Category Archives: Essays

Keats and authorial intention

I’m continuing to enjoy The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays on literature, many of which (although not all) are written from a personal perspective. This is the kind of book I read slowly, an essay at a time, whenever I feel inspired to pick the book up. I’m about seven essays in at this point. I won’t write about each and every one, as not all of them inspire me to write, but Sven Birkerts’s essay “On a Stanza by John Keats” is one I don’t want to neglect.

Birkerts starts off on a lofty level, considering what it means to encounter beauty in art. He decides that:

When we are stirred by beauty in a particular work of art, what we experience is the inward abolition of distance. It is only when we try to put our finger on the source of the sensation, when we try to explain the beauty, that the horizons are reversed. At that moment the near becomes the far, much as it does when we try to fathom our own reflection in the mirror: The more intently we look, the stranger becomes the object of our scrutiny.

He then turns to a more specific mission: “I set myself what seemed at first a simple task: to say why Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ was beautiful.” This mission leads him to embark on one of the closest readings of a poem I have ever read. The essay is about 12 pages long, and about eight pages of it is devoted to looking as closely as possible at the 11 lines of the poem’s first stanza. Birkerts does all the usual things people do when they close read — he looks at the meanings of words and their order and their sound qualities, but he does it in such loving detail and with such beautiful writing that it’s no ordinary close reading. He also looks at aspects of words people don’t often focus on — the way we move our mouths as we recite the poem, and how those movements affect our experience. Here’s what he decides about what makes “To Autumn” beautiful:

I am convinced that the beauty of the ode is to be sought with the fine crosshairs of sound and sense, that it inheres in the subtlest details and is sustained from breath to breath — that generalizations will serve for nothing. We experience such a rapid succession of perfectly managed sensory magnifications that we are, in a strange way, brought face to face with the evolutionary mystery of language. The absolute rightness of the sound combinations forces us to a powerful unconscious recognition: Sound is the primal clay out of which all meaning has been sculpted.

After finishing his close reading, Birkerts briefly considers a question that comes up in my literature classes a lot: the question of whether the author “meant to put that there.” Are these consciously created effects Birkerts is uncovering? Are those effects there but not consciously created? Or is Birkerts just reading too much into the poem?

When these questions come up in class, I tend to answer in two ways — answers that seem contradictory, as a matter of fact, but I’m open about that and don’t mind their contradictions. One is that yes, the author probably did “put that there,” because generally the effect we are discussing that provokes my students’ skepticism isn’t a terribly complicated one and I’m pretty sure the author really did know what he or she was doing. My students just aren’t used to the idea of an author having such great control over language and that’s because they are relatively new at literary analysis. My other answer is that it doesn’t matter what the author intended, both because language takes on a life of its own beyond the author’s complete knowledge and control, and because we can never truly know what an author intended. Even if the author tells us what he or she meant, we still can’t really trust that report because does the author really know what happens at the moment of creation?

Birkerts offers answers to these questions that are similar to mine, but expressed in terms I like and will probably borrow. He says, first:

Let’s not forget that we read poetry in the odd hour, as amateurs; Keats pressed his lines into place with the full intensity of his being. When a poet is composing, the value of every sound is magnified a thousand-fold. His radar is attuned to frequencies that we are not even aware of….I would argue, therefore, that not only (A) if you find it, it’s probably there, but also (B) however much you find, there is sure to be more.

I like that. Keats was a professional! He can work magic with language that we amateurs can only marvel at. His other answer is that as long as you believe the unconscious is involved in the poetic process — which he thinks it obviously is — then:

it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.

So there’s more going on when a poet writes a poem than he or she is consciously aware of, and it’s impossible to account for what a poet intended or didn’t intend. It’s all part of one big messy process that, as Birkerts says, the poet “presides over.” It’s too mysterious to analyze much further than that.

Birkerts essay is a beautiful one — a fitting tribute to a marvelously beautiful poem.

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The Story about the Story, D’Ambrosio and Woolf

So I’ve begun reading The Story about the Story, and although I’ve only read the introduction and the first two essays, those first two essays are really wonderful, and I suspect the rest of the book will be too. The idea behind the book is to gather essays that discuss literature from a personal perspective (it’s subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature”), and as I read through the first two essays, I was reminded of how much I love this form of writing. I love any kind of good writing about literature, whether it’s criticism, theory, book reviews, or blog posts — as long as it’s really good — but writing that combines intelligence about literature with a personal perspective and tone is really the best.

The first essay is by Charles D’Ambrosio, and it’s about how his experience of reading Salinger was shaped by the circumstances of his life. One of D’Ambrosio’s brothers committed suicide and another brother attempted it, and so when he came to read Salinger, he was acutely sensitive to everything Salinger had to say on the subject. The essay combines a number of strands beautifully — D’Ambrosio’s personal experience, academic theories of suicide, how suicide functions in Salinger’s fiction, and Salinger’s mysterious reclusiveness and silence. It’s a very smart, very moving essay.

