It’s probably worth noting that the history of the essay started with an affirmation of doubt. The words belong, of course, to Michel de Montaigne: “These are my fancies, in which I make no attempt to convey information about things, only about myself. I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing.”
First and foremost, the essay writer is not someone engaged in a gesture of enlightenment. Montaigne doesn’t lay any claim at clarifying the world. If there is anything to be clarified in an essay, that is (must be) the writing self. Since the writing self is the one that really struggles, it is also the only one that matters. Outside of his immediate perimeter, the world lies wide and frightening; or, as Pascal would put it, less than a century after Montaigne, with a similar honesty and a comparable panic, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”
And so, in any truly honest undertaking of writing only the autobiographical gesture really means anything: the self writing about itself; the self writing itself down.
“I may have some objective knowledge one day.” What do I see here? Doubt! But more importantly, I see an assertion about writing as accumulation. After having amassed pages upon pages of exercises in self-assessment and self-exposure, I might be able to arrive at a conclusive point; one that is truly a point of departure: an introduction, a foreword, a preface.
It's not an myth that forewords are written after the actual texts have been finished. That prefaces are really postfaces. That in order to introduce something you need to have perused it first and to have become familiarized with it. Intimately familiarized, reading it like a writer, writing it like a reader.
Weapons of mass destruction
Montaigne didn’t acknowledge (not here!) the tricks that one can perform by means of writing. For instance, the messing-up of time, the reordering of events so as to serve a text’s purpose. Take rhetoric. Any apparatus of persuasion is a distorter of reality. Rhetoric deals in things that audiences are unlikely to take for granted. It turns up in places where the world is disappointing or where an audience refuses to believe that the world is possible that way.
Nobody will preach to the converted. There’s no point in dealing in tautology. It’s where there’s doubt, where there’s hesitation, that the orator needs to step in. Even where they create a problem that didn’t exist before, the orators (see politicians, as I can’t think up a better example!) conjure up that problem as objectionable in the first place: something likely to be regarded with a squint of reservation, with a pull-your-glasses-to-the-base-of-your-nose kind of suspicion.
The orator steps into the battle of persuasion armed with weapons of mass destruction. The mass, in its solid disbelief, is fiercely attacked, pushed into a corner, forced to agree with the orator’s dexterity. Not with the natural order of things (if such can be discerned), but with the orator’s talent for milking the cow of mass credulity. In essence, a person skilled in rhetoric takes the audience for a ride and messes up with their mind. Best examples: the sophistic theses of the Achilles-and-the-tortoise type, which negate the obvious in order to dwell in an outrageous probability, in a contemptible let’s pretend. It’s precisely because the argument can work mathematically and not ontologically (that Achilles, swift as he might be, will always be a slave to infinite division of time and space) that a sophism of this kind is accepted. And with it, an act or oratory ticks the box of its persuasive agenda.
Abandon hope. I’m only a prestidigitator
An essay (a trial) is indeed nothing but an attempt. And endeavor, a best-shot, a bid. I bet you what you will that I can convey the text I’m offering you in such a way as to dispel your suspicion and win you on my side of the argument (if there is one) or draw you into my own fiction.
“These are my fancies…”
You’re welcome to enjoy them but don’t make the mistake of taking them for the kind of truth they’re not. No objectivity is guaranteed. How could it be? As Montaignes says in the beginning of this essay On Books, “Let the man who is in search of knowledge fish for it where it lies; there is nothing that I lay less claim to.”
Knowledge is not with the writer (of an essay, of a novel, of a scientific treatise, of a policy), simply because knowledge means storage. In order to know you need to have stocks of information at your disposal. You need to be endowed with memory. But the writer is not a memorizer. Whatever he/she knows from previous experience is put under the harsh sign of doubt. Whatever he/she knows is permanently reevaluated. Hence the drive towards fiction. The writer is someone whose time is limited to a present that doesn’t want to change, a present that resembles a CD track stuck on repeat, a Groundhog Day without an exit visa.
Clarice Lispector reached precisely this insight in Água Viva:
“I am this very second forever in the now.”
Even if I speak of an action that took place in the past or will take place in the future, it is still a present action for me; I put it to you, my reader, in the present tense, which is not the grammatical present tense but the present tense of the narration. Past or future, they’re all the same to me, since everything I give a damn about is the fact that I’m addressing them now.
Hic et nunc, a writer’s slogan.
A radical present
Here and now, I am faced with this problem: How to put it? How to formulate my utterance? How to make everything sound clear to me in the first place? The writer is under this constant pressure of the present that demands proficiency and efficiency. This is why “there is nothing I lay less claim to” when it comes to the truth expected from my text.
The truth of truths is that the reader doesn’t expect to see the writer’s present. They don’t want to. Witnessing a writer’s struggle is uninteresting to them; it is repugnant to them. They throw up at the thought of a writer weeping and sniffing about the effort they’ve put into this text or that. Like the user of a pair of shoes who couldn’t care less about the workers who produced those shoes, the only thing the reader wants is to try on this text, to see if it tastes nice, if it suits them, if it’s worth investing in.
And the writer knows. The writer knows because the writer is a reader too. Lispector knew it:
“I don’t want something already made but something still being torturously made.”
Montaigne, especially, knew it:
“I can offer nothing certain except to recount the extent of my knowledge at the present moment. No attention should be paid to the matter, only to the shape that I give it.”
Montaigne doesn’t only lay bare his present, risking the reader’s contempt; he also points out the importance of form. Since things have been clarified about substance (none of it matters, because none of it is available in the writer’s store), we need not fool ourselves. Everything has already been said. “I have no doubt that I often speak of things which are better treated by the masters of the craft, and with more truth.” So let’s get off our high horses and admit that the thing we’re looking for while reading (the thing we know our readers are looking for while reading our texts) is the form – every writer’s present tense.
|Source: Daily News|
Shape, glorious shape, our only ticket to the Broadway show of immortality.