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Leslie Jamison and the Anxiety of Authorship


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Leslie Jamison and the Anxiety of Authorship


“Make It Scream, Make It Burn,” a new collection of essays by Leslie Jamison, meets many of the prerequisites conjured by the phrase “collection of essays by Leslie Jamison.” It explores notions of witness, storytelling, and authenticity; of art and morality; and of pain—others’ and one’s own. Stylistically, the book is almost frustratingly eloquent. Jamison, who has also authored an addiction memoir, “The Recovering,” can pin an idea with the speed and fluidity of a pro athlete. (A stepmother becomes “a token mascot of the dark maternal.”) She thinks ethically but feels aesthetically. Her writing, although lyrical, proceeds with a precise, searching sobriety—each sentence a controlled swoon.

A question raised by these new essays is whether they advance the work done by “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison’s breakthrough book. One feat of that volume, from 2014, was to establish an analogy between the mechanics of empathy and those of metaphor. Empathy—feeling with or as someone else—projects the self onto another, and metaphor projects meaning onto the world. In pieces on ultramarathoners and poverty tourists and people suffering from mysterious (and perhaps psychosomatic) illnesses, Jamison defended the creative impulse as a moral one, even as she worried that her art involved the exploitation of those she wrote about.

The new book does enrich that project, if slowly; it starts off as a skillful retread and then shifts. The first essay finds Jamison in a familiar pose, homing in on the “loneliest whale in the world,” 52 Blue, whose high-pitched song other whales cannot detect. The topic, with its built-in yearning, is lodged almost comically deep within Jamison’s wheelhouse. People embrace 52 Blue as a celebrity, a metaphor for their isolation. Jamison makes of him a meta-metaphor, a figure for our hunger to turn animals into mirrors. On one hand, she is charmed that so many humans see themselves in a whale, and want him to find happiness. But empathy can also obscure the object of examination: Blue’s fans, Jamison suggests, are perhaps less moved by nature’s variousness than by “the imprint of [their] own gaze.”

A second essay, in which Jamison attempts to identify with those who believe in reincarnation, further questions the value of connection, the signature moral gesture of “The Empathy Exams.” Jamison considers a boy who claims to have fought, in a past life, in the Second World War. “Maybe I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by pretending that my belief system was tolerant enough to hold everything as equally valid,” she writes. “Maybe there were experiences I couldn’t relate to and things I might never believe.” This passage, from an author dedicated to imaginatively inhabiting others, reads as a crisis of faith. But the tension doesn’t last. Jamison solves the problem of reincarnation’s implausibility by evading it: she’s not interested in reincarnation itself; she’s interested in it as a metaphor. She wonders whether the migrating soul, by vanishing into another while simultaneously remaining the same, might contain the paradox of empathy. The earlier concern about empathy as a framework—that there is perhaps a narcissism to assuming that selves are interchangeable, or that one’s own perspective is universal—is forgotten.

This move becomes a motif. The opening third of “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” locates honesty in irresolution; ambiguity becomes a shorthand for insight, a signpost to the profound. (“We return,” Jamison writes, summarizing her views on the afterlife, “unless we can’t.”) In “Sim Life,” Jamison examines a computer game, Second Life, in which users create virtual selves. Presented with a hobby that some might dismiss as pathetic, Jamison’s empathy engine begins to rev, to seek “beauty in what other people found absurd.” But the essay starts to slide off the rails. In truth, Jamison admits, she thinks that Second Life is creepy. She is gripped not by the platform but by the spell it casts on its players. Their enthusiasm, she writes, reveals a broadly applicable truth: that “inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it”; that, in fact, “these forms of ‘leaving’ aren’t the opposite of authentic presence.”

It’s a stirring point. (See again: “collection of essays by Leslie Jamison.”) It also replicates the arc in which Jamison moves from what she cannot relate to (liking a certain computer game) to what she can (dreams of escape, the sting of desire itself). In the process, she avoids interrogating her empathic impulse, even as her skeptical setup feints in that direction. There is nothing wrong with Jamison’s thesis: reaching and imagining are, in fact, good. But she can seem, at times, to be throwing complexity in her own way merely to exercise her thoughtfulness. The resulting essays adopt uncertainty almost as style rather than as subject. Reasoning by metaphor allows Jamison to please everyone. She can grant that the whale is likely just a mass of blubber, overburdened by human meaning, while also gesturing toward abstract ideas of loneliness and longing. The reader begins to sense an abdication. Jamison cares that we care about the whale. But what does she believe?

