Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

09 JUNE, 2014

The Poetics of the Psyche: Adam Phillips on Why Psychoanalysis Is Like Literature and How Art Soothes the Soul

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“Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag once said. The object of the writer’s observation isn’t just the outer world but also — and perhaps even more so — the inner. In that regard, the writer bears a striking similarity to another professional observer — the psychotherapist. That’s precisely what Adam Phillips — Britain’s most celebrated psychoanalytical writer and the author of such immeasurably stimulating reads as Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, and the particularly wonderful On Kindness — explores in his wide-ranging conversation with Paul Holdengräber, several years in the making, part of The Paris Review’s legendary interview series.

Phillips, who read Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections at the age of seventeen and was profoundly influenced by it, reflects on his early educational experience:

This was conveyed very powerfully — that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature — and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory.

Like Kafka, who memorably considered what books do for the human soul — a question Carl Sagan also addressed beautifully, and one I too once contemplated in answering a 9-year-old girl’s inquiry — Phillips reflects on the essential reward of reading:

It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is… There are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

Holdengräber cites an essay by the legendary British pediatrician Donald Winnicott, whose definitive biography Phillips penned in 1988:

HOLDENGRÄBER: It seems natural that an interest in literature and in Winnicott should go hand in hand. In Winnicott’s essay “On the Capacity to Be Alone,” he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.

PHILLIPS: That idea was one of Winnicott’s most radical, because what he was saying was that solitude was prior to the wish to transgress. That there’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can “forget yourself ” and absorb yourself, in a book, say. Or, for the child, in a game. It must be one of the precursors of reading, I suppose. I think for Winnicott it would be the definition of a good relationship if, in the relationship, you would be free to be absorbed in something else.

Phillips, who wrote in the preface to Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature that “psychoanalysis, at its best, should be a profession of popularizers of interesting ideas about the difficulties and exhilarations of living,” uses the springboard of the parallels between children’s psychology and reading to consider the broader allure of psychoanalysis:

Psychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.

The great thing about the psychoanalytic treatment is that it doesn’t work in the usual sense of work. I don’t mean by this to avoid the fact that it addresses human suffering. I only mean that it takes for granted that an awful lot of human suffering is simply intractable, that there’s a sense in which character is intractable. People change, but there really are limits. One thing you discover in psychoanalytic treatment is the limits of what you can change about yourself or your life. We are children for a very long time.

[…]

The point is that it’s an experiment in what your life might be like if you speak freely to another person—speak and allow that person to show you the ways in which you stop yourself thinking and speaking freely. I don’t mean by that that it doesn’t change symptoms. I know by my own experience that it does. But I think the most interesting thing about it is its unpredictability. If you buy a fridge, there are certain things you will be guaranteed. If you buy a psychoanalysis, you won’t be. It’s a real risk, and that also is the point of it. Patients come because they are suffering from something. They want that suffering to be alleviated. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering.

When Holdengräber points out the word appetite frequents Phillips’s vocabulary in discussing psychoanalysis, Phillips offers a somewhat counterintuitive framework for the two goals of his profession:

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself… Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

Illustration from 'Freud,' a graphic biography. Click image for details.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s meditation on living with our human fragility, Phillips adds:

Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.

We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts.

Citing Kafka’s famous letter, Phillips points to art — something Alain de Botton explored more deeply in Art as Therapy. Phillips tells Holdengräber:

One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.

And yet those sensitivities to our inner lives become increasingly muffled by the constant influx of external stimulation brought on by the century of the self. Echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that “the modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives,” Phillips considers the solace of human conversation:

It can be extremely difficult to know what you want, especially if you live in a consumer, capitalist culture which is phobic of frustration — where the moment you feel a glimmer of frustration, there’s something available to meet it. Now, shopping and eating and sex may not be what you’re wanting, but in order to find that out you have to have a conversation with somebody. You can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s Thinker…

In conversation things can be metabolized and digested through somebody else — I say something to you and you can give it back to me in different forms — whereas you’ll notice that your own mind is very often extremely repetitive. It is very difficult to surprise oneself in one’s own mind. The vocabulary of one’s self-criticism is so impoverished and clichéd. We are at our most stupid in our self-hatred.

