The Essay as a try. Or moral scientists
If you’re willing (and I understand if you’re not), I’m going to ask you to take a step back in time. I want you to put yourself back in your college freshman English class. Set the scene. Perhaps the instructor is dressed in corduroy. The crisp syllabus, which you’ll never reference again, sits on your little desk. The instructor leans against some kind of podium and asks a question to begin the semester.
“What is literature?”
For many students, this is the time to answer a few chemistry questions on the laptop or to check the course guide for other English classes. It is time to ask friends where they’re going for lunch.
In my own experience, having been both instructor and student, questions like “What is literature?” fall flat. Students shift awkwardly in seats. Sometimes there’s a discussion of whether movies are literature. Some students attempt to get at “right answers.” Even students who truly enjoy literature feel responsible for propping up the conversation with their honest answers. But this usually leads to resentment.
What’s the issue? Our country has near universal literacy rates, and most people have read a book before, i.e., a piece of literature minimally defined. It seems instinctive that everyone should have an answer to “What is literature?” But they don’t. Or at the very least, they aren’t moved to share it. There’s a quiet voice suggesting it’s better to keep quiet than to speak up. Or it’s the case that sharing one’s opinion on literature isn’t worth the effort.
Generally, people share opinions about things that they have experience with. I speak of experience in a broad sense – those things that spark the intellect, emotions, hopes, and dreams. People speak up about things that are affecting: religion, politics, sports teams. Thus, I would argue that most people haven’t been affected by literature. They have little experience with it, experience that counts as deep sensation or emotion or intellectual insight. It’s like asking a person on the street, “What is Azerbaijan?” Given America’s infamously tenuous grasp on geography, the best answer one might hope for is that Azerbaijan is a country. But then again, there’s little reason for the average person to know much about Azerbaijan. For what it’s worth, Azerbaijan does not affect the average American’s life enough to demand a sliver of limited mental real estate.
At its heart, I believe Americans have a love affair with expertise. Nurses consistently rank as the most trusted profession in America when it comes to honesty and ethics. In one Gallup poll, nurses received the trust of 85% of participants. Engineers were second with 66% trust and medical doctors were third with 65%. When asked which institutions would “act in the best interest of the public,” Americans responded with doctors first and the military second. All of these are highly specialized fields.
The more specialized the discussion, the fewer opinions people have about it. While Americans might generally gripe about “the healthcare system” as an abstract entity, few of us are going to question the specific method of brain surgery recommended by our doctor. Both experts and non-experts stay within their defined lanes. We don’t expect them to diverge. We don’t often ask plumbers about the nature of medicine. We don’t often ask nurses about the nature of government. In American society, we leave specialists to their specialties until we need a question answered. Specialists compose the Google behind Google. Specialists exist to feed bloggers sound bites for our news articles and how-to searches. And as long as these specialists don’t bother us with technicalities, we’re largely fine with this arrangement. I’d rather have the auto mechanic fix my car and send me on my way instead of explaining the intricacy of my transmission. This attitude applies to academics, too. I think Americans like the idea of academics writing on university campuses, adding to the national zeitgeist and intellectual tradition. But force a non-academic to read a Phd thesis... and all of a sudden academics are accused of “hiding within their ivory towers” while the rest of us are struggling to connect our printers to the WIFI.
Expertise has become the default lens through which we view most disciplines. Progress and specialization have become synonymous. Thus, we view college majors as a narrow path to follow to the exclusion of other subjects.
Some reason for this is practical. Human beings cannot synthesize all the information required to become experts in multiple areas. To actively engage in every specialty would require a huge amount of mental energy and capacity. I certainly couldn’t do it. The alternative, however, is to disengage from all irrelevant, specialized knowledge. If people do happen to engage with specialized knowledge, they see themselves as non-experts ready to receive small bits of relevant information, not as participants of the field with their own opinions.
So, when college students are asked about the essence of literature, their silence suggests, “Why do you ask me? I haven’t decided on my major yet. This question lies in your domain. It doesn’t affect me. You tell me the answer.” (in so many words).
Imagine, too, that a freshman biology class opened with the question, “What is science?” During my college days, many friends in the sciences expressed that they would rather the professor just tell them the answers so they would know what to write on the test. In the science lecture hall or the laboratory, the professor had the knowledge and the student didn’t. It was the student’s job to memorize that knowledge and apply it accurately. While this attitude has seeped into the humanities and many students clamor for the “right” – or easy – literary answers, the English instructor is much more willing than the biology professor to let the “What is…” question hang in the air.
