Here’s one thing. A man or sheep or meadow.
Here’s another thing. A bell, a word, a drug.
Because they coincide, somehow sharing space and time, they address and respond to one another whether they want to or not.
Empathy is a mysterious kind of resonance.
In empathy with you, do I feel something similar to what you feel? Or is it that when I empathize with you, I am affected by your situation but in my own way? Is it resonance as resemblance or responsive difference? Or both or some other mystery?
Empathy requires being together in some sense. That much it seems is true. Even at a distance being present to each other somehow. Coincidence as correspondence.
Word with sound, sound with sound, sound with circumstance. A thoughtful juxtaposition could be empathic. A meeting arranged with care and feeling.
Listen to this. Two words, the title of an album: Homo Tyrannicus. And the sounds, clang!caclangclangclang!, with which the album starts. These sounds were made by a man, Robbie Judkins, also known as Left Hand Cuts Off The Right, with bells and cymbals and pots and pans. But listening, I think of chains. Because of the word Tyrannicus.
The culminating track, “Desired Place.” Opens with a beautiful electronic chord. Long and rolling in slow motion through the tones of some major triad with a bit of fuzz. Two minutes. Most people would say that’s very long for a chord. And it keeps going and then little bells start ringing.
Wind bothering a microphone. Splash or stumble in the grass. The bells are hollow. And then sheep and cattle lowing. The bells are full of footsteps in the grass.
One interviewer called this piece “a collage of simultaneous curiosities.” First this long chord. I like ambient music; I know long chords. There are long chords I can sleep in. Chords I can bathe in or fly in. Chords that hold my breath or gouge me or transform me into carpet or warm water. They assert their independence. Which is why Robbie says they are “humbling.” This long chord is dusty velvet. Maybe even musty. With velvet cushions on the sides. It’s also electric with dust motes in pale wintry light. It coils the tones of the triad round and round.
“This motion is internal: coils of rope are still one rope. This is a binding chord. Cord.
And the hollow little bells creeping up on it. And the footsteps in the grass.”
“Farm animals,” says the album’s website, “and English winter weather.” I hear cattle and sheep moving through wide grasslands under heavy ash-gray skies. I’ve read that northern shepherds keep track of the herded and attune to their tempers by listening to the bells around their necks.
I think this piece is about captivity. And liberation and friction between what feels like liberation but is also captivity.
There are at least two ways to hear the animals lowing, tinkling, and swishing through the open field. Here’s one way: Ah! Nature! Tranquility! Pastoral simplicity! Peace and The Wide Open! Where everyone walks and tinkles instead of shoving and cursing, breathing the perfume of fresh grass instead of smog! This feeling is genuine and legitimate. “Desired Place” is beautiful and calming.
Here’s another way to hear the culmination of Homo Tyrannicus: The sheep and cattle tinkle because they are some human’s property. They fare better on the range than they do in stanchions; but the clang! of captivity has them by the throat. Appended to their bodies at the neck, bells are their prosthetic voices. Even though they have voices of their own already. As though captivity were some defining part of them.
Just as the human who comes to their wide open to escape himself is imprisoned in himself even in the great wide open. To the point that he’s turned to Mirtazapine, an antidepressant of last resort which gives its name to the previous track.
One philosopher, Kathie Jenni, says empathy just means sharing. Sharing an affective state. It’s happening here in the simple juxtaposition of sounds and words. Where “Mirtazapine” is an artistic endeavor that listens and responds to other animals.
Captive nonhuman animals do suffer depression. We don’t often think of it as complicated, all-consuming anguish worthy of drugs and psychiatrists. But it is. Horrifying though it is, according to biologist Jonathan Balcombe captive fishes have been treated with Prozac and responded. I think “Desired Place” is an imprisoned human heart crying out to prisoner-cattle: I feel what you feel. It’s so complex and knotted it never lets me go.
But “Desired Place” isn’t just about the artist. Robbie makes his own field recordings, but he’s not the one who baas. He says “playing with animal sounds and animals is another humbling experience.” For it’s about “not feeling that you’re a master of them.” It’s about feeling with them.
So “Desired Place” is neither a tranquil place nor a bare-walled cell but a place where words about human tyranny and anguish coincide with captive-animal sounds to give us an opportunity to appreciate that they suffer tyranny and anguish of the same complexity but differently. “Desired Place” is a resonance. Sounding out the irony in humans’ obtuse idea of freedom. Echoing the complexity in nonhumans’ emotional experience of captivity. Empathy is a liminal place full of echoes and reflections changing color as they fly.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong, PhD, is the author of the award-winning fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging Press, April 2019) and the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019). The latter was a was a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the Santa Fe Writers’ Project Literary Award, and nominated for the PEN Open Book Award. Her essays on art and animals appear in Manqué, Waccamaw, Little Patuxent Review, Chaleur, The Hypocrite Reader, and other venues.