Riskless Business

Some new thoughts on the essay, this time in . Naturally I’ve got some qualms. I’ll try to keep them brief.

I’ve pulled this little trick before, but here’s a modified paragraph:

There is certainly disagreement on the wobbly matter of what counts as [a poem] and what does not. I have generally found that for every rule I could establish about the [short story], a dozen exceptions scuttle up. I recently taught a graduate seminar on the topic and, at the end of the course, to the question “What can we say of the [novel] with absolute certainty?,” all of us, armed with our panoply of canonical [narrative] theories and our own conjectures, had to admit that the answer is: “Almost nothing.” But this is the force of the [lyric]: it impels you to face the undecidable. It asks you to get comfortable with ambivalence.

If there’s anything to take away from this post it’s this: we have got to stop insisting the essay is special in its unclassifiableness. Or even interesting in same. That the essay has no set form is about as interesting and characteristic as saying it’s written in prose.

I like how the writer, Christy Wampole, leans on Musil’s notions of “essayism” by “possibilitarians” as a method toward protest, if not outright upheaval. But her sense of that method is irksome. She likes the essay to be tentative, pulling away from certainty.

Today, unresolved issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation and other categories have created a volatile social dynamic, and, with our current economic instability to boot, it is no wonder that throwing oneself wholeheartedly toward any particular idea or endeavor seems a risky proposition to many of us.

The essayist who ousts certainty risks so little. He risks nothing other than his own meditative language falling on deaf ears. She risks boring her reader. Is that all we want at stake?

I’ve also , the courage to be wrong, the things we might risk in our essays themselves. When we continue to assert that the essay is merely (and, jesus, etymologically) an attempt at something, it becomes too ready a license to think merely on the page, rather than to do the work required to induce thoughts in our readers. Thoughts that are not mere, thoughts that might be dangerous, thoughts that dare to risk some certainty in a perpetually uncertain world.

Wampole writes that “[t]oday’s essayistic tendency — a series of often superficial attempts relatively devoid of thought — doesn’t live up to this potential in its current iteration, but a more meditative and measured version à la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right.” I second her requests for more a meditative approach here and elsewhere in the article, but this is simple-minded. Why is it a reflex, and who’s to say unshakeable?

Let’s take life into account with a measured drive to be shakeably right. Or right for now.

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