I am an essayist, for better or worse. I don’t suppose many young people dream of becoming essayists. Even as nerdy and bookish a child as I was fantasized about entering the lists of fiction and poetry, those more glamorous, noble genres on which Nobels, Pulitzers and National Book Awards are annually bestowed. So if Freud was right in saying that we can be truly happy only when our childhood ambitions are fulfilled, then I must be content to be merely content.
I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations. In the area of literary nonfiction, memoirs attract much more attention than essay collections, which are published in a modest, quasi-invisible manner, in keeping with anticipated lower sales. But despite periodic warnings of the essay’s demise, the stuff does continue to be published; if anything, the essay has experienced a slight resurgence of late. I wonder if that may be because it is attuned to the current mood, speaks to the present moment. At bottom, we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt.
Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.
According to Theodor Adorno, the iron law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions? This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” an ostensible goal of education in a democracy. But since such thinking often rocks the boat, we may find it less than supported in school settings. Typically, the exercise of doubt is something an individual has to cultivate on his or her own, in private, before summoning the courage to air it, say, in an essay.
Phillip Lopate, The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt
As a writer, I am an essayist, although that term is falling into disuse with the rise of the web. Now, people would call me a blogger, although naming a role for the tools used would mean tailors would be called needlers.
No, I am an essayist, and I share Lopate’s identification with doubt and heresy proudly.
Lopate’s writing is masterful, filled with gems:
Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect.
Strangely enough, doubt need not impede action.
Argumentation is a good skill to have, but the real argument should be with oneself.
I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations.
I am an essayist, for better or worse.
I will have to track down one of his books, I think.
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