With Mouth to Ear: Assaying the Essay

The Falkirk Wheel by Kanneth Barker; used under a Creative Commons license

The Falkirk Wheel by Kenneth Barker; used under a Creative Commons license

Why define something positive in terms of what it is not? “Non” fiction: I have no idea how this term came to be applied to writing what is, in intent, a “true” story. David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, titled his film of fictional weavings True Stories.

Although Byrne’s film is highly improbable as a series of “real” events, the voice of his film is quite believable and true. True Stories presents a critique of contemporary consumer culture as sharp and insightful as, say, an essay by the 20th-century German philosopher, Theodore Adorno. In fact, Adorno has a great line about just such things as truth and reality: “In psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true.”

What I think Adorno’s gnome means for “nonfiction”—and I think especially of “creative nonfiction,” but as well of writing in general—goes something like this. The subjective is always going to be subjunctive—wishes, wants, desires, meditations—and therefore unverifiable. There’s always a point of quantum uncertainty when it comes to locating the veracity of any piece of writing. Sometimes that uncertainty reaches critical mass, and is obviously a work of fiction. At other times the quantum uncertainty shrinks smaller and smaller, collapsing into a black hole that sucks in any and all insinuations of imagination. As an example, perhaps Donald Barthleme’s Snow White is clearly at critical mass, while the white pages are pretty much a black hole. Unless, of course, you’re a typeface designer and are engaged in the art of creating tiny letters that can be read quickly and easily. The Dutch type design community, for instance, is famous for its innovations, both technical and stylistic, in creating utilitarian typefaces. It’s like The Rockman said to Oblio and Arrow in the animated film The Point: “You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear.”

When it comes to distinguishing fiction from fact, it seems to me we have to fall back on the way Socrates said the distinction could be made: By a being’s character. “Heed your souls,” said the lover of Sophia as Athen’s poison spidered through his veins. That means heeding our exaggerations, because truth is as much—or more—a subjunctive mood as it is imperative or empirical fact. So it is in Hemingway’s novels we hear a voice of intense veracity, committed to the imperatives of life, that, for all its artistic construction as a voice, continues to convince millions of readers of its truths.

The most likely candidate for longest history of genre-bending—that which bucks around the line between fiction and its evil twin (or is that, nonfiction and its evil twin?)—the true culprits of confusion (and perhaps occasional obfuscation) must be the philosophers. What fictions they have wove, who find their fancy flirting truth. Plato’s Dialogues is a classic example, the veracity of which has been debated heatedly in the last 150 years, but the insights of which have always been cherished as a haven of truth. But no need to confine philosophy to those who work as philosophers, because we call all sorts of things philosophical. It seems one comes to be called philosophical when one contemplates Big Questions—one of the more notorious of which is trying to determine when somebody is telling the truth, that is, in this case, whether they’re writing fiction, or non. It’s the horns of a dilemma, so there’s nothing to do but make a slingshot out of the horns and aim for the moon.

Kenneth Rexroth called one of his books of essays, Assays. I like the term “assay” for what writers of “creative nonfiction”—and so many others—compose. To assay suggests a process of discovery, the discovery of learning the make up and contents of something: a lump of ore, or the lump of an idea. Like a cat with a ball of yarn, there is something playful, maybe even sassy, in raveling the contents of an assay, of getting tangled up in the strands, of being safe enough to doze off in the middle of a mess—a mess of string that in other, more “creative” hands, might bind.

Unlike the continuum of the electromagnetic spectrum, which can be arbitrarily divided into discrete portions based on consensual assumptions about perception (e.g., this is visible red light; that is invisible infrared light), the continuum of written representation is not so easily divided. Percy Shelley called Plato a poet, while Plato himself had kicked all the poets out of the Republic. In fact, Plato did write some sexy, knicker-melting little poems, but this isn’t why Shelley said Plato was a poet. Shelley was thinking of moments in Plato’s dialogues, for example the Great Speech in the Timaeus, that are clearly poetical. More obfuscating still, Plato’s dialogues are philosophy, which is clearly a form or type of “nonfiction.” Yet, by employing the figure of the years-dead Socrates, wasn’t Plato in fact making stuff up?

In a sense, then, all writing is a form of essayer, the French verb meaning “to try” or “to test.” All writing is a test: a test in the sense of finding or discovering the validity (or lack thereof) of an idea, a thing; and a test in the more emotional-physiological sense, to discover the limits of something or someone, as if to push the thing or the other (writer or thinker) aside to make room for one’s own thoughts. A reader’s credibility may be tested just as often by “nonfiction” as by poetry or fiction. Anyone who cares to test this premise need simply engage in a critical viewing of the evening news to see what I mean. The “news” about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, for example, was our own interest in gossip. Eagle eyed, the news media stooped down on the “story” like an avenging angel with an obsession for stained dresses.