The second essay is by Virginia Woolf, and in it she tells us what she thinks of Hemingway, and, even more interestingly, she takes a look at her own prejudices and biases along the way. She makes the argument that knowing a critic’s biases may make his or her conclusions seem less conclusive, but also more truthful. She starts off by describing what it’s like to read a piece of criticism. Surely we can all recognize the feelings she describes?

But what reason there is for believing in critics it is impossible to say … They differ in no way from other people if one sees them in the flesh. Yet these insignificant fellow creatures have only to shut themselves up in a room, dip a pen in the ink, and call themselves ‘we’, for the rest of us to believe that they are somehow exalted, inspired, infallible. Wigs grow on their heads. Robes cover their limbs. No greater miracle was ever performed by the power of human credulity. And, like most miracles, this one, too, has had a weakening effect upon the mind of the believer. He begins to think that critics, because they call themselves so, must be right. He begins to suppose that something actually happens to a book when it has been praised or denounced in print. He begins to doubt and conceal his own sensitive, hesitating apprehensions when they conflict with the critics’ decrees.

But, she goes on to argue, critics — at least those who review recently-published books — aren’t necessarily the best readers of literature. They have to review new books without much time to think about them, and they have to deliver a verdict about them, which requires hiding uncertainties they may be feeling and questions that may linger. The rest of us are allowed to have a more complicated response and to let some of our questions go fruitfully unanswered.

And so she will conduct an experiment: she will write about Hemingway and talk about her hesitations, questions, and biases along the way, so we can get a glimpse of the thought process that goes into producing a review, rather than, as usually happens, being left with only the conclusions.

This is really what I love about criticism that is personal — it gives us a chance to see how readers come to their conclusions. Probably it’s only an illusion that we can get into Virginia Woolf’s mind as she decides that Hemingway doesn’t do character very well, but still, I can’t help but trust that Woolf is trying to be honest, and I wish that her openness and honesty (even the illusion of it) were more common.

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Writing about oneself

I’m reading along in Montaigne’s Complete Essays and continuing to enjoy it. There are three “books” in this volume, and I recently began the second one. The essays are on a whole range of topics, many of them related to philosophy, quite a few on warfare and politics, and many on how best to live one’s life. Even when the subject is one that I am not terribly interested in, Montaigne usually manages to give some bit of wisdom or to say something revealing about himself that keeps me engaged. And in his best essays, he’s wise, insightful, and amusing.

I was first turned on to Montaigne in college when I took a Senior Seminar in the personal essay, and my professor was a Montaigne devotee. I remember admiring Montaigne’s essays at the time, but mostly I was caught up in my professor’s enthusiasm, wanting to like the things he liked because I had so much respect for his opinions. I dipped into Montaigne in later years, although I never got all the way through the essays. I continued to admire him, but the complete essays require a level of devotion I didn’t have at the time.

This time around, I’m committed to reading the entire book, and I’m seeing that he’s an excellent companion. It’s not so much the specific things he says, which I will probably forget anyway, but it’s his attitude — his honesty and his energy — that I admire. He’s not afraid to talk about either his weaknesses or his strengths openly, and I think it takes courage to do both. He’s also not afraid to write at length about himself. He openly acknowledges that he finds himself interesting and that the whole purpose of the essays is to figure out who he is.

In the essay I just finished, “On Practice,” he discusses writing about himself, and it makes me realize that not only would he be an excellent blogger were he living today, but he would have no patience with those who accuse bloggers of useless self-absorption. He finds being absorbed in himself highly valuable, in fact, and not only useful for himself but potentially useful for others:

The lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else. Meanwhile I am not spoiling anything: I am only using what is mine. And if I play the fool it is at my own expense and does no harm to anybody.

So, in other words, if you get annoyed with those who write about themselves, what’s your problem? It’s not hurting you. And he says it’s not easy either:

It is a thorny undertaking — more than it looks — to follow so roaming a course as that of our mind’s, to penetrate its dark depths and its inner recesses, to pick out and pin down the innumerable characteristics of its emotions.

To those who complain that talking about oneself can lead to boasting and presumption, he argues that just because some people do it badly doesn’t mean nobody should do it:

My belief is that it is wrong to condemn wine because many get drunk on it. You can abuse things only if they are good. I believe that prohibition applies only to the popular abuse. It is a bridle made to curb calves; it is not used as a bridle by the Saints, who can be heard talking loudly about themselves, nor by philosophers nor by theologians; nor by me though I am neither one nor the other.

And finally, he argues that writing and talking about oneself is valuable because it’s valuable to understand ourselves:

I hold that we must show wisdom in judging ourselves, and, equally, good faith in witnessing to ourselves, high and low indifferently. If I seemed to myself to be good or wise — or nearly so — I would sing it out at the top of my voice. To say you are worse than you are is not modest but foolish. According to Aristotle, to prize yourself at less than you are worth is weak and faint-hearted. No virtue is helped by falsehood; and the truth can never go wrong.

So, if you have ever felt uncertain or self-conscious or foolish for writing about yourself, Montaigne says don’t! If you are learning something about yourself, then what you’re doing is good.

