The ‘Impassible Distance’ Between Empathy and Humans: as illustrated by the lives of those in Nicole Krauss’, Man Walks Into a Room

[(Essay dated June 4, 2010) In the following essay, KO details the meaning of empathy and the varying effects and impacts that it has on differing characters, as well as the human community as a whole in the novel Man Walks Into a Room, by Nicole Krauss.]

“Being close- as close as you can get- to another person only makes clear the impassable distance between you” (Krauss 124).

True empathy does not exist. Perhaps completely denouncing its existence appears to be a bit harsh and not a fully supported fact, one spewed out by pessimists and cynics who have lost their faith in humans and their capacity to understand and relate to one another. But as detailed in this novel by Nicole Krauss, the very idea of empathy and what it means to truly connect and understand someone else’s personal experiences transforms into a completely foreign concept and even something out of a science-fiction novel, beyond all human thought and understanding. Yet what at first appears like an extremely lonely thought, those very principles make up the fabric of every human being. Loneliness, and the desire to eradicate it, are what fuel some of our most innate human qualities.

From what the numerous characters experience and share in this work teach us is that completely honest, true, un-biased or clouded acts of empathy simply cannot happen. Literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and discarding your own experiences and emotions is an unfathomable thought, for however hard we may try, there will always be a piece of us that belongs to us clinging on and clouding our ability to empathize completely.

Empathy or attempts at relating to each others' problems stem from a natural human and somewhat selfish desire to be known. As social and as capable of forming strong, lasting relationships as we are, there will always be hidden corners of our souls that no one will be able to touch no matter how hard one may try, and that is where the idea of a lack of true empathy exists. No one can ever truly understand how the other feels, because they haven’t experienced that very thing themselves. They can only vaguely relate to and try and surmise their own feelings and emotions based on what happened, and that is where the great divide exists between humans and our desire to be completely known and accepted, to feel like someone understands us and that this fact will somehow make our pain more bearable.

Interestingly enough, the character that experiences this painful truth first hand most dominantly and consistently throughout the entire novel is the protagonist, Samson Greene, who awoke one day in a hospital room in the Mojave Desert to find that he has no recollection of who he is, what he is doing there, or the past twenty-four years of his life. He wakes up as a thirty-six year old man, a benign tumor having recently been extracted from the base of his temporal lobe, to find that he remembers nothing of his past life.

A veritable medical miracle, he has sustained the ability to create new memories, as well as retain the memories from the ages of four two twelve. However, the bulk of his adult life- the formative years that shape us into who we will be for the rest of our lives- are seemingly vanished, and show no signs of return.

Beginning a sort of quest of whether or not to adapt to this life that he feels truly no longer belongs to him, or cut himself loose and live free, unburdened of memories and identity follows and attaches itself to Samson immediately. A task, while daunting, does not seem to phase someone who has no recollection of what they should be missing anyway. In essence, this man, once a prominent English professor at Columbia University can virtually start over, unhinged, free. However, one now-extraneous remainder from his past life keeps him from letting go completely.

The newly estranged and awkward relationship of Samson and his wife of the past ten years, Anna, is the first example in the novel of the nature of human beings and how they relate to one another. Samson and Anna, who only weeks before were comfortable, familiar, and safe with one another now must learn to readjust themselves from that familiarity and the feeling of being known that came in tangent with the relationship. Samson, with no emotional attachment or regret in how he now treats Anna, a virtual stranger, grapples at first being “home” (or what he has been told is his home) and thrown into a life that he no longer knows. Because of his complete lack of ability to understand Anna’s place in all of this, not having any prior experiences such as this with which to draw comparisons, he treats her ambivalently and at times even with frustration that she is still so determined to win back his affections and resume their old way of life. Anna in turn quickly learns that this is not some temporary amnesia, and the husband and friend that she held so dearly to her for ten years is gone, and only the shell of his former self remains.