Indeed, the American news media is an excellent example of this continuum of representation, because it seems we often classify a piece of writing as much as by what it says as by what it does not say. We should, by what the news leaves out, classify it as equally fictional as, for example, Chariots of the Gods. By this same rubric of definition, we should call Dorianne Laux’s poems about Janis Joplin true stories. What I’m getting at here is the imagination of the author. Most public communication seeks to penetrate market niches, where Laux’s poetry invites a gathering of one’s own thoughts. I think it is this introspective gathering of insights that should establish the borderland between fiction and nonfiction.

This continuum of representation has another axis of expression, and this is the axis that Shelley was most interested in. Our European languages, however, can barely contain this axis of difference. It has to do with the mode of consciousness of the writer, and rests on tricky assumptions like imagination and the truth. The evening news, for the very reason of its appearance to the contrary, is not the least bit interested in truth. The images of television do not invite reflection on the part of the viewer; to the contrary, the projected light of the flickering screen is, despite noble efforts of numerous screen writers to make it other than thus, an authoritarian voice that cannot stop until is has told us everything. On TV, nothing is left unsaid. Laux’s poems, like Plato’s dialogues, are passionately engaged in a reaching for the truth, and the cost of that engagement is self-reflection, a stumbling or striving for truth through a realm of ambiguity and deeply personal values.

Representation is a radically subjective enterprise, and it is ultimately the reader who decides what is and isn’t a “true story” (or poem or essay or news report…). When I write of my desire to reestablish the place of importance of Socrates’ imperative, “Heed your soul,” I feel a passionate truth is being conveyed. But the success of my representation depends on my readers. Some I may be able to convince, using the writer’s bag of stylistic and rhetorical tricks. To some I’ll be preaching to the choir. Others I’ll never reach, for whatever reason, be it atheism, persistent pessimism, or some other psychological impediment.

Placing the burden of generic distinction on the reader may run counter to a wilderness of contemporary literary theory. However, as fascinated as I am by literary and cultural theories of production, I don’t think such theories have much to do with what happens, as it were, on the ground. Having been a publisher for fifteen years, it has been my experience that I, as a purveyor of ideas, have very little control over the way said ideas are received. When I send out a book for review, there’s no telling what might come back—if anything. To give just one example, I once published a small book by a fellow who writes under the pen name of Norman Conquest. I sent the book to a popular zine, and indeed got a review for the book. With astonishing insight, the reviewer stated that the author’s name referred to a character on the television show Alien Nation, and warned against using such narrowly topical references. Funny to think that the event that marks the “received” birthday of the English language has been overshadowed by an alien invasion of another sort. This, I suspect, is news.

In Andrea Lunsford’s essay, “‘Creative Nonfiction’: What’s in a Name?”, the author writes that we live in “the era of the essay” mainly because of “the postmodern turn” we took in the 20th century, a turn that “revealed the constructed nature of all experience.” In writing this in the first paragraph of her essay, Lunsford immediately loses all credibility with me as a reader. “Postmodern,” in my view, is an oxymoronic term, with emphasis on the moronic. The word modern comes into English from a Latin word meaning “just now.” Post-just-now? Perhaps that’ll be when writers of “creative nonfiction” start getting paid. Besides, the catch-phrases of “po-mo” (or post-structuralism and post-theobananaism) can be found in more elegant words in the writing of Giambattista Vico (died 1744), among others. As literary types, as students and commentators on culture, there is absolutely nothing new going on. We’ve been rehashing the same set of creative and linguistic problems—of representation, of polysemy—for as long as we’ve been post-Tower of Babel humans. So to me, Lunsford comes off sounding like one who has not read her history—or has taken a po-mo turn and “deconstructed” it.

Likewise, Scott Sanders’ essay, “The Singular First Person,” seems to me more flash and “tricks of anecdote, conjecture, memory, and wit” than original, passionate reaching for truth. Like Lunsford, Sanders seems to not be up on his history. For example, he calls Montaigne the “inventor” of the essay, when in fact what Montaigne did was widen the sense of a verb, making of essayer a noun, essai, “a trial.” Montaigne’s writing was “different” inasmuch as it evolved in a dialogue with what he read and talked and lived. To me, Sanders’ self-reflexivity seems coy, like he’s working me over instead of working to find new depths in his own written conceptions of the world, like he’s got an agenda rather than a passion. By the third page of his “assay” he alienates me by saying that “the essayist can afford” to weave together more ideas in a piece “than the fiction writer can, but fewer than the poet.” Such distinctions seem to me to be, in practice, on the ground, vapid. Tell that to Joyce, or for a real sneer, tell it to Proust.