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Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small

Anne Fadiman’s essay collection At Large and At Small was a joy to read, nearly as much fun as Ex Libris, her book on books and reading, which I am now tempted to read again. It wasn’t quite as captivating as Ex Libris because it wasn’t entirely about books, but Fadiman is fun to read no matter what subject she takes on.

I will admit that I liked the essays on bookish subjects best, though. Her preface is about the familiar essay, a genre she worries is passing away and that she would like to revive. The familiar essay, she says, was most popular during the Romantic time period, when Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt were writing. Here’s how she describes it:

The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.

Now who wouldn’t want to read that? I think essays appeal to me so much because they match the way I like to think and write. Some friends and I were talking the other day about the way we write, and I said that rather than having something worked out in my mind that I want to say and struggling to get it right in words, I tend to start with only the vaguest idea of my point and perhaps without a point at all and to figure out what I’m saying as I write it. Not all essayists write that way, I’m sure, but a lot of times their essays appear to be written that way, with the meandering, digressive, conversational style Fadiman describes. I love the feeling of being in on a conversation with an essayist, or perhaps to be on a journey with him or her, not entirely sure where I’m heading.

In the preface, Fadiman claims that:

Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal — very personal — essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).

I don’t really agree with this assessment; it seems too simple to me, and it’s just not true to my experience, as I regularly come across essays these days that have both heart and brain. But still, I’m glad Fadiman wants to keep the genre alive and that she’s doing her part so well.

The two other pieces that involve books directly are about Fadiman’s obsession with Charles Lamb and her experience reading Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge. both of these pieces made me want to start new books right away — I have Lamb’s Essays of Elia and the Holmes biography on my shelves and would like to read them at some point, maybe soon. Perhaps those could be a summer project?

The other essays were very enjoyable as well, about a whole range of subjects, from butterflies to ice cream to coffee to arctic explorers to the mail. With each subject, she does exactly what she says a familiar essay should do — she tells a personal story about the topic, for example about the butterflies she and her brother happily caught and killed to add to their collection, and she gives information on the topic and offers some kind of analysis of it, for example, analyzing the process she and her brother went through of realizing how cruel their butterfly-killing was.

Particularly useful is the “Sources” section in the back of the book, which gives a brief bibliography for further reading on each of her subjects. I added a number of books to my TBR list based on the sources to the Preface alone, including The Norton Book of Personal Essays edited by Joseph Epstein, William Hazlitt’s Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners, and Stuart Robinson’s Familiar Essays.

You have to love a book that inspires you to read a whole bunch of other books, right?

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Montaigne

I was all set to write a post on Gaudy Night, but I’m just not sure I have it in me tonight.  Soon, though, I’ll write on the book.  For now, I thought I’d give you some of my favorite quotations I’ve come across so far in my Montaigne reading (I’ve read 30 out of 107 essays so far).  The best parts of Montaigne are when he’s writing about himself or his essays.  Here is his explanation for why he started to write:

Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.

But I find — “Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind” — that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

I find this description completely and thoroughly plausible, and I’m certain if I ever were to live in retirement with nothing to do but follow the twists and turns of my mind, my mind would give birth to “chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” as well.  Nothing sounds more hellish to me than living in isolation with my own mind, in fact.  Montaigne’s brilliant move, of course, is to make something great and beautiful out of that isolation.

The following self-description really resonates with me:

I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments.  Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do.  The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself …. This, too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgment.

I love Montaigne’s very strong sense of his changeability; he makes me feel a little less crazy that there is very little I feel I can confidently say about myself.  He makes me feel better about my faulty memory, too:

There is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory.  I can hardly find a trace of it in myself: I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!  All my other endowments are mean and ordinary: but I think that, where memory is concerned, I am most singular and rare, worthy of both name and reputation!

I have a bit of trouble believing that his memory is quite so bad, though …  here he strikes a similar note:

I can see — better than anyone else — that these writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge — even that was during his childhood — and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it: a little about everything and nothing about anything, in the French style.

These are very self-deprecating passages, and yet I never get the sense that Montaigne is being falsely modest or that he doesn’t fully believe what he is saying, however exaggerated it seems. He really believes his memory is awful and his writings are like ignorant ravings.  But I trust him to describe his good qualities accurately as well without worrying whether he is sounding boastful.  I’m not sure there’s another writer who can capture the reader’s trust quite like Montaigne does.  It’s passages like these that will make you trust him:

…whatever these futilities of mine may be, I have no intention of hiding them, any more than I would a bald and grizzled portrait of myself just because the artist had painted not a perfect face but my own.  Anyway these are my humours, my opinions: I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed.  My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me.  I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed.  I feel too badly taught to teach others.

Reading this passage, I come to trust Montaigne — and to fall in love with his writing.

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The White Album

I recently finished Joan Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album.  I surely have read some Didion essays before this, but I can’t remember any, and this is definitely the first book-length work of hers I’ve read.  It was one of those books that had been sitting around on my shelves for ages, since before I began blogging even, and I finally decided it was time.