Returning to the parallels between psychoanalysis and literature, Phillips gives greater granularity to the analogy:

Psychoanalytic sessions are not like novels, they’re not like epic poems, they’re not like lyric poems, they’re not like plays — though they’re rather like bits of dialogue from plays. But they do seem to me to be like essays, nineteenth-century essays. There is the same opportunity to digress, to change the subject, to be incoherent, to come to conclusions that are then overcome and surpassed, and so on.

An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantages of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, as there tends to be in a short story. Essays can wander, they can meander.

Reflecting on the legacy of 19th-century essayists like Emerson and Lamb, Phillips defines the inherent psychology of the genre in terms that counter E.B. White’s notion of the essay as a mecca of narcissism and adds:

The essay is very rarely a fanatical form, it seems to me, partly because you’d just run out of steam. It would just be propaganda of the most boring sort. In order to write a compelling essay, you have to be able to change tone. I think you also have to be reflexively self-revising. It’s not that these things are impossible in other genres, but they’re very possible in essays. As the word essay suggests, it’s about trying something out, it’s about an experiment. From the time I began writing — although this wasn’t conscious — I think that was the tradition I was writing in.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, who considered music the most sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who extolled music above all arts including her own, Phillips explores the symmetry between psychoanalysis and poetry through the lens of music and its capacity — even on a neurological level — to sidestep our conscious bulwarks and whisper directly to the soul:

I can remember the first time I heard Dylan’s voice, Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Joni Mitchell — that music made me imagine myself. It was so evocative. It taught you nothing, but you felt you’d learned everything you needed to know.

[…]

The emotional impact of music is so incommensurate with what people can say about it, and that seems to be very illustrative of something fundamental—that very powerful emotional effects often can’t be articulated. You know something’s happened to you but you don’t know what it is. You’ll find yourself going back to certain poems again and again. After all, they are only words on a page, but you go back because something that really matters to you is evoked in you by the words. And if somebody said to you, Well, what is it? or What do your favorite poems mean?, you may well be able to answer it, if you’ve been educated in a certain way, but I think you’ll feel the gap between what you are able to say and why you go on reading.

In the same way, a psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It’s not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It’s really showing you how much your wish to know yourself is a consequence of an anxiety state — and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what’s going on.

Inverting Maya Angelou’s lament about labeling others and echoing Joss Whedon’s excellent Wesleyan commencement address on embracing all our selves, Phillips issues the same admonition about our tendency to label — and thus narrow and proscribe, to use Angelou’s words — ourselves:

When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

But Phillips later observes that while we’re telling ourselves who we are, we’re also telling ourselves — and grieving — who we could’ve been, a kind of toxic speculative grief for the unrealized what-ifs of our lives, something he explores in greater detail in his most recent book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. He tells Holdengräber:

Missing all our supposed other lives is something modern people are keen to do. We are just addicted to alternatives, fascinated by what we can never do. As if we all had the wrong parents, or the wrong bodies, or the wrong luck…

The comfort would be something like, You don’t have to worry too much about trying to have the lives you think you’re missing. Don’t be tyrannized by the part of yourself that’s only interested in elsewhere.

Reflecting on his prolific career as a writer, Phillips considers the question of why one writes — a question memorably addressed by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Michael Lewis, Lynne Tillman, Italo Calvino, Susan Orlean, and Joy Williams — as well as the psychology of criticism:

You have to be really good at masochism to welcome criticism. But you know, you can’t write differently, even if you want to. You just have to be able to notice when you are boring yourself.

Echoing Joan Didion (“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”), Phillips adds:

Anybody who writes knows you don’t simply write what you believe. You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe… When I write, things occur to me. It’s a way of thinking. But you can perform your thinking instead of just thinking it.

Unlike famous writers who ritualize their routines, Phillips sides with Bukowski and tells Holdengräber:

There is no creative process. I mean, I sit down and write. That is really what happens. I sit down in the morning on Wednesday and I write. And sometimes it doesn’t work and almost always it does work, and that’s it.

