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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