I’m glad I did get around to it, and I’m glad I read it around the time I was reading Jenny Diski, because the two have some similarities in their writing style.  I’ve decided that I haven’t found enough female nonfiction writers like these two; perhaps this is my fault, and I simply haven’t found them, but it seems to me that I don’t often come across women writing nonfiction in their style — aggressive, blunt, prickly, scrupulously honest, and not out to please.  I put Mary McCarthy in this category too.  Virginia Woolf can write like this as well, except that she often does seem like she is out to please, that she could be much harsher if she wanted to, but she chooses to try to woo readers over to her side.  I suppose, though, that all these writers are out to please in one way or another, whether it’s obvious that they are or not.  At any rate, there is something about this style I find immensely appealing, and I have felt this way for a long time.

Does anybody else come to mind who might fit in this category?

The White Album is very much a book about the mood of the 1960s and 70s, particularly in California.  After the lengthy title essay, there are sections called “California Republic,” “Women,” “Sojourns,” and “On the Morning After the Sixties.” The essays in these sections take up a whole range of subjects, from Doris Lessing (Didion doesn’t like her fiction but admires her tenacity as a writer and thinker) to migraines, Hollywood, Los Angeles traffic control, Georgia O’Keefe, the Hoover Dam, and mall construction.  The range of topics is wide, but her style is similar throughout — direct and straightforward with relatively simple and short sentences, and brilliant at creating a mood and setting up a scene.  She tends to work by juxtaposition; in several essays she tells a series of stories not directly related but getting at a similar theme and leaving the reader to piece together all the meanings and implications.  She likes to let her stories do their own work — she lets them speak for themselves rather than rushing in to spell out the meaning herself.

The title essay works in just this way; in it, she tells a range of stories, each one working to capture the feeling of the time.  Among these stories is a personal one of her struggle with depression.  She tells part of the story herself, but she leaves some of the storytelling to a doctor’s report, which she quotes as length.  She introduces it with the words “another flash cut,” and follows it with this commentary:

The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me.  The tests mentioned — the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index — were administered privately, in the outpatient psychiatric clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the “attack of vertigo and nausea” mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year.” By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.

Then she moves on to tell stories about her neighborhood, about the arrest of Huey Newton, about watching The Doors recording an album, about student unrest at San Francisco State.  It’s a powerful picture, but Didion refuses to draw any conclusions about it or to bring the essay to any real closure.  In fact, the essay ends with this phrase, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”  There are no pat answers or easy lessons to be drawn — instead what we have is a series of vignettes that capture a mood but don’t cohere into any overarching idea or argument.  I came away from the book remembering most of all Didion’s distinctive voice.

I recently finished Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, which is an entirely different book from Didion’s, but which left me with a powerful sense of voice as well.  I’ll write about that book soon.

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Best American Essays?

I have finished the 2007 edition of the Best American Essays, and I’m a bit skeptical about whether they really are the best. Or maybe they are, I don’t know, I haven’t read enough essays to know if there were better ones, but I found myself wondering which ones might fit in a volume like Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay or the volume Joyce Carol Oates edited, The Best American Essays of the Century, and I don’t think there are many that would. Perhaps that’s too much to ask, though; how often do wonderfully great essays, ones that are good enough to last for centuries or millenia, get written?

Part of the problem, I think, is that I approached this volume immediately after reading Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic, which is, obviously, good enough to last for millenia. Seneca writes wise, philosophical essayistic letters that attempt to make sense of human nature and the world — their subjects and their tone seem significant and weighty and lasting. The essays in The Best American Essays are often weighty and serious, and they are occasionally philosophical, but they don’t seem lasting to me.

But there were a few that impressed me. I wrote about Marione Ingram’s essay “Operation Gomorrah” here; one other I think might possibly be great is Daniel Orozco’s “Shakers.” “Shakers” is about earthquakes in California, and I don’t think I can describe just how wonderful it is; it starts off scientifically, describing an earthquake’s P-waves and S-waves and L-waves, and then moves into a catalogue of how animals respond to these waves, before humans are aware of what is about to happen (I’m only giving you part of the passage):

Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum. Cats awaken from naps. Dogs guilty of nothing peer guiltily at their masters. Pigeons and starlings clatter fretfully on the eaves and cornices of buildings, then rise en masse and wheel away in spectacular rollercoaster swoops. Pet shop parakeets attempt the same maneuver in their cages. In the San Francisco Zoo, every single Adélie penguin dives and swims around and around their Plexiglas grotto, seeking the safety of what they believe to be open ocean. Big cats stop pacing, tortoises drop and tuck, elephants get antsy as pee-prone toddlers. The chimps on Monkey Island go ape-shit. Horses everywhere go mulish and nippy. Implacable cattle get skittish as deer. And a lone jogger on a fire trail on Mount Diablo gets lucky, for the starving cougar stalking her gets spooked by the subsonic pulse that rolls under its paw pads, and breaks off the hunt and heads for the hills, bounding silent and unseen up a hidden defile and leaving behind only a shudder of knotweed grass burnished amber by the waning light of an Indian-summer dusk.

