Essaying with Shields

I think there is something fundamentally essayistic happening in the writing of David Shields. Perhaps this is self-explanatory and redundant given that he is writing essays. Nevertheless, the fact that the entirety of his book is a long experiment, an artistic and philosophical exercise, there is something fundamentally essayistic happening. What I mean to say is, he isn’t just writing an essay and the pieces within the book are not simply essays in and of themselves.

If the point of an essay is to attempt or to (verb) essay, then David Shield’s writing might as well be the Montaigne and the Emerson of our time. His philosophical argument is essentially that nonfiction writing should break with the conventions set out for it in the past centuries. There are most specific ways of looking at this—one can view it through the lens of property laws, originality and the use of quotations, and many more. But it really boils down to discarding with old conventions. How is this more or less radical than what Montaigne did in coining the essay? Or what Emerson did in suggesting that to be great is to be misunderstood?

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”, King Lear asks in the eponymous play, written by Shakespeare. “Who is it than can tell me who I am?”, Shields asks in his book, his essaying essay. The question is fundamental to humankind. Not a one of us exists who has probably not wondered this question. And while we might all try to propose an answer, I doubt there’s a one of us that can really answer the question satisfactorily.

Originality is a funny thing that way. We all want to claim it and yet none of truly can. I think that this is a fundamental idea behind the essay, and one that Emerson in particular understood well. As much as we are essaying and hoping for answers, its for our own gratification alone. We’re not going to answer even the basest of questions for those that come after us. We all have to answer these questions however we may, and Shields is proposing one such way. It is up for us to decide how far we’re willing to follow him.

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The Horizon is a Circle, After All

In reading the works of Emerson, what is most readily apparent to me is that these single essays are continuations of each other. Take for example, “Circles”, “Self-reliance”, and “Experience”. From the first through to the lattermost, the same themes repeatedly surface, often with mirrored poetics and philosophical thrusts.
“The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.” –Emerson, “Circles”

This passage comes from the essay “Circles”, and meditates on selfness of our thoughts and actions. The imagery and philosophy is wholly loyal to the essay’s title and the rest of the content. The images of circles expanding, as ripples from a water droplet, are echoed throughout the essay and as Emerson tackles the “degrees of idealism” and “conversation” which he states is a “game of circles”, we repeatedly see that he is making an argument about the many interlocking and continuous—if discordant—aspects of our lives.

That being said, if you had not read the essay “Circles”, you could be entirely forgiven for feeling like the above passage came from the essay “Self-reliance”. This essay is famous for proclamations such as “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” And “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” The passage from “Circles” is, if slightly poetically distinct by virtue of it’s circular imagery, philosophically consistent with the content from “Self-reliance”. In both of these, an argument is made about the originality of our thoughts and actions and the worth these things have.

Further in “Self-reliance”, Emerson introduces a new metaphor: that of travel. This is both a literal lesson and a highly symbolic one.

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.” –Emerson, “Self-reliance”

It is clear that it fits the slant of the rest of the essay, being a commentary on the way we pursue that which we think will expand our horizons. And in this way, while the poetics and symbols being used have evolved significantly from “Circles”, the connection to that essay still exists. As does a connection to the essay “experience”. From that essay we get the passage:

“Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel, and hangs on every other sail in the horizon. Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. Men seem to have learned of the horizon the art of perpetual retreating and reference.” –Emerson, “Experience”

In this essay, Emerson has moved onto a more specific discussion of the self—the way that grief is experienced and mentalized. However, in this passage, we can see how his thoughts are still being influenced by the thinking we saw in the prior essays. The poetics of ships and travel are retained from “Self-reliance” and the themes, while now being addressed in the context of grief, are retained all the way from “Circles”.

This is not a radical insight. Nor, do I think that to say that I feel that Emerson’s essay probably make the best sense only in light of each other, is a very radical proposal. That being said, this fact provided me some of the greatest joy when reading these essays.

Moths to a Flame

There is something interested about all of the essays that we have read thus far. From Montaigne to Dillard to White, all the pieces use a poetic and lofty-feeling language—to someone who studies essays in a historical or post-academic context, this may not be unusual at all. However, for students of the “academic essay”, this is a remarkable subversion of the familiar. The very fact that these essays do not conform to the image many of us have, is reminiscent of the discussion of the uncanny from class, earlier this week.

Despite this uncanniness, the poetics of the essay may be my favorite thing about the form of writing. I was already familiar with Dillard, but in the essay “The Death of the Moth, I was struck again by how powerful the prose she uses is, and how intertwined it is with the “thesis” of her writing. I remember from reading her book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, that the individual stories and the way they were woven together, narratively, were essentially an elaborate set-up of proofs for her bigger point. I was not surprised, therefore to find the same strategy at play in this, shorter bit of writing. The story is told using language we associate with poetry or even some classical fiction-writers. Take for instance:

“They hissed and recoiled, lost upside down in the shadows among my cooking pans. Or they singed their wings and fell, and their hot wings, as if melted, stuck to the first thing they touched—a pan, a lid, a spoon—so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free.” – Dillard

The drama is heightened with words like “hissed” and “recoiled” and “struggle”—the moths in their death throes are described as one might describe a much larger and more advanced creature, painting us a very visceral picture. And these words are, of course very much relevant to her thesis—as we might consider it—which is not revealed until the very end of the piece. She ultimately wants to have her students think about what it might mean to give yourself up to be a writer, to abandon your life for your craft. The story of these moths flinging themselves in drama and furor through flames are so described because the moths are not so much moths in her minds as they are herself (or other writers) flirting with the idea of “[giving] your lives and be writers”.

I think that this particular piece, and Dillard’s writing in general, is exemplary of an idea Montaigne first put forth, and for which the essay is named; namely, that in an essay you are “essaying”. The essay is an action. It is an experiment of thought put forth in writing. It must, necessarily, be contradictory to itself at times, but “never contradict the truth”. In “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, Dillard contradicts herself in huge ways when she expresses simultaneous disgust and wonder at the continual march of nature, seemingly at the ignorance of the individual lives extinguished in the procession of time. In this essay, there is not so dramatic a contraction, but elements of it are still there. Perhaps elements of this idea are found in the irony that she can recognize the life that once existed as a moth, because she has studied so many dead and dying moths. Or perhaps it is that she says, it is “just as well”, that her students dismiss her deep ponderings as ravings.