When Anna is still in the early stages of trying to deny Samson’s condition, she brings up an interesting point, one that is later echoed by numerous characters throughout the novel. Anna, in an attempt to try and remind Samson of his previous life, begins to tell him minuscule details of his daily life, as if in fact attempting to introduce himself to himself. From the “faded rectangle on the back pocket of all your jeans,” (38); the ghost of a pack of cigarettes he used to carry with him before he quit, to the pet names that he used to call her by; every habit that Samson used to perform now comes rushing back to Anna the minute that they’re gone, and something that used to be ignored and taken for granted is now glaringly obvious in its absence. These missing pieces of Samson, these habits, make Anna realize that she has related to him for so long only because of these lingering ticks and habits that made Samson who he was. Without them, he is unidentifiable, and it is impossible for her to love and relate to someone who she doesn’t know (and in turn, doesn’t know her). Though Anna never says it outright, as Samson watches her, everything that she has been trying to say becomes clear to him, “whether you could love someone without habits” (39).

Dr. Ray, a scientist in the Mojave Desert on the cusp of discovering the way to link human minds together, a way to transfer actual memories and experiences from one cerebrum to the next, calls Samson out to the desert where he was found only a few short months before, in order to study him. His mind, having been wiped of all its own memory while retaining the capacity to create new memories, serves as a clean slate, pristine and empty for the purpose of Ray’s experiment. Dr. Ray’s way of thinking offers a familiar and comforting comparison to Samson’s own thoughts after his operation; both men look at things such as loneliness, love, and empathy from a completely scientific standpoint, emotions need not be necessary in order to understand human psychology.

In Ray’s mind, the ability to not be beholden to anyone, not having to attempt to empathize with anyone, to be completely free from the very burdens of humanity, is the ultimate example of human behavior and experience. He feels as if people too often are preoccupied with unrealistic notions of being loved and understood by another, while they should really be focusing on being understood by only themselves, “How to be alone, to remain free, but not feel longing, not to feel imprisoned in oneself. That- is what interests me” (125). However in stark contrast to Ray, to whom everything is scientific and possesses a factual, definite, answer, there is Donald, Samson’s roommate at the laboratory complex.

A wry, yet mysterious man, Samson inexplicably formulates a direct connection with Donald, though the two barely share any history of their past lives unless in very generalized terms. Samson tells Donald what he knows of his past life, while Donald does the same. Both men have lost the women that they once loved, one by choice, the other by another man, but both by distance. Anna and Samson grew apart between the gray matter in Samson’s brain, whereas Donald’s lover left him for another man while Donald served time in the military. Though their situations differ and vary greatly, the connection and understanding between them is undeniable, though neither of them take notice of it. They now both wander alone in the world, making random and fleeting connections with people that exit just as quickly as they entered.

After the anonymous memory transfer occurs, Samson walks away from the laboratory. Samson once again is left alone, with only Donald’s memory of a tremendous and devastating explosion that occurred at the very base where he stayed in the Mojave Desert forty years before. Samson is now the first person able to completely, utterly, and painfully understand another human’s emotions, without having experienced it first-hand himself. This solidifies the relationship that he and Donald created over the short time they spent together, and the two are now connected forever by this “shared” experience. However, this only leaves Samson more alone than he has ever been, and the feeling of knowing someone is not reciprocal. The while he now carries this memory with him all waking moments of his life, he feels no different than he did before, and does not feel like he holds a better understanding of everything that Ray promised him.

Despite the immeasurable pain that came along with the memory transfer, the reader can see how much more receptive and in tune Samson is, not only with the specific memory he received, but with everyone. The strangers he once only knew on the bare surface of shared anonymity he now beings to take a genuine interest in, connecting and learning about their pasts, whether similar or different to his own. And while he may not share the same experiences as them, he doesn't try to. He just listens.

Throughout the entire novel, Samson makes references to one of the only people he truly remembers from his childhood. His Uncle Max, the man who taught him essentially everything he can recollect about life itself, now a resident of a nursing home, does not recognize Samson when he finally makes the journey towards him in hopes of finding out where his mother is buried. The fact that Max does not remember Samson is symbolic to the work as a whole because the one person that Samson can make and sustain a natural connection with in the world does not remember him. Samson feels completely un-known, reverting back to innate human instincts which, up until this point, he denied and ignored.