But Sanders’ sentence brings together the three protagonists of concern to me—poetry, fiction, and “true stories”—along the axis of opposition that I’ve been attempting to adumbrate. To make that axis explicit, I’d suggest that there are two kinds of people in the world: Lumpers and Splitters. The Splitters uphold the differences of genres, and then bicker over the boundaries. The Splitters have had their say, from Fowler’s persistent prescriptive grammar, to the French Academy’s Littré, to the current debate on “creative nonfiction.”

As a Lumper, I’m a hit-and-run man. I’m the most disrespectful sort of reader, one who, by putting my responses to what I read into writing, commits an anti-prescriptive crime, or anyway breaks a window with his slingshot. Feminists call this “writing through the body.” I’m “playgiaristic,” as Raymond Federman named the practice of sucking other writers’ brains. A “quote” is an answer to an ancient question, a question contained in the meaning of the Latin word quot: “how many?” It’s a question that invokes the journalist’s heuristic pyramid, or the image of Babagge’s difference engine, the first steam computer. “Quot?” is the first word out of every fisherman’s mouth—out of every hungry provider’s mouth. It’s our quantum locus in the kookadelic erogeny of life. The pavement of quotations, the tissue of citations, is perhaps best embulked in Finnegans Wake, but the practice is as old as writing—no: as old as speaking. Something as simple as a bill of lading can be thought of as a quotation, in the sense that we write down what we say the deal is. A representation is, per force, a quotation. A necessary fiction, life is quantum, a continuous asking of “Quot? Quot did you say?”

But you see the way I am. My world, my way of knowing and representing my knowing, wants to roll all into one multifaceted weave of connections. I wear this weave like a grubby child’s “punny” blanket. Hand-knit from the finest etymologies, I lumpily refuse to wash it. Perhaps it’s my overly active and paranoid imagination, but it seems to me that the Splitter forces pretty much rule the scene, from the marketing of literature to the making of academics. The connectionist stance requires one to be prepared to be subversive. This is why I like Phillip Lopate’s essay, “What Happened to the Personal Essay?” His title is already passionate: what happened? I’m immediately attracted to the word “personal”; it strikes me as Socratic, the attribution I use to mean the kind of speech (writing, reading) that “heeds the soul.” A personal essay, I think before I even begin to read Lopate, must be grounded in subjective experience. And that’s just the place I look for understanding my own “love of Sophia,” my own life philosophy.

Indeed, of these three essays on this new wave of interest in the subjective and “true” sort of writing, Lopate’s is the most Socratic. He allows the essay a “sudden deepening or darkening of tone” that is the hallmark of attention being paid to the soul. Why is the soul so damn dark? Because of this “damn”: we are not damned, we are fated, as the Greeks and Romans thought. A man’s fate is his “genius” in Latin, and Heraclitus, the presocratic Greek, said that a human’s character is her destiny. Character is destiny, fate, genius, and character development—to use the fiction writer’s term—demands not a coming to terms with the dark side, but of finding the terms to express the fear, rage, and depression of inner life.

The soul’s job is to keep the spirit-body on the Big Path, on the way of the cosmos before the way of the world: anima before mundi. Contemplation of ends and means, of connections, is always a bit dark: the stark face of death has always a hand in the proceedings. An example from popular American culture: the character of Frank Black on Chris Carter’s X Files spin-off, Millennium. In “real life” the “millennial madness” came off as media hype, with some admittedly fine fireworks, but in the secret life of TV, Frank Black is the world’s darkest detector of evil, an evil that threatens the soul of each life together. Black is a visionary in an insurgency for good, and he pays for his courage with depression, pessimism, and separation from his family. “Don’t be dark, Frank,” his friends tell him, but he can’t help it: Frank is called. He’s blessed with a curse. Black hears voices, dark, intuitive, often murderous voices. He sees evil; sometimes he steps forward to try and get a grip on it; other times, he crumples like a tissue, and weeps.