He points to an even more toxic cultural mythology that couples similar magical thinking with a profound confusion of causal relationship — the “tortured genius” ideal of the artist, which implies that one must suffer in order to create meaningful work. Instead, he suggests an alternative approach — the kind Ray Bradbury embodied and advocated — anchoring artistic endeavor not to cruelty but to kindness:

If you live in a culture which is fascinated by the myth of the artist, and the idea that the vocational artistic life is one of the best lives available, then there’s always going to be a temptation for people who are suffering to believe that to become an artist would be the solution when, in fact, it may be more of the problem. There are a number of people whom you might think of as casualties of the myth of the artist. They really should have done something else. Of course some people get lucky and find that art works for them, but for so many people it doesn’t. I think that needs to be included in the picture. Often one hears or reads accounts in which people will say, Well, he may have treated his children, wives, friends terribly, but look at the novels, the poems, the paintings. I think it’s a terrible equation. Obviously one can’t choose to be, as it were, a good parent or a good artist, but if the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having. People should be doing everything they can to be as kind as possible and to enjoy each other’s company. Any art, any anything, that helps us do that is worth having. But if it doesn’t, it isn’t.

The full interview is available here. For more of Phillips’s singular mind, dive into his books, including the especially excellent On Kindness and Promises, Promises.

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02 APRIL, 2014

From the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley: How Mark Twain Became the Steve Jobs of His Day

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The power of mischief, timing, and typography.

Mark Twain has no shortage of cultural credits — celebrated humorist, irreverent adviser to little girls, opinionated critic and cultural commentator, underappreciated poet, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans. But perhaps his greatest feat was his own becoming — how he transformed Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain, “the Lincoln of Literature.”

In The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (public library), Ben Tarnoff chronicles that becoming alongside the rise of the singular “vanguard of democracy” that shaped the course of the Western written word, a course largely steered by Twain. Embedded in the altogether fascinating story, on a closer read, is a testament to history’s cyclical nature as a parallel emerges between San Francisco in the Gold Rush era and Silicon Valley today, and between the respective patron saints of those worlds — Mark Twain and Steve Jobs.

Born in 1835, Twain came of age “at the best possible time,” as the country was on the cusp of a remarkable cultural change, driven in large part by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 — the spark for the famous Gold Rush, which drew risk-takers, pioneers, and enterprising vagabonds from all over the world and elevated San Francisco as a gateway to the era’s El Dorado. Twain, born in the west and raised in Missouri, found in San Francisco what many entrepreneurs today find in Silicon Valley — like many other young men, he “hadn’t come to stay, but to get rich and get out.” The confluence of all these cultural and personal factors created a unique backdrop:

They erected tents and wooden hovels, makeshift structures that made easy kindling for the city’s frequent fires. They built gambling dens and saloons and brothels. They lived among the cultures of five continents, often condensed into the space of a single street: Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australian. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.

By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. The city craved spectacle, whether on the gaslit stages of its many theaters or in the ornately costumed pageantry of its streets. Its wide-open atmosphere endeared it to the young and the odd, to anyone seeking refuge from the overcivilized East. It had an acute sense of its own history, and a paganish appetite for mythmaking and ritual.

Mark Twain in 1863, taken on his first visit to San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the city quickly sprouted a thriving literary scene — a “band of outsiders” known as the Bohemians — for writers are a culture’s foremost mythmakers. Tarnoff captures their spirit:

The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another. San Francisco was where their story began, but it would continue in Boston, New York, and London; in the palace and the poorhouse; in success and humiliation, fame and poverty.

Two concurrent and seemingly opposite cultural forces contributed to the rise of the Bohemians: On the one hand, the Civil War disrupted America’s moral and aesthetic tradition, creating “rifts in the culture wide enough for new voices to be heard”; on the other, the technological advances brought on by the war had also shrunk the country, bringing East and West closer together with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph. San Francisco was in a unique position to reap the fruits of both developments, and “its writers found a wider readership at a moment when the nation sorely needed new storytellers.

In joining the Bohemians, Twain forever changed the course of both his own life and American literature. Tarnoff writes:

No Bohemian made better art than Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer, nurturing the literary powers he would later use to transform American literature. He would help steer the country through its newfangled nationhood, and become the supreme cultural icon of the postwar age. But first, he would spend his formative years on the Far Western fringe, in the company of other young Bohemians struggling to reinvent American writing.

