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Essential Empathy (Paper 12)

Sydney's picture

Essential Empathy

Before analyzing LeGuin’s short story, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” our class took a few moments to think as to how plants impact our lives. As I contemplated this subject, I realized that I am dependent on plants for not just biological survival, but also for economic survival, as both of my parents work with plants or human respiration. Through our class discussion, it seemed evident that everyone agreed that plants nourish our bodies and provide us with essential oxygen; however, we also rely on plant life for other differing reasons, as I do for economic reasons. This helped me to see that the connections between Earth and all of its organisms have gaps, and that we need to be aware of these differences in order to live in accordance with one another. In addition to this, I understood that no one needs an extensive background in a scientific field to acknowledge that plants our essential for human survival in many different ways. If people were to take the time to think of plants and their daily lives, then maybe it would be simpler to apply human empathy to nonhuman life. Osden, the empath, in LeGuin's story could perceive emotion coming for the planet, World 4470, that was being explored. If we allow ourselves to believe that our planet can in a sense “feel” also, then it could be simpler for people to desire to  live more harmoniously with nature.

Through reading LeGuin's story, it appeared obvious that the members of the expedition had clashing personalities, yet they shared only “one peculiarity: the were of unsound mind” (LeGuin 2). Their hardships were not made an easier by one man, Osden. His empathetic proficiency was so strong that he could analyze every person’s motive, and he had no problem communicating his dislike for everyone. In addition to this, Osden provoked fear within the team. He incessantly spoke of a fear that the planet they were exploring projected. He knew that the planet was entirely interconnected, yet the members of his crew, especially those who were scientists, did not want to believe his claims of a sentient planet. Tomiko, the coordinator of the journey, was fascinated by his claims. She desired to understand what Osden was feeling. These connections seemed so real and possible to her. Unlike the other explorers, Tomiko made herself vulnerable to the harsh personality of Osden. After he experienced the fear within the wild of the planet, she wanted to communicate with him in an attempt to understand his experience. Tomiko “had seen that the trap itself, his crass and cruel egotism, was their own construction, not his. They had built the cage and locked him in it, and like a caged ape he threw filth out through the bars” (LeGuin 30), and unlike the others, she tried to understand his difficult personality in order to develop a relationship with him. She understood that the only way that she could comprehend the nature of the planet was to seek help from Osden.

Although Osden was forming a bond with Tomiko, he could not connect with the other members of the expedition. He scoffed at their inability to not understand the foreign planet, explaining that the fear “can't hurt you. It's an impulse passing through synapses, a wind passing through branches. It is only a nightmare” (LeGuin 34). Near the story’s end, he ejected himself from the expedition to totally embrace the nature of the foreign planet. No one could understand why Osden would do this; even Tomiko struggled to rationally put his decision into words.

The struggle of trying to understand why Osden would sacrifice himself to the sentient world is trying to rationally understand his action, as everyone on the expedition did. If we transcend our belief that the Earth can react, and can thus sense, then it would be possible to believe that the Earth can feel, as World 4470 did. In “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” Latour asserts that the Earth is “agitated through the highly complex workings of many enmeshed living organisms, the whole of which is either called ‘Earth system science,’ or more radically, Gaia”(Latour 4). If we can understand this idea proposed by Latour, then it makes sense that the next step would be trying to what the Earth needs. As demonstrated by Tomiko, this is best done when  cooperating with others. All organisms are different, and each being’s needs should be assessed in order to try to adapt ourselves to live with them accordingly. As I learned through my class discussion before LeGuin’s story, plants are necessities for humans. Earth is our home, yet we were not invited; similar to the explorers of World 4470, we have invaded. Knowing this, we should try to follow the example of Tomiko who worked alongside the beliefs of Latour. Earth deserves our empathy, and this is best done by showing empathy towards one another in order to corporate for the betterment of our home.



Latour, Bruno.  "Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene." New Literary History 45, 1 (Winter

2014): 1-18.


LeGuin, Ursula. "Vaster than Empires, and More Slow." The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Short

Stories.  New York: Harper and Row, 1975. 148-178.


Anne Dalke's picture

Some reading notes on this paper:
* nice, located opening
* “we were not invited… we have invaded"; how about, we have evolved?! (i.e. a new life form, but not an alien one?
* but! cf. Emily’s critique on the usefulness of empathy!

Some talking notes, from our final writing conference:
* you think that your writing has definitely improved: you can write more quickly and efficiently--it's easier for you to gather your thoughts now
* you've gotten better @ thinking of what you want to prove, and @ backing it up, by selecting quotes that are applicable
* you find that you are still sometimes searching for a thesis, though; it often doesn't emerge til the end
* your brain is naturally "scattered," so you still need to work on transitions and continuity
* your best papers are readings of fiction, w/ a lens provided from outside
* we agreed that you will revise paper #9, to focus on questions of diversity in the curriculum, by drawing on the material that you and Leigh Alexanderhave already assembled. I'll be looking not only for a summary of your data, but some concrete suggestions that might be passed on to the Diversity Working Group or the Curriculum Committee.