Cultivating Empathy through Mimetic Forms
November 9, 2021
Cultivating Empathy through Mimetic Forms
The first time I heard the word mimesis, I was a sophomore English Lit major in an American Realism class. The professor held his flattened palm several inches from his face to represent a handheld mirror. He explained that mimesis is a literary term used to describe work that holds a mirror up to the world, that reflects the world back to itself for examination. In that class, we read several novels by regionalists like Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James, and Willa Cather, and the idea was simple enough: these authors reflect life as it was in a particular place and time in America. And while I loved their books, I didn’t recognize the power of mimesis until the next year when I took Modern American Literature. We read Frank Norris’s McTeague and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, both of which served as seminal texts in cultivating my understanding of mimetic theory.
In McTeague, the title character—a practicing dentist who, in one scene, pries out a patient’s tooth with his bare hand—and his family, all lower class and the definition of “uncouth,” make several cataclysmic attempts to blend in with higher society. In The Sound and the Fury, as the obfuscation of the Compson family name parallels the dilapidation of their once-prominent plantation house, the death knell for Southern aristocracy ringing all the while, so too is the mental health and stability of the youngest Compson generation in sharp decline. In Norris’s mirror we see class struggle, imposter syndrome, and the bourgeoisie; in Faulkner’s, we see displacement, disillusionment, and a crisis of identity as they correspond to both the Compson family and the post-Civil War American South. I understood the dramatic effect of mimesis as a literary theory and technique when it worked more to reflect the interiority of the characters and their psyches, the absurdity of social stratification, and the flaws of humanity as a whole.
Mimetic theory isn’t new, and the notion that art imitates life is ubiquitous. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he claims poetry is inherently mimetic, and in art history, mimesis and realism are often used interchangeably to describe work that is an accurate representation of reality. In literature, prose writers have been holding a mirror up to the world—to nature, both human and otherwise—for centuries by manipulating language and defying grammatical expectations as a means of underscoring the absurd. Historically, though, many fewer writers practice the simultaneous subversion of linguistic patterns and the destabilization of traditional forms, the effects of which can be channeled to various ends, mimetic forms being one of them.
Just as I can recall the first texts that demonstrated, for me, the power of mimesis as a theory and technique, I also recall the first in which I recognized a mimetic form at play. It was somewhere between pages 17 and 27 of my 10th-anniversary-edition paperback of Infinite Jest, in the first section of many titled “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” It’s in this section that Wallace first shifts from first-person to third-person omniscient narration and introduces the first footnote (of the book’s 388) on page 23. In these pages, Erdedy is waiting for the delivery of a lot of “unusually good” weed—200 grams—all of which he plans to smoke in one 24-hour period in an attempt to break his dependency on the product. His dealer, the woman who “said she would come,” does not arrive in these 10 pages; instead, we spend the time with Erdedy and his anxious, obsessive, unmedicated thoughts, written as stream-of-consciousness for pages on end without a paragraph break.
When I first read this section, I was a new graduate student, fresh out of undergrad, and recently diagnosed with mental illnesses I’ve struggled with since childhood—health-related and general anxiety, panic disorder, and depression. I was trying out daily medications for the first time in my life and felt like I was seeing the world through the warped, too-clean glass of a fishbowl, my ears and jaw and temples stuffed with dry cotton. At the time, reading the omniscient narration of Erdedy’s moment-to-moment anxieties, memories, projections, and hyperfocus felt like home. It was deeply familiar, as my mind was operating in much the same way, and there was such comfort in knowing someone, the author, had control over those thoughts in a way I didn’t have over my own. Now, many years and medications and dosages later, these pages trigger a visceral response; I’m deeply uncomfortable, agitated, and overwhelmed reading those ten pages because of how well they’re done, how accurately they manifest a fractured consciousness. If I were not a person who has and does experience such fracturing, I can imagine this narration might also be overwhelming and frustrating to get through—it might read as nonsensical or be criticized as difficult for the sake of it—due to the reader’s lack of familiarity. But part of what the mimetic form demands of its readers is indulgence and often an intense, sometimes extreme, level of empathy.