He now understands on a deeper level that pain that Anna felt in not being able to connect and share as they did before, now experiencing it with his uncle. While both he Anna and move on, Samson now understands and harbors some of the same feelings that Anna experienced early on, in regards to the missing life they once shared and sadness that they both have at not being able to connect any longer. In gaining the memory transfer, Samson unknowingly gained his humanity back. He no longer questioned people that attempted to hold onto past relationships or events that had left an impact on them, because now he had truly acquired someone else’s footprints on his mind, taken a walk in someone else’s shoes.

Samson struggles throughout the entire novel to understand not only himself, but others around him as well who are all strangers to him. However, upon the novel’s completion, Krauss’ purpose becomes clear: Samson represents what all of us at times wish to achieve. That experience of not having to answer to anyone or worry about trying to consider their feelings, essentially focusing only on ourselves. However he discovers that this existence is an utterly lonely one, and that he is the one human that connects to everyone because he cannot truly connect to anyone. We are made to empathize with others, however we often do it only with the underlying hope that in turn we will feel recognized and accepted as much as we attempt to create that feeling for others. With every person Samson encounters, it is like he is learning this lesson for the first time, and when he finally begins to acknowledge and accept it, he gains further insight into not only himself, but humans as a whole.

(KO, 2010)

Proof: Do We Exist Without Validation? An analysis of this reoccurring theme in Nicole Krauss’, The History of Love

([June 7, 2010] KO analyzes the lives of those characters that exist in Krauss’ second novel, The History of Love who perceive themselves worth something only if someone else is acknowledging their existence. KO analyzes their actions, behaviors, and reasons for acting this way and how it affects the meaning of the work as a whole, in addition to addressing the idea that we may truly not exist if no one notices us.)

All people, whether consciously or sub-consciously, do certain things throughout their daily lives in order to garner attention. We do this out of boredom, ego, or (probably more often than we think), simply to have the acknowledgment of someone else. One does not often think that we may do this simply to prove that we are. By saying this I mean that by spilling countless cups of coffee, taking a particularly long time to order at a restaurant, and any number of things, we do in order to prove (to others? to ourselves?) that we exist. And without that acknowledgement of other people, is it possible that to a degree we never existed at all?

This idea is the basis for every character the reader encounters in Nicole Krauss’ second novel, The History of Love. The lengths that these characters from all different walks of life go to in order to have their actions, their feelings, or themselves validated; prove that each and every one of us are insecure in ourselves so much so that we go as far as to denounce our life completely solely because we were never recognized even for so much as just being us.

Leo Gursky, one of the protagonists, exemplifies this fact more than any other character in the novel. A writer having escaped from War World II ravaged Europe in the hopes of following the only girl he could ever love, he arrives in New York City to discover that despite the fact that she and Leo conceived a child before her departure, she has moved on and married, believing Leo to be dead. Now completely alone, in a foreign country, with essentially nothing to his name, Leo becomes virtually invisible. Much as he survived the Nazi regime in his home country of Poland by acting is if he wasn’t there at all, he now finds himself living a life in which he exists only for the son that he never meets, Isaac. He does however, keep tabs on Isaac and discovers that he has become an extremely talented and well-known writer, much like his own un-known father. Leo continues to live only for his son, for the hope that one day they will meet and that everything he has been living for in his life was not for naught. And when Isaac dies suddenly, it is as if Leo has died as well. And to a degree, he has:

“Only now that my son was gone did I realize how much I had been living for him. When I woke up in the morning, it was because he existed, and when I ordered food, it was because he existed, and when I wrote my book it was because he existed” (Krauss 80).

Without the son that he never knew to live for with the hope of their eventual meeting, Leo’s life takes on a new lack of meaning and purpose, for he has never been someone that was able to live only for himself. When he and Alma fell in love in their youth, he lived entirely to please her. Writing elaborate made-up tales for her that were written in languages that not even he could decipher, writing so fervently as to gain her respect and keep her loving him. Leo is so insecure in being his own person that he could only exist when there was the thought that there was someone to live for. Everything about him had to be for Alma, and sixty years later, he continues to do everything for her in vain, hoping against hope that one day she will validate him and he’ll know that his love for her served a purpose, therefore allowing him to have served a purpose. The book that he continues to write for her and their son- the product and validation of their love- everyday entitled The History of Love is another form of validation that he tries to achieve for himself. A part of him knows that he and Alma will never speak again, but he also knows that he promised his heart to her forever, and therefore will try time and time again to delude himself into the idea that she will come back to him. Therefore, every girl or woman that is mentioned in the book is named Alma. Because according to Leo, every woman and every girl is Alma to someone. At one point in everyone’s life, they have an experience with another person that makes them want to do everything in their power to hold onto them, and the feeling that they receive from them and their attention. To feel like they mean as much to that person and they do to them.