Then the essay moves from scene to scene in places all across California describing people and animals as they feel the earthquake hit. It gives you little glimpses into a whole range of people and it does this dispassionately, describing minor events next to major ones without comment or transition. You read about a telephone repairman who falls off his ladder to his death; a woman stealing cigarettes, who, after the earthquake hits, carefully puts the box back; inmates in Folsom prison who “glare at one another as century-old mortar shakes off the ceiling and sifts down, dusting the tops of their heads like cannolis”; and a day hiker who falls into a ravine and breaks an ankle. He is left only three miles from his car, but he can’t move and has no water or warm clothing for the cold night.

This last story sets up the essay’s remarkable ending, which I’ll quote in full although it’s long:

And hours from now, after the sun has gone down, when he is shivering from the cold, when the cold is all he can think about, something remarkable will happen. A diamondback rattlesnake will hone in on his heat-trace and unwind itself from the mesh of a creosote bush and drop to the ground and seek the warmth of his body against the chill evening, slicing through the sand and sweeping imperiously between his legs and turning into itself until coiled tight against his groin and draped along his belly with the offhand intimacy of a lover’s arm. He will watch his dumpling-sized head in repose on his sternum go up and down with his breathing, its eyes open and indifferent and exquisitely wrought — tiny bronzed beads stippled black and verdigris. And his breaths will soon come slow and steady, and his despair will give way to something wholly unexpected. He is eyeball to eyeball with a rattlesnake in the powdery moonglow of Mojave Desert. He can hear birds calling back and forth — birdsong! — in the middle of nowhere. He can look up at a night sky that is like gaping into a chasm boiling with stars as if the celestial spigots were opened wide and jammed, and he can remember nothing of the life he’s lived up to now. And he will shake, not from cold or fear or from any movements of the earth, but from some vague and elemental conviction about wholeness or harmony or immortality. He will shake, resolute in a belief in the exaltation of this moment, yet careful not to disturb the lethal snake on his best. How cool is this! he will think. Wish you were here! he will think.

Also worth notice are Richard Rodriguez’s essay “Disappointment,” also about California, and Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Onward, Christian Liberals” about holiness and politics (really!).  None of the essays are bad, exactly, they just aren’t all exactly great.  But I suppose finding three or four great essays in a collection like this makes it worth while.

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Best American Essays, cont.

I’ve been thinking about why I like to read the Best American Essays series, besides the fact that I like essays, of course. I like to read these books because I’m interested in the sensibility that chooses the essays. I like to see how the essay selections differ from year to year, which really means I’m seeing how the definition of “best” can vary. But I also like it that these books get me to read essays I wouldn’t otherwise read. In his introduction to this year’s book, David Foster Wallace starts off writing about how he doubts anybody reads the editor’s introduction first, and that people usually skip around in the book, reading first what appeals to them most and eventually getting around to the other ones, including the introduction, or maybe not even bothering.

But I like to read the introductions first, and I almost always read all the essays, generally in the order they are printed, or something quite close. I like letting another person’s choices guide me, at least for a little while. There’s something appealing about submitting to another person’s judgment, briefly, to see where it takes you. I think this is why so many readers find suggested reading lists appealing: it’s fun to have a little bit of structure, instead of feeling so overwhelmed by all the choices that are out there.

So I tend to be a completist with these books. Disliking or being uninspired by a title doesn’t mean I won’t like the essay, after all, and the chances are decent that if I give a piece a chance, I’ll like it, or at least I’ll find something intriguing or worthwhile in it, or I’ll enjoy not liking it. The truth is, I’m afraid of getting confined by my likes and dislikes — if I choose to read only those things that immediately appeal to me, how will I discover new tastes or ever be surprised?

With this particular volume, the essays are often very political. I’ve come across one on the lead-up to the Iraq war, one on torture, another on freedom of speech, and I know from the introduction that there are more political essays to come. For some reason these political essays don’t strike me as terribly essayistic. It’s not that they are badly written, but I just don’t associate writing on contemporary political events with the genre of the essay. I’m not sure they will stay interesting beyond this time period, except for historians, perhaps. But then I wonder how many of the other, non-political essays will still be interesting in another 100 years or so, except for historians.

But I’m glad I’m reading them because I might shy away from them otherwise, if I’d come across them in their original magazine or journal, and some of them, at least, are worth reading. The one on free speech didn’t impress me very much, but the Iraq war and the torture essays were smart and informative (and scary).

And last night I read an amazingly well-written, gripping, and horrifying essay by Marione Ingram called “Operation Gomorrah” about her experience as a young girl in Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. She tells the story of how she and her mother barely survived a night of bombing. They have to deal with the bombing itself, but also with the cruelty of fellow Germans, because Ingram and her mother are Jewish and others either don’t want to help them or are afraid of risking severe punishment if they do. Ingram describes that night in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact way, not giving much commentary, but sticking to the facts. And those facts! I’ve read descriptions of what it’s like to experience bombings before, but I’ve never read anything like this.

