabgrass are part of the metaphor, their crisscrossing roots and shoots bound to complicate the question of empathy.

In the last few pages of the book, as the reader emerges from the rabbit hole at the end of their quest, Jeffers announces, "The question seems more compelling now that we have a list, crisp and new, if incomplete." I beg to differ. Not with the compelling nature of the question, but that the book has furnished us anything like a crisp list.

I like chocolate, but if I order a super duper triple chocolate brownie, I know within the first few bites that it is way too rich for me. I need to take it in small bites and not all at once. Dipping into The Question of Empathy leaves the reader (or at least, this one) with a similar feeling. Jeffers calls her book a narrative but in all but the loosest sense, it is not a linear one.

Back we bounce to the kittens and toddlers, to an adrenaline-soaked straightaway, and to the horse dance – make that the Harlem Shake or the Dab or … We'll have to ask Ellen DeGeneres. Ours is an à la carte culture, what prompts us to pick and choose from a blizzard of images – the avalanche of visceral truths based on these things that lie. (ellipsis in original)

If the path she is taking us down is more like a nodal network, then perhaps the best way to enjoy the book is visiting one node at a time.

Jeffers' experience as a professor of art education is apparent everywhere in the book. Not only does she directly cite her work with specific students and invoke paintings Van Gogh, Magritte, Cezanne, Millet, Rembrandt and others, but she makes generous use of metaphor, which, of course, is grounded in visual imagery. The most extensive of these metaphors she reserves for describing the journey she is taking us on:

…we are caught in a whirlpool on the high seas. Scanning the open sky, we search for next images to navigate by – the brightest ones that could light the way out of our spin and fill the void between the black and white of empathy's "freedom" and "low self-esteem," its "enlightment" and "weakness," "value" and "validation," "giving" and "receiving." We cannot be sucked into empathy's Bermuda Triangle, lost in the turquoise mystery of a "generosity of spirit," "balance of emotions," and "sense of unaccomplishment."

Throughout this journey, there is always the constant tension between nature and culture that Jeffers hinted at in the book's opening scene on Moonstone beach, and Jeffers seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of culture. She is particularly conversant with the fields of philosophy and science. Many of the most thought-provoking sections of the book occur in cul-de-sacs where specific ideas in those disciplines are trying be reconciled with the existence of empathy.

One particularly interesting section of the book, which comes down on the side of nature in the nature/nurture debate looks for the source of empathy in the research being done on mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti's lab at the University of Parma. Following Jeffers' account one realizes that, ironically, placing empathy (which most would review as a very humanitarian concept) in the hands of neuroscience reduces it to a sort of behaviorism.

In another of the book's nodes, Jeffers introduces the reader to the concept of Einfühlung, coined by philosopher Robert Vischer, meaning "feeling into" as a means of responding to art and traces the metamorphosis of Vischer's term to suggest that "the self projected in a work of art became a self discovered by another human being." It's a view that reaffirms the role of art and storytelling in human connectedness and empathy.

Flowing among and through these pockets where empathy is being sought and troubling them like the crabgrass roots and bamboo shoots run pairs of concepts in contentious dialogue � nature and culture, self and other and, perhaps most fancifully, certainty and uncertainly. This last pair take on the character of allegorical Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee:

The winds of empathy rise, composing music that howls and whistles on the dance floor where Certainty and Uncertainty are locked together in an unending tango. Certainty is aggressive and tries to lead, but Uncertainty appears to me the one more practiced and executes the steps with surprising skill and precision. Still the two dance toe to toe, ever fierce…

It would be hard to say that The Question of Empathy arrives at any definitive answers, but Jeffers does distill her thoughts into at least two propositions that she feels are important. The first is that, in the end, empathy means nothing if it is not manifested in some concrete terms by taking action. The second is that in the battle between nature and nurture, between selfishness and complete identification with others, we need to take the middle way – we need to be neither demons nor angels. Though my first impulse is to feel like saying with Horatio, "There needs no ghost come from the dead to tell us this," I have to remind myself that in this current political climate, perhaps we do. There is no time in recent American history when the country has so needed the vilification of others to stop, self-interest to cease, and concrete acts that actual help to improve the lives of others to begin again. The question of empathy is an important question.

Title: The Question of Empathy
Author: Carol Jeffers
Publisher: köehlerbooks
Publication Date: 2018



Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).