“… He ran into a girl he had always been a little bit in love with even though he was sure she had no idea he existed… Her kiss was the question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” (62).

This passage sums up everything that Leo feels about his life and how much he feels the need to live for others rather than himself. Since he cannot create purpose for himself, he focuses and holds onto the purpose of others, thus making them his purpose and reason for living. This is his reason for writing, every time he gives a little more to the story, he gives a little more of himself until one day there will be nothing left of him; “At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one in the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying my pages away and when the air cleared of all those soft fluttering white sheets the room would be silent and the chair where I sat would be empty” (9). So long as he keeps writing, he keeps having a reason to live, because he knows that Alma is still out there and therefore he is still out there as well.

Though Leo’s ‘life story’ (though he writes it as if it is everyone’s life story and to a degree he is correct) is a forever a work in progress, unbeknownst to him it has actually been published under the name of Zvi Litvinoff (a boy that Leo knew as a child and who found the manuscript after Leo fled Slonim), and though not extremely popular, it has been consumed and enjoyed by those that have had the luck of finding it. One couple in particular discovered it and loved it so much that they named their first child after every girl in the novel, Alma. And, like Leo, she lives everyday for someone else; in this case, her family.

After her father passed away years ago, her mother completely shut down from the death of her beloved husband, the man whom she dropped out of college for and changed the entire course of her life for. Alma’s younger brother, Bird, becomes increasingly fanatic and preoccupied with religion and attempting to be as Jewish as possible, believing himself to be the Messiah and doing everything in his power to help everyone. Alma, considering herself the only ‘stable’ one in the family, takes on the role of caregiver, feeling like she is the only one that can now keep her family together. However, she herself needs just as much help as her mother and brother, because as Alma becomes older and older, she becomes obsessed with finding ways to keep her father’s memory alive, such as taking an interest in all things that he did, as well as wearing her father’s favorite sweater even in sweltering May temperatures. Unlike Leo however, Alma does not realize that she is living for her father’s memory, even going as far as to say that she does not wear the sweater because she was “Trying to set any records. I just liked the way it felt” (49). And while yes, Alma is correct to a point, she watches her mother subsist day to day on “only water and air. Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have a species named after her” (45). The sight of her once vibrant mother (whom has barely gotten out of bed for a year), scares Alma to death. Upon seeing this, Alma denounces that she will ever do anything of the short. But what Alma cannot seem to see that she is doing the same thing, only somehow in the opposite.

Because she has seen her mother live only for her father for so long that now upon his loss she cannot function any longer, Alma becomes convinced that she cannot live for anyone but herself. However in doing this, she lives so much in spite of others that she too in a way lives for validation from others. The validation that she does not need validation, she can create her own individual destiny and her own life story without having to live up to anyone's expectations of her. Therefore, Alma finds herself pulling away from people even when she may want to hold onto them, such as her friend Misha; whom clearly likes and admires Alma. But Alma, afraid of falling for someone and having to depend on them for anything only secludes herself further, all the while trying to convince herself that she needs no one in order to be someone. She is similar to Leo in this respect because Leo, who is so preoccupied with the fear of not being validated by those that he loves, secludes himself and prefers to invent friends (such as his “upstairs neighbor" Bruno, who was his childhood friend but died at the start of the War), and people to talk to because he has given up on the rest of the world so much.

The old man and the young girl who are both afraid of living inevitably find each other, Alma searching for the Alma for whom The History of Love was written about and Leo searching for his lost love. In showing the parallels between Leo and Alma throughout the entire novel, it helps to show that every person has the same or similar fears of validation and that though each of them react differently, their unique reactions are all fueled by the same feelings.