Artwork by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

Tarnoff’s enchanting portrait of young Twain is remarkable in several ways — it is exquisitely written, it paints a somewhat timeless picture of the eccentric entrepreneur archetype, but perhaps most of all it reveals details about the beloved author of which most of us are unaware, for seemingly trivial reasons related to the trajectory of recording technology: left with only black-and-white photographs as sensory documentation of his life, we are deaf-blind to details like his striking carrot-colored hair or the peculiar drawl and even more peculiar rhythm of his speech. Tarnoff brings young Twain to life:

What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive — a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.

Cover of 'Advice to Little Girls,' which Twain wrote at the age of thirty in 1865. Click image for more.

So on May 2, 1863, Samuel Clemens boarded a stagecoach headed to Mark Twain via a rocky two-hundred-mile journey to San Francisco. At age 27, he was already extraordinary before he had even arrived:

The young Twain … already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada — or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Originally, Twain hadn’t planned to stay long, but he found himself entranced by the city’s perpetual cycle of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing. In a letter to his mother and sister from mid-May, he announced he was only going to stay a little while longer — ten days or so, and no more than two weeks. But San Francisco’s bountiful buffet of saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens sang to him a siren song he could not resist. By June, he was still there, living “to the hilt” (to borrow Anne Sexton’s term) and estimating that he knew at least a thousand of San Francisco’s 115,000 citizens — “knew” in the pre-Facebook sense, which makes the scale of his social life all the more impressive.

He eventually left in July, but the spell had been cast:

Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.

One particular detail about Twain made me consider a curious parallel between him and Steve Jobs beyond their similar cultural legacy of revolutionizing their respective fields: Twain, like Jobs, was a disobedient boy (his mother described him as “very wild and mischievous”) who hated school. But perhaps most importantly, he was a typesetter by trade and dropped out of school (as did Jobs) to become “a printer’s devil,” as type apprentices were called at the time. It was through typesetting that he entered into literature, and through typesetting that he found his irreverent voice. Tarnoff writes:

The shop became his schoolroom. He put other people’s lines into print and composed a few of his own. He learned to think of words as things, as slivers of ink-stained metal that, if strung in the right sequence, could make more mischief than any schoolboy prank. At fifteen he began typesetting for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union, and wrote the occasional sketch. When Orion left on a business trip and put his sibling in charge, the teenager lost no time in testing the incendiary potential of the medium. He ignited a feud with the editor of a rival newspaper, scorching the poor man so thoroughly that when Orion returned, he was forced to run an apology.

This sounds remarkably like the story of Steve Jobs, whose era-defining design vision was first tickled by a typography class that he serendipitous wandered into, out of academic mischief and boredom with his prescribed course. Type led Jobs to design innovation and Twain to literary innovation. Both men also came of age at a time of incredible technological progress — for Jobs, the golden age of modern computing, and for Twain, the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. As a young man, Twain saw steamboats and trains and telegraphs transform the diffusion of the printed word across the country. He witnessed America’s booming love affair with newspapers — a century before he was born, the country had 37 newspapers. By the time he entered typesetting, there were more than a thousand.

Tarnoff contextualizes the significance of this shift, and the particular fertility of Twain’s locale of choice:

The newspaper revolution created America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground… By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7.3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t write, compared with 20 percent nationwide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury — it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.

The Bohemians is fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Twain on religion and our human egotism, morality vs. intelligence, and his mischievous advice to little girls.

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26 MARCH, 2014

Annie Dillard on the Art of the Essay and Narrative Nonfiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories

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“Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White remarked in his reflection on the art of the essay. And yet there must be a reason why the essay is what we turn to when we set out to assess human potential, as in college applications, and discuss matters of cultural charge, as in op-eds. For Annie Dillardmodern mystic, sage of writing, champion of the creative spirit — the essay is not only an immensely valuable genre of literature, but also a pinnacle of thought and a hallmark of the writer’s aspiration for significance. In the introduction to the altogether excellent anthology The Best American Essays 1988 (public library), which she edited, Dillard explores the misunderstood merits of the essay, a form she considers to be the short form of nonfiction, much as the short story is the short form of fiction. She places particular focus on the narrative essay — a genre that “demonstrates the modern writer’s self-conscious interest in writing” — especially narrative essays that “mix plain facts and symbolic facts, or that transform plain facts into symbolic facts.”

