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The knife's edge : empathy in poetry, science writing, and sacrifice Cooper, Karen G. P.


This dissertation argues that empathy is a nuanced and paradoxical capacity, which in action puts at risk 1) the common language perceptions of empathy as the intuitive grasp of another's emotional state, 2) our ability to set ourselves empathically apart from those who commit reprehensible acts, and 3) even our very belief in certain forms of severe trauma. The initial dissertation section, "Preliminary Materials," explores common language approaches to empathy alongside more technical definitions of empathy and other terms, especially sympathy. I contend for a version of empathy as a fundamental human capacity which may be deployed in both pro- and anti-social fashions. Case Study I presents four poems. Analysis of the first poem leads to the conclusion that empathy as popularly conceived is impossible. The writer finds in the poem not a representation of the other, but a reflection of herself. Analyses of the other three poems invoke current scientific thinking in the areas of brain science, psychology, and neuro-linguistics. Within this context, a form of empathy which is more like mirroring or resonance is recuperated as meaningful. Case Study II examines the strategies by which an article about an Incan sacrificial site engages and disengages the reader's empathy with various parties, including the writer of the article, the Incan priests and other adults, and the sacrificed Incan children. I conclude that empathy potentially leads to identification with not only the victims, but also the perpetrators, of violence. Further, many textual strategies work precisely to inhibit or deflect this latter identification. Case Study III attempts, by a series of analogies, to illuminate at depth the experience of severe trauma and its aftermaths, and thereby to establish an empathic connection for the reader with the experience of such trauma. A Coda claims that, while Case Study III succeeds in many ways, certain aspects also fail, thereby pointing to ways in which empathy, by inducing trauma in the beholder, can actively contribute to the inexpressibility of trauma and consequent disbelief. "Hearts and Tongues," a creative essay, closes the dissertation by inter-weaving personal and academic experiences of empathy.

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