In spite of how horrifying the essay was, I’m glad I read it, and I’m grateful to the series for introducing me to it.

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Best American Essays

I have begun reading the 2007 version of The Best American Essays. Every year I consider not reading this book, but most years I end up changing my mind and reading it after all; this time around, I saw it sitting in the library and couldn’t resist giving it a look. Last year the editor, Lauren Slater, irritated me, but this year it’s different — the guest editor is David Foster Wallace, and I found his introductory essay both amusing and thought-provoking.

He starts off by saying that hardly anyone reads the introductory essay as an introduction, so you, the reader, are probably coming to him last, if at all. Then he uses that “freedom” — the freedom of possibly not being read and certainly not being considered the most interesting — to express some doubts about the essay form and the book itself:

… just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of — and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this one requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.

As soon as I read this, I knew I was in the hands of a writer I would like. After the above quotation, he says that surely, after reading such doubts, most readers are now giving up on the introduction and skipping ahead to the essays themselves. But I doubt it, and I suspect Wallace doubts it too. There’s something very fun about deconstructing a project like The Best American Essays even as one is working on it, so I followed him all the way through the introduction and wasn’t tempted elsewhere.

He goes on to say that he’s not sure what an essay is (me either), and, worse, that he not sure about and doesn’t care about the difference between fiction and non-fiction (same here). He also critiques the word “editor,” choosing to call himself “the decider” instead, in honor of our president (and he points out that it’s really Robert Atwan, the series editor, who does most of the deciding), and he shows how the selection criteria for the “best” essays are necessarily arbitrary and biased. He’s happy to point that out directly:

… I have no real problem emotionally or politically, with stopping at any given point in any theoretical Q & A & Q and simply shrugging and saying that I hear the caviling voices but am, this year, for whatever reasons (possible including divine will — who knows?), the Decider, and that this year I get to define and decide what’s Best, at least within the limited purview of Mr. Atwan’s 104 finalists, and that if you don’t like it then basically tough titty.

Yes, exactly. What’s “best” is ultimately arbitrary and let’s admit it outright. So he goes on to describe his selection criteria — no confessional memoirs, no celebrity profiles, no “willfully opaque and pretentious” academic writing.

Interestingly, Lauren Slater in her introduction last year also complained about academic writing, saying that “the academic learns to hide his insecurity behind bloated verbiage.” Wallace has the same doubts, but expresses them much more fairly. First of all, he admits that he is “allergic to academic writing” because he “has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent.” He can be guilty too! But he also recognizes that not all academic writing is difficult or bloated or poorly done. Just some of it is, and that I can agree with.

The end of the essay takes a turn toward the political; he says he prizes essays that make some kind of sense out of what he calls the culture of “Total Noise”:

a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb much less to try and make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.

He has looked for essays that manage facts well, that guide us through the clouds of information we’re so easily bewildered by:

It is totally possible that, prior to 2004 — when the reelection of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct — this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine. In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination” or Elaine Scarry’s “Rules of Engagement.”

I’ve read only three essays so far, two of which have been political in their orientation; we’ll see how many of the remaining ones are. I feel ambivalently about this political bias, but I’ll write more about that later.

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Letters from a Stoic

1127397.gif I have now finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and found it a bracing read; he has so many fascinating, challenging things to say about what it means to live well and how to find happiness. I enjoyed it partly, I think, because I have stoical tendencies myself; I tend to be a patient, long-suffering person, one who keeps emotion under wraps and is pretty good at accepting what comes my way. Or at least, I project that image out into the world — what I’m feeling on the inside is sometimes something different.

But stoicism is more than keeping a tight rein on emotion. It’s also about working to bring our lives in line with natural principles, so that we’re living simply and rationally, not desiring those things that harm us and instead learning how to live contentedly with whatever happens. It’s about learning to accept death and suffering and to keep desire from overwhelming us and causing unhappiness. At times Seneca sounds like a Buddhist, urging people to recognize the dangers caused by unchecked desire.

I didn’t always agree with Seneca, however. He has a tendency to devalue the body at the expense of the mind and spirit. He wants people to do the bare minimum to maintain physical health and spend all the rest of their time studying philosophy. He thinks of the body as a separate entity from the mind, as a vessel there merely to keep the mind going. It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t particularly like this, as I believe the mind and body have an extraordinarily complex relationship and that devoting time to taking care of the body can contribute to happiness just as studying philosophy can. I also don’t like the way Seneca elevates philosophy above every other discipline; he has a letter in which he compares philosophy to literary criticism, and philosophy comes out way ahead. He makes literary studies seem like a frivolous waste of time compared to the depth and weight of philosophy.

In spite of some disagreements, however, I found much to admire. Here is one passage I particularly liked:

For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui; the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure. Truth will never pall on someone who explores the world of nature, wearied as a person will be by the spurious things. Moreover, even if death is on the way with a summons for him, though it come all too early, though it cut him off in the prime of life, he has experienced every reward that the very longest life can offer, having gained extensive knowledge of the world we live in, having learnt that time adds nothing to the finer things in life. Whereas any life must needs seem short to people who measure it in terms of pleasures which through their empty nature are incapable of completeness.