A great many narrative essays appear in the guise of short stories… My guess is that the writers (quite reasonably) want to be understood as artists, and they aren’t sure that the essay form invites the sort of critical analysis the works deserve.

Her aspiration in editing the volume, Dillard notes, was to coax essay writers “out of the closet.”

Comparing the extinction of the essay with the shrinking of other literary forms — including a particularly ungenerous but, perhaps, tragically accurate account of poetry’s role in the literary ecosystem — Dillard presages the rise of the narrative essay:

Poetry seems to have priced itself out of a job; sadly, it often handles few materials of significance and addresses a tiny audience. Literary fiction is scarcely published; it’s getting to be like conceptual art — all the unknown writer can do is tell people about his work, and all they can say is, “good idea.” The short story is to some extent going the way of poetry, willfully limiting its subject matter to such narrow surfaces that it cannot address the things that most engage our hearts and minds. So the narrative essay may become the genre of choice for writers devoted to significant literature.

She goes on to explore just what makes the narrative essay such a winsome genre over short fiction and poetry:

In some ways the essay can deal in both events and ideas better than the short story can, because the essayist — unlike the poet — may introduce the plain, unadorned thought without the contrived entrances of long-winded characters who mouth discourses… The essayist may reason; he may treat of historical, cultural, or natural events, as well as personal events, for their interest and meaning alone, without resort to fabricated dramatic occasions. So the essay’s materials are larger than the story’s.

The essay may deal in metaphor better than the poem can, in some ways, because prose may expand what the lyric poem must compress. Instead of confining a metaphor to half a line, the essayist can devote to it a narrative, descriptive, or reflective couple of pages, and bring forth vividly its meanings… The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than that of poetry. And it can handle discursive idea, and plain fact, as well as character and story.

The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do — everything but fake it. The elements in any nonfiction should be true not only artistically — the connections must hold at base and must be veracious, for that is the convention and the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader. Veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the writer; there’s a lot of truth out there to work with. And veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the reader. The real world arguably exerts a greater fascination on people than any fictional one; many people, at least, spend their whole lives there, apparently by choice. The essayist does what we do with our lives; the essayist thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts.

Annie Dillard, 1988. Portrait by Richard Howard.

Dillard argues that American literature “derives from the essay and hinges on the essay,” for it stems from Emerson, who was an essayist. She lists among the notable godfathers of the genre Thoreau, Twain, and Poe, then turns to Melville and what his underappreciated essays reveal about the general cultural conceits toward the genre:

There is no reason why anyone should read, touch, or publish this brilliant stuff (“The Encantadas” [Melville's essay about his ephemeral experience of the Galapagos Islands]) as fiction — except that the world is curiously blind to the essay, and to the essay’s imaginative and narrative possibility, as if it didn’t exist, or as if a work by its very excellence should have mysteriously tiptoed out of its proper (but dull-sounding) genre and crept into a more fashionable (but incorrect) one.

Noting that understanding history is a recurrent theme in her selection of essays, as well as in literary nonfiction in general, Dillard captures the cultural role of the writer beautifully:

Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.

And yet that is an act that requires mastering the art of uncertainty, of “the unknowingness that is the nub of any intimacy”:

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees.

(It is rather ironic, given Dillard’s dismissal of poetry as a lesser form, that it was John Keats — a poet — who best articulated this notion in his famous concept of “negative capability.”)

Dillard returns to the cultural journey of the essay:

The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on. The thinking mind will analyze, and the creative imagination will link instances, and time itself will churn out scenes — scenes unnoticed and lost, or scenes remembered, written, and saved.

Complement The Best American Essays 1988 with this meditation on what makes a great essay by Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series, from the 2012 edition of the anthology, then revisit E.B. White on egoism and the art of the essay and Annie Dillard’s collected wisdom on writing.

HT Alexander Chee

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