The book’s second group of essays, gathered under the heading “Looking,” sheds some light on Jamison’s allergy to staking out opinions. The theme of the section is the artist’s responsibility to those she depicts. Jamison’s subjects, all of whom bend, like her, toward self-critique, include the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady; James Agee, who documented the lives of poor Alabamans in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”; and the photographer Annie Appel, whose quarter-century-long project representing a Mexican family blurs the line between love and obsession. These artists, inscribing their limits within their work, enact what Jamison considers to be the most honest solution to the impossibility of an objective gaze. As she writes, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” does not simply describe sharecroppers; it “forces us into the anguish of Agee’s attempt to do this describing,” through “thwarted narratives and self-sabotaging journalism . . . convoluted syntax and tortuous abstractions . . . feelings of attachment and—beyond and beneath all else—guilt.”

Jamison insists that the “weight of witnessing” cannot exist “without the ghost of the witness.” She urges artists to own the taint of their artifice, which, she writes, expresses “something deeply authentic—the longing to glorify, to immortalize, to preserve.” But this effort to honor the represented has the effect of centering the representer. Jamison, for whom the themes of imagination, narration, and metaphor will never not be seductive, endlessly elevates the act of portrayal above the thing being portrayed. While this doesn’t invalidate her ethical inquiries, it does reorient them—a critique she anticipates with an observation about “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” that doubles as a searing self-assessment. “The drama of Agee’s vexed relationship to the possibility of moral failure,” Jamison writes, “more than the plight of the families themselves, is the closest thing to a plot that his book ever attempts.”

That Jamison’s essays are continually searching for their true subject, like wanderers on romantic quests, contributes to their aura of rigor and humility. But seeking can become its own kind of stasis, and I caught myself wishing, as I read this new volume, for Jamison to push beyond articulate hunger. In a third section, titled “Dwelling,” she does. Where “The Empathy Exams” began with the personal and then broadened its focus, “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” traces a reverse course from criticism to memoir, angling its last group of essays at the author’s intimate relationships. Here, Jamison writes about going to weddings as a single woman, meeting her husband, inhabiting the role of stepmother, and navigating pregnancy. Instead of universalizing her experience into myth, she divulges the biographical facts that have helped to shape her creative preoccupations. Her dad was often away on business. Her brother was a mystery to her. Surrounded by unavailable men, “I’d developed an attachment to the state of yearning,” Jamison writes. “I no longer desired presence; in fact, I often had no idea what to do with men when they stuck around.”

Some of these late-arriving pieces explicitly rework earlier topics. “The Real Smoke”—about flying to Vegas in pursuit of a man, and returning, fifteen months later, to marry a different one—is “Sim Life,” cast in desert fluorescence. Las Vegas “understood that any time you were somewhere, there were a thousand elsewheres you might be longing for,” Jamison writes. “So it jammed them together: New York—New York /Paris, the Tropicana, the Mirage.” The person that Jamison ends up marrying grew up in Vegas. Dating him forces her to reconceptualize the city not as a symbol—a palimpsest of elsewheres—but as a real location. Digging into her routines as a spouse and a mother, Jamison begins to push back against the displacements of metaphor, narrating the process of learning to “dwell in the building I’d chosen.” Marriage, she writes, is what happens when “the mirage shimmers away to reveal plain asphalt straight ahead.”

This is a loss and a relief. When Jamison trades “the electricity of thresholds” for “the daily work of salvage and sustenance,” she leaves behind some of what made “The Empathy Exams” a phenomenon: the pleasure of its pining. But she also captures the sensuality of having—the down-to-earth textures of gritted teeth, boredom, and buying your stepdaughter the wrong princess doll. If “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” at times feels invested in challenging Jamison’s earlier ideas about empathy, what it actually moderates is her romanticism. In the “Dwelling” pieces, dreams no longer supersede reality. The artist’s drama no longer veils the subject. Ironically, this adjustment also loosens the empathy knot. It is true that the distance between who you are and who you long to be—as a woman, as a writer—is interesting. But, as Jamison realizes, there are many ways to be interesting. A whale being a whale is interesting. Jamison being herself is interesting. To be released from metaphor is not the same as to be cut off from meaning.

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