One of my first successful attempts at a mimetic form was with a piece called “Hypochondria, or The Disease,” which was published in DIAGRAM 18.1. It’s an experimental essay in which I explore the definitions of illnesses with which I’ve been diagnosed or have diagnosed myself. Each definition branches off into moments of memoir and bits of data, which creates an interesting visual effect. The form was meant to speak to my obsessive relationship with WebMD and was inspired, too, by one of the first borrowed forms I ever read, Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. But before I submitted the essay for publication, I took it to my MFA workshop, but they weren’t very receptive to it. The professor didn’t say much, but a few of my peers stated the piece was too difficult, that it made them anxious and frustrated to read. Everything they expressed as a negative, though, rang to me as the point of the essay. I wanted to communicate even a fraction of what it was like to live in my head at the time—confusing, daunting, scary, frustrating, painful, obsessive, and generally unpleasant—while weaving in details of my personal life and how it was being affected by my various illnesses. Because all of my classmates’ critiques seemed satisfactory to my intent, I made minimal edits, and the essay was picked up by DIAGRAM a short time later and published as-is.
In the past several years, I’ve read and taught many contemporary texts in which writers employ mimetic forms to varying degrees. In Part II of Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, the author appropriates the language and form of The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans (S. J. Res. 14—111th Congress (2009-2010)) and employs erasure techniques, among others, in order to highlight the absurdity and futility of the government’s so-called apology. When reading sections in Whereas lifted directly from the Resolution, I couldn’t help but note the similarity of the language to that of the woefully inadequate and heavily sanitized U.S. History textbook I was assigned in high school. Long Soldier, too, challenges the form of the Resolution’s placating and impersonal “whereas” statements, as well as the general tone, by writing her own very personal and passionate ones, the namesake of the collection. Long Soldier, utilizing mimetic forms, contrasts the intimacy of daily life as an Indigenous woman with the lack of humanity in the government’s “apology” and also deterritorializes the way many folks read and process government-approved language.
In Part III of her memoir In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado employs the choose-your-own-adventure mode of storytelling, a mimetic form that requires participation from the reader and offers them the illusion of choice, of control. In this section, titled “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®,” Machado presents us with a scene where her abusive partner is being unreasonable and manipulative, and the reader is given three options for how to respond. But no matter which of the three the reader chooses, the partner is never satisfied. Depending on options chosen on subsequent pages, the reader can get locked in a cycle, rereading the same pages, making the same choices. If the reader chooses to ignore the options and read straight through, they end up on pages where they “don’t belong” and are, at first, scolded by Machado for trying to avoid the situation. Two pages later, though, on another page where the reader “doesn’t belong,” Machado commends the reader for being smarter than she is, for recognizing the cycle and choosing to leave it. Each option in this section leads to an unsatisfying end because the narrator can’t possibly say or do the “right” thing; when her abuser’s only goal is to remain in control, the “right” thing to say or do doesn’t exist. As a person who has endured abusive partnerships, this section elicited from me feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, indignation, and exhaustion, all as a result of Machado’s masterful writing and use of a mimetic form.
While, initially, writers used mimesis as a technique to reflect the realities of the human condition and, later, the absurdity of life itself, more and more, contemporary writers like Layli Long Soldier, Eve L. Ewing, Morgan Parker, Carmen Maria Machado, and so many others are unapologetically experimenting with language and form in an attempt to recreate their own specific experiences as closely as possible for the reader, utilizing mimetic forms such as dervish essays and stream-of-consciousness, erasure poetry, dialogue-only pieces, hermit-crab essays and other borrowed forms, and even magical realism to raise awareness and cultivate empathy for the experiences of the underrepresented and marginalized among us. The endeavor, though, as I’ve said, does require a willing, critical audience with a resolve to power through the unfamiliar, to suspend their disbelief, and to work for context and meaning when language, grammar, mechanics, and/or form have been deterritorialized by the author for their own purposeful ends.