The control that Dombek commands over her audience in Emptiness interests me both intellectually and artistically. She achieves this control by proactively considering how her readers will react to her probing and emotionally-stirring arguments. Her language is mostly casual, at times even nonchalant. She supports herself with moments of light humor and philosophical context. Dombek concludes her article by not only asking the viewer to reconsider everything they’ve just read, but the way they see the humans around them.
“THE NARCISSIST IS, according to the internet, empty. Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you.”
In the first sentence of her article, Dombek gets in the reader’s face, prompting them to question if they are a narcissist, with the phrase if you have it after addressing how our souls should function. She is discreet, but direct.
“No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it.”
Dombek uses vague words like “they” and “it” throughout her writing. While most writers would agree that unspecific pronouns are a big no, I think Dombek is using ambiguity to build mystery and suspense. She is well-aware that her audience has a personal investment in her piece because they are eager to find out what classifies a narcissist, and more importantly, if they themselves are one.
“If one of your parents is a narcissist, he or she will tell you that you are a rock star, too, which is definitely a trick.”
Dombek gets more invasive with her argument, forcing the reader to question the morality of their own parents. While I think this is almost cruel, I appreciate her awareness of the effect she has on her readers’ emotions. She’s toying with as as we read with eyes wide open.
“He will unfriend you, stop following you, stop returning your emails, stop talking to you completely. He will cheat on you without seeming to think it’s a big deal, or break up with you, when he has said he’d be with you forever.”
These specific examples are intimate and deeply emotional, but widely relatable. She knows that most have had their hearts broken, and isn’t afraid to bring it up in order to support her argument. As Dombek lists off more and more examples of how a narcissist may treat you, her writing begins to feel increasingly autobiographical. In this list of a paragraph, she transforms from teacher to fellow human being, who too has felt pain and understands yours.
“It isn’t that the narcissist is just not a good person; she’s like a caricature of what we mean by ‘not a good person.’”
Dombek switches between “he,” “she,” and “they” pronounces in her examples, maintaining a sense of specificity while implying that narcissism has no face or gender.
“You might empathize: how horrible to live this way, having to imitate self-ness all the time.”
She’s reading our minds again! This gives Dombek control of her argument, because she predicts what her readers may be thinking and provides a counter or alternative argument.
“Some mental health professionals think that you can love a narcissist, in a way, but that you just have to treat him or her like a six-year-old and expect nothing from that person. Some do think that narcissists can change. Deciding between these two theories can haunt you forever.”
Dombek’s writing catches me off-guard. Some do think that narcissists can change is a simplistic sentence with non-descriptive language. However, her next sentence is penetrating and demands the viewer to question their ethos.
“Why is having a boyfriend or a boss so much like having your own personal villain, anyway?”
This is the first sentence of a paragraph that poses carefully crafted rhetorical questions one after the other. These questions address thoughts that she assumes the reader already has.
This is Water by David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite pieces of writing. Wallace addresses the perils of our “default-setting” thought and prompts us to reconsider the way we thinking on a daily basis, all while maintaining a friendly voice and transparency of intention.
“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”
“Stuff” may be the least pretentious word—a formal writing faux-pas. But DFW pulls it off. He writes as we speak, with intellect but more importantly with humanness.
“Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.”
Wallace trusts his readers. He does not over-argue, or use too many examples to prove himself right. He states his thoughts concisely, in accessible terms — you get the idea.
“Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me.”
I am always unsure when I should generalize my experiences, assuming others can relate, or be specific about how I am relating my ideas to my own life. I think that Wallace balances this well, as shown in the sentence above. A simple, or at least in my own case, gives the reader the option to choose whether or not this idea can or should be applied to the experience of others.
“Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.'”
Wallace guides his viewers through this piece of writing. He’s not holding our hand, but he’s making sure we’re still with him.
“Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.”
Wallace stuffs this run-on sentence of a paragraph with vivid detail, putting the reader into his view frame. This is very similar to the strategies Dombek used to connect to her audience. Wallace ends his essay by giving the reader the option to disregard everything he just said, as Dombek did in the conclusion of her article. “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”