chicago: university of chicago press, 2016. 408pages, cloth, $29.00.
lincoln: university of nebraska press, 2016. 244pages, cloth, $24.95.
Of the Essay’s Insecurities
In both of our books, we’re playing with science, and contributing to it in turn, I think. I’m struck by the way in which a word will appear in a corner of a paragraph in your book that we know is drawn from the world of physics. And then there’ll be a sentence that really is its own—why not—scientific formulation, but it teeters in some place between philosophy and science. One of my favorites: “If there is a contour to existence, it must be some sort of massive, oblong shape in perpetual motion. Ex-circles and in-circles in perfect rotation forever, where we stumble in the same 26 letters, and their most innumerable, but still numerable, combinations.” We have a mutual mistrust of charts and other crude measurement devices that try to find concrete solutions to the mystery of existence, at the same time that we are both, I think, dancing with scientific discourse, or with scientific principles. [End Page 189]
That brings up a question my students often have: if as essayists we fundamentally distrust reductive thinking or enumerated solutions, then what are we doing? A scientist is attempting to create knowledge of the way the world works—definable, denotative knowledge—in order not just to advance understanding but to increase possibilities, with inventions that derive from new understandings of physical laws, that allow us, for instance, this magic of seeing each other across hundreds of miles and speaking, hearing, seeing each other simultaneously, through processes we don’t really understand, you and I. We couldn’t build this.
Well, that last bit sounds a lot like what happens when we read and when we write, but go on.
There’s certainly a value to that kind of science, right? But our project is a kind of pause, examination, and reconsideration, to paraphrase the carvings in Montaigne’s rafters. The essay as a mode is subversive of that notion, right? That we can know to the nth degree of accuracy the workings of the world? Maybe we’re taking a different approach to it.
Your book approaches mood, which isn’t the type of subject that you see in a physics/biology/chemistry class. You do point to some works that attempt to regulate mood, or chart mood disorders, in normalizing ways. But your book challenges that project early on and creates a richer, more appealing and pleasant exploration.
So, while I’m on your side, I’m asking still, what good is that? What is that for?
There are a lot of ways to respond to this. First of all, to go back to your students’ question, where they want to put science alongside literary art and ask questions about what good is it, or what is it that we’re doing that is equally meaningful.
Right. What’s the use value or the utility of writing an essay?
I think that’s precisely the wrong question. The problem is thinking in terms of our lives, and that which we make, as simply or strictly instrumental. I don’t turn to art for that, for “a solution.” [End Page 190]
We turn to art for a different way of asking a question in the first place. Maybe we could come up with two lists that would put the language of science alongside the language of the art of the essay. For example, if science is interested in accuracy, the art of the essay might be interested in clarity. And we could have an entire discussion about the nature of clarity, how it’s different from transparency, and how it’s hard won.
Secondly, science is interested in reproducibility, and therefore it requires a blueprint. As we know, one of the difficulties for people who are coming to...