What we need is not a long life, although a long life can be good, but instead an ability to live fully. If we can live fully, any amount of time we have on earth is enough.

And here’s another fine passage:

… no new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past. Besides, a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking. “But surely you are going to walk in your predecessors’ footsteps?” Yes, indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters. Truth lies open to everyone. There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.

There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in this book — I like the idea that there “truth lies open to everyone” — and a lot to quarrel with too. Both of these qualities make this a satisfying book to read.

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Seneca on exercise

I’m enjoying read Seneca’s essayistic letters, although I frequently come across passages I don’t agree with. This makes it fun, though, as I can argue with Seneca, both in my mind and here on this blog.

I’m not buying his thoughts on exercise:

For it is silly, my dear Lucilius, and no way for an educated man to behave, to spend one’s time exercising the biceps, broadening the neck and shoulders and developing the lungs. Even when the extra feeding has produced gratifying results and you’ve put on a lot of muscle, you’ll never match the strength of the weight of a prize ox. The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit.

I can’t say I’m at all interested in broadening my neck and shoulders, but that’s beside the point. The real issue is that Seneca sees large amounts of exercise as detrimental to mental and spiritual health. The body and the mind are in competition, in his view, and devoting energy to one automatically means harming the other.

I suspect Seneca’s belief about education and large amounts of exercise — that they don’t belong together — continues to this day. But I don’t see it. As far as I’m concerned, exercise, even large amounts of it, contributes to mental and spiritual health rather than detracts from it. I don’t believe mind and body are in competition with each other; rather, as the body gets stronger it inspires the mind to get stronger. Exercise leaves me with more energy to devote to mental tasks, not less. To think that having a stronger body crushes the spirit strikes me as absurd — I’m more likely to see exercise as a spiritual activity in and of itself. So what our disagreement comes down to, I suppose, is a different view of the mind/body relationship. Seneca seems to be much more of a dualist than I am.

It’s not as though he’s against all exercise, though; he does say this:

There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging weights about and jumping — either high-jumping or long-jumping … pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.

Given his list of activities, I’m guessing he would approve of cycling if he knew of such a thing, but I don’t think he’d approve of hours and hours and hours of it. I can’t agree that shorter exercise is necessarily better, but he does have a point when he talks about time. Because I ride so much I have less time to read.

But for me, the benefits of spending all those hours on the bike outweigh the drawbacks. I need time away from books in order to enjoy my books. My job involves a lot of reading, after all, and if I didn’t ride, I’d be in danger of living a completely sedentary life and overstraining my eyes.

And, ultimately, I recognize I’m not interested in being as rational as he is. Because I know I’d stick to my view even if Seneca had the most overpoweringly logical arguments ever. I do try to be reasonable, but sometimes I just refuse to listen, and this is one of those times.

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Sharing knowledge

I liked this bit from Seneca:

Nothing, however outstanding and however helpful, will ever give me any pleasure if the knowledge is to be for my benefit alone. If wisdom were offered to me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away and not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it.

I agree with this idea, and I think that it informs my decision to be a teacher and is part of the joy I find in blogging, not to say that I’m a dispenser of wisdom, exactly, but that I need an outlet of some sort for sharing the things I learn. I’m happy learning things on my own; I always liked school but don’t feel that I need it to learn things and often think I can learn better by myself. But what to do with knowledge I’ve gained? There’s something depressing about learning things and doing nothing with them. I think I’ve said this before, but still, it doesn’t hurt to say it again: blogging is a wonderful way do something with all the books I read and the ideas I encounter.

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Advice on Reading

The very first essay in my book of Seneca’s letters-which-are-really-essays is advice about reading. What fun!

Let’s see if we agree with what he says:

Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.

….

A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read. And if you say, “But I feel like opening different books at different times,” my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.

Hmmm. I’m guessing Seneca would not approve of my reading. I do like the food metaphors in this passage, as I like to think of reading as a kind of eating, but I don’t see the problem with variety in one’s meals.

I can’t really agree with him, at least not fully. I see nothing wrong — and, in fact, I see a lot of good — in reading new things and a variety of things. And I don’t like the idea of reading nothing but “well-tried” authors either. I want to read well-tried authors, but I want to read little-known ones as well. What Seneca is calling for is reading within a very traditional canon, and I’ve spent way too long hearing about the virtues of opening up the canon to new authors to buy Seneca’s argument. I’d question his idea of “unquestionable genius” — okay, Shakespeare is an unquestionable genius and so are some other authors, but with some exceptions in mind, is it always so clear who is a genius and who is not?  Who gets to decide?

I do like the idea of taking your time with authors, to fully digest their writings. There’s something very satisfying — and surely very healthy — in knowing some writers well because you have absorbed their words into your being.

Do you agree with Seneca?