Lopate’s assaying also gives us the delightfully subversive and gnostic idea that essay, in its “innermost form,” is “heresy.” Like an à la carte Situationist slogan, this line of Lopate’s could have come off the walls of the Sorbonne in the summer of 1968. In situ, the idea is also desperately Platonic, that the essay should have this mysterious penetralium, this innermost recess of “form.” I bear forward with Lopate here, juxtaposing his word “heresy” with my use of the word “soul,” as well as Black’s “fictional” struggle to be a good man in a demonic world that is nonetheless, by fate’s fickle finger, doing exactly what the world should be doing: squirming information asking quot’s up, subjunctively recombining, gettin’ down and swapping molecular soup. From where I sit, it looks like the world’s weaving. Which explains why I often feel so tied up in knots.

Perhaps what makes the “personal essay” so potentially heretical and soulful is its defiance of categorization. The world is weaving, but the pattern keeps changing: look twice and it’s gone, never to be repeated. The syndectical weave—the connection-bearing matrix—is the weaver’s flying hands. When we think and speak for our selves—with our hands, so to speak—we engage in answerability. No mere “responsibility of forms,” the essay asks the writer to make an answer to the world, to “the subject,” to the presence of the voices of others, to fate itself. The responsibility is not to forms, but to the formality of life, and especially to that sacred realm we call the imagination. It is the renewed interest in form we should be addressing, rather than prescribing formalist dogmas to one another. It is this interest that I think in part marks this current turn toward “creative nonfiction.”

Inventing a “genre” called “creative nonfiction” is also a trick—literally and figuratively—of marketing minds. The political economy of literary genres starts to look like what the evening news doesn’t say. If we buy the genre argument, with all its prescriptive riders, we’re likely to forget that writing isn’t writing, it’s lived experience. Writing is a lived practice, and when we forget that, we forget how to read as well. In this, I commit the gnostic heresy of demanding direct experience. This heresy is deeply erotic, and again touches upon the three essays, for it is the voice of the writer that must touch us when we read. That touch can be as dry as a column of stock figures or as wet as a volume of Herotica, but reading that touches us does so because it has direct relevance to our lives.

The voice of the essayist is, I think we are seeing, of interest to us again, and in a new way. This new way, I suggest, is a need for direct experience in a highly mediated world. Me, I’m a TV baby, I’ve spent over 40 years interfacing with electronica of one sort or another. The essay gives me a chance to write my heart against the teeth of the 3-line emails I endlessly swap, against the bite of fragmented attentions. If I am a disestablishmentarian, it’s because the establishment of my contemporaries keeps trying to “deconstruct” me. When someone tells me my “time”—my life!—is “post-historical,” I panic. Flight or fight: like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, it’s my natural response when I feel threatened with coming unstuck in time. Such terms run counter to my direct experience of living: I don’t feel beyond or after or post anything, just sort of lumpishly present in a creative soup that is not “nonfiction.”

Present, but deeply mediated, and this is where the pomodians practice a sort of night-sight: life seems divorced from itself at times, with Prozac’d floaties or alcoholic missing time, as if the ache of being alive were itself a bad thing, as if feeling bad were something to fight, or deny at all costs, or at least feel guilty about. When I see our world reflected back at me, on the TV, in newspapers and magazines, those places where we are all alone and silent together, I feel like somebody has sliced off my soul. Van Gogh-like, I think we slice into our own souls—in depression, in desperate desire for direct experience of anything but life’s denials and ambushes.

These voices of heretical directness, these essayistic voices that can pitch themselves from a pillowy whisper to a polysyllabic rant, voices pushing us back to reading as a direct experience, an act of attention and listening; it’s these voices of the trials and errors of the soul that are the attraction of the essay for me. In these days both late and new where we sell mediated representations of danger, disaster, and death in lieu of giving each other initiation into the depths of the soul, instead of giving heed to our voices, we seek these deeds in what company we can. When we read to be alone with the alone, as Henry Corbin said, an alone that is as populous as we let it be, the measure of truth is the writer’s own love of the beckoning alone.

The imagination—the realm of onan and eros, dreams, and cyphers holding keys—won’t stop at beckoning if ignored. We’re organisms, we recombine our goodies in order to make babies and art. Imagination demands we attend to personal, individual recombinations of all we sense and know. The alone is populated with gods and goddesses and the voices of lovers, friends, and yes, of writers and artists and TV stars. The essayist’s voice is one that, like the aimless wanderings of Chuang Tzu, the ancient Taoist, stumbles upon a place where there’s a little room for joy and for the dark. A voice that can get down in the mud, shit, and blood, and say with Heraclitus as he stirred his soup, “Hey! Here too there be gods.”

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