Zvi Litvinoff, a secondary character to the shared-protagonists Alma and Leo similarly struggles with identity and his ability to believe in himself. A writer his entire life, he has dealt with feelings of inadequacy from a young age, because of his friendship with Leo, whom he considers a far more original and talented writer. Zvi eventually becomes all consumed by his belief that he could not produce an original and ground-breaking work, like Leo, because “He was an average man. A man willing to accept things as they were, and, because of this, he lacked the potential to be in any way original” (116). Because of this, after Leo leaves Slonim, Zvi takes the work that his friend created for Alma and publishes it under his own name. Zvi, while receiving the national attention for creating such an original and groundbreaking work now feels validated for everything that he had never believed about himself, despite the fact that the work is not his own. However, in the validation that Zvi receives, he finds that he can’t live with the knowledge that he stole the book from his friend, and eventually burns the entire manuscript. In doing so, he is destroying the evidence of the validation and achievement that he felt, however, he is now able to live with himself more readily as an average man rather than the confident man that was not truly him. He comes to realize that his beloved wife, Rosa, may not have loved him as much as she does without assuming that he was a phenomenal writer, and living as an average man with average talents while holding onto the love of his wife began to outweigh the recognition that he received form everyone else. Unlike Alma and Leo, Zvi achieves true peace and acceptance with himself, because he no longer feels the need to impress others, but at the same time he is not adverse to the feeling. He is simply contented at being himself and no longer is interested in being accepted and revered by others.

The ironic thing about the novel within the novel itself, The History of Love, is that it was written by a man who has such a profound understanding of what love is and what it means to love and be loved by someone, however he finds it incredibly hard to believe that anyone could ever feel the same way about him. However, he also has a somewhat limited view on what love means. He bases his self-worth solely on the attention and love of one person‘s memory, and therefore forgets about the other person that he needs to learn to love- himself. Alma too, focuses so much on not having to rely on the love of others, believing it to be forced and undeserving, that she forgets how to truly love and be loved, and tries to dissuade her loneliness with diving into her father’s death and attempting to foster relationships with his memory, something that cannot reject her and that she doesn’t have to feel pressure on to earn love. Both Leo and Alma, living in the past and in memories that both of them have had to invent at some points (Leo by writing the novel, and Alma by the numerous exaggerated stories that she tells Bird about constantly in order to keep her father’s memory alive), miss out on true qualities of life, never fully being able to understand that validation and recognition cannot come from the past, or worrying about the future, but by living in the present moment and accepting the help and love that is offered to you by others (even if you consider yourself to be invisible).

Luckily, Alma and Leo find each other by their shared history with the book that taught them how to love and how to lose. Both of them are trying to find their intertwined history within the pages of a novel written so long ago for a woman that no longer exists, as if to prove their own existence. For Leo, it is that his love was worth something and that therefore, his life was worth something. Alma, so that she can identify with the past that her father and mother created for her in naming her Alma and how her true identity can relate and co-exist with the presumed on. The contrast in the ages between Leo and Alma is significant to the novel and the ideas it conveys because while Leo comments incessantly about the end of his life and making his life mean something when he looks back on it, Alma’s youth represents the hope and promise that she exhibits in her actions. That while she is stuck on her past for the moment, she will one day come out of it and be able to validate and recognize herself and her unique talents, and allow others to do so as well.

The History of Love, whether it be the lesson that it teaches, or the premise of giving, receiving, and holding onto love in order to feel self-worth and importance, changes each of the characters it comes into contact with. Despite the fact that Leo wrote it himself, he has a hard time believing them later on until Alma helps to prove to him that there are people everywhere that care, and that are able to see him. Leo, having achieved the approval and recognition of Alma, is able to die a peaceful death in which he has felt validation for the first time, while Alma takes away the knowledge that she has the ability to change the way that she allows herself to react to people. That the most satisfying validation and recognition will not come from outside sources, but herself.

As is true for everyone, and Krauss through the repeated theme of validation and self-worth creates a tale in which everyone’s identity is questioned, nothing is certain, yet in the end it comes down to not the romantic love that one experiences, or even the love between family members, but the history and persistence of self-love, and how it is the base for all other relationships and emotions that one may encounter.

(KO, 2010)