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On Noise

1127397.gif My book Letters from a Stoic — essayistic letters by Seneca — arrived the other day, and I’m reading through the introduction now. But what I want to write about today is an essay from Lopate’s book, Seneca’s “On Noise.” He begins the essay this way:

I cannot for the life of me see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be.

As I’d written about this very subject recently, this opening caught my eye. If what Seneca says is true, then I am wrong and this is a flaw of mine, since I need quite a bit of quiet to concentrate. Seneca goes on to argue that a person with a well-ordered mind should be able to block out distractions:

For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?

He talks about how people often don’t find peace even when it’s perfectly quiet — even when they are sleeping — which shows that it’s not so much outside noise that is the problem, but inside turmoil. To a certain extent I agree with this. I have trouble concentrating sometimes because my mind is often not at peace. I’m not very good at forcing the kind of “self-absorption” Seneca is describing, and perhaps if I practice I could improve. This would be a good thing.

But I also think, particularly when we’re talking about noise produced by people, that distractableness can be a sign of something more positive: it can indicate an interest in people, a quality of tuned-in-ness to others. I can’t shut voices out very easily because I love to eavesdrop on conversations and observe how people interact and how they sound. If I’m continually distracted from my book by the kids playing outside that may indicate my lack of mental calm, but it may also indicate a irresistible curiosity about what the kids are saying as they play their games.

To me, there’s some connection between being good with people and being unable to shut out their voices. By being “good with people” I mean something like being focused on others, wanting to take care of them, wanting to keep things peaceful, wanting everybody to be happy. I often feel responsible (rightly or wrongly) for making sure everybody is content and everything is okay, and listening to people’s voices, even if they’re not directed at me, is a way to make sure that happens.

As much as I don’t fully agree with Seneca, I do, however, like this line from the essay:

The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.

This I can agree with.

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More essays

My essay project is taking off in unexpected directions, which isn’t a bad thing, not at all, but it means the project gets a little bigger every time I give it a little thought. I feel like Tristram Shandy, who is trying to tell his life story but who has so much to tell that every day of his life he falls a little more behind. Every day I find myself backing up and adding more to my reading list.

I originally wanted to focus my essay-reading on John Gross’s Oxford Book of Essays, which I chose not because it’s wonderful, but because I hadn’t yet read it. And I still will use that one. But I realized that Gross’s book has only essays written originally in English — which explains the otherwise inexplicable absence of Montaigne — and I prefer to include some essays in translation. So I got out Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay to give it another look-through and I realized that there are many essays in there I haven’t yet read. So I’m going to read essays from that book too.

Then I discovered that Lopate begins his essay survey with some essays from classical writers such as Seneca and Plutarch, and I decided I’d better back up and begin not with Bacon, but with these early writers. And then I read the first selection from Seneca and loved it, and so now I’ve got Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic on order from Amazon — and if you’re wondering why I’m ordering letters for an essay project, it’s because Lopate calls the letters “essays in disguise.” So, I’m now planning on reading the Seneca book, Montaigne’s complete essays, and then Bacon’s essays. And who knows where I’ll go from there, or if I’ll even get that far before I discover a new author whose work I need to read more fully.

This is fun, but will I ever actually make any progress? Who knows.

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Essays

Today I rode a slightly different version of the course I rode last week, but it was a completely different experience: no parades, no embarrassing scenes in the market, no saddle slippage. And I was a bit faster. Yay! Today’s ride was 53 miles, and next week I’m riding 60.

After thinking about my potential reading projects, I decided to begin one of them. We’ll see how they go. One thing I have to do is give myself permission to bail on it if it becomes uninteresting. I’m terrible at giving up on books and reading projects, even if they aren’t going well. But I can’t let myself get stuck in a long reading project I’m not enjoying.

So, I decided to begin the essay project; I read the first essay last night, Francis Bacon’s “On Truth,” which has a wonderful first line: “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” The essay is quite short, only a couple pages, and it describes both the allure of lies and half-truths:

This same truth is a naked and open daylight that doth not show the masques and mummeries and triumphs of the world half so stately and daintily as candlelights.

and the goodness of truth:

Yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.

I think the pleasure of reading his essays will lie not so much in the ideas themselves, but in the beauty of the sentences. The prose is dense — I read very slowly — and rich.

I have a collection of Bacon’s essays that I was assigned in grad school; after reading Bacon in The Oxford Book of Essays, I pulled down the Bacon collection and saw that I’d marked up the entire text. Hmmm. I don’t remember reading the entire thing. My class in 17C prose was one of the rare classes where I skipped a significant amount of the reading. But Bacon was the first book we read, and I suppose I was still feeling motivated at the beginning of the semester (before I found out I wasn’t so fond of the professor and stopped giving the class my full attention). I plan on looking through this collection again, reading in it as long as it interests me.

I thought Montaigne was in this collection, but I just checked, and he’s not — I was considering reading through his complete essays as a part of this project. Hmmm. I’ve read many of them, but not all — I tried a complete read-through once but stopped after a while. Should I go back and try again??

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