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.

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