And yet, for all the discomfort and “hanging in the air,” professors continue posing the question. It is a stubborn feature of English 101. Google is rife with syllabi that ask, “What is literature?” In defiance to a culture of expertise, professors have the nerve to believe the question is important for all students to answer on the first day of class before they’ve even been steeped in jargon and theory. Despite the trends toward academic siloing, literature still leans toward more or less democratic notions.
I generally support this spirit.
So, why ask, “What is literature?”
It’s this question that leads me to the essay, its form, and its potential for reconsidering the role of writing in society.
Joyce Carol Oates writes in her introduction to the anthology, The Best American Essays of the Century, “In our egalitarian culture we tend to feel, rightly or wrongly, that an essayist’s opinion is only as good as his or her expertise, and in such uncharted areas as ethics, morals, and general wisdom, whose opinion should be taken more seriously than anyone else’s?”
In this sentence, Oates accurately captures the tension between democratic notions of literature and the role of expertise. For now, let us return to our English 101 class and the conditions for our seminal question, “What is literature?” If we take Oates at her word, the essay (and by extension literature as well) is concerned with ethics, morals, and general wisdom. And since this is English 101, we are asking this question of relatively unformed minds. Why not save this question for a senior seminar when students will have more expertise?
The assumption seems to be that moral sensibility is one of the few shared and innate experiences left to the human race. The assumption behind the question is that everyone has an opinion on morals. Even more radically, everyone should have an opinion. In an age of expertise, morality remains staunchly democratic, available to everyone.
Not everyone shares the same moral sensibilities, of course, but I don’t know anyone who completely lacks moral sensibility. An objector may say, “Ah, but you’ve forgotten psychopaths. They have no sense of empathy or emotional communion with other humans.” I have not forgotten psychopaths. Nor have I read any recent arguments for why psychopaths should be allowed to carry on their serial killings unrestrained. Psychopaths are the exceptions that prove the rule. Until we arrive at consensus that psychopathy is “just another lifestyle,” I will claim that having a moral sensibility is the norm for the human race.
In a more practical sense, both sides of the political aisle claim they’re doing good for the public. Behind most policies, there is the idea that “this is for the best.” Whom the policies are best for… that’s another question, but self interest is still a moral consideration. But Democrats are not so willing to accept the policies of Republicans. Republicans are not so willing to accept the policies of Democrats. The same goes for Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. All religions hold to some sort of “better life” or “better way” that human beings should follow although few are willing to admit the other side is in the right.
Secular culture has an even more complicated relationship with moral sensibility. The modern desire to be “above” creed and dogma has surpassed the “Us vs. Them” mentality in favor of egalitarianism. However, the idealistic space of moral egalitarianism collapses quickly in a post-enlightenment society that also values skepticism. The boundaries between egalitarianism and skepticism blur easily.
If each one of us has a moral sensibility, but we’ve also disavowed traditional touchstones to interpretat those sensibilities, where does this leave us? Who do we trust? As Nietzsche says, “We have killed God.” As a result of killing God, we have empowered the individual. This was seen in the philosophy of secular humanists like Rousseau, those thinkers Nietzsche likely had in mind when he wrote his famous proclamation. But our emphasis on the individual and democratic ideals – our egalitarian ideals – have killed trust in others, too. A person’s individuality is what gives the person meaning and value. The individual becomes the first premise in the argument of meaning-making. Not God. Not culture. Hence, we arrive at the contemporary insistence on relative, subjective truth. This modern insistence on personal truth has atomized moral experience while not entirely removing the moral experience itself.
This state can be confusing, isolating, and distressing for many people. It’s not my intention to play into the narrative of demonizing subjective truth or the modern insistence on the individual. Instead, I’m simply trying to describe the emotional and intellectual space where many find themselves today.
When it comes to moral discernment, we have descended from the shoulders of giants. We are isolated except for our own thoughts and experiences to rely on. The task of the 21st century individual is to rebuild a coherent moral sensibility from the ground up.
We are like Descartes who rejected his senses and previous beliefs until he arrived at his classic principle: “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum).
Oates’ question is quite incisive then, no? Who can write an essay on ethics, morals, and general wisdom with enough authority to have others listen? For better or for worse, the conservative critique has come true: egalitarianism has been reduced to equalitarianism. By leveling the moral playing field through skepticism, we’ve raised our standards for belief to new heights while bringing down anyone who dares act as an authority. This isn’t a leveling of material goods or intellect, it’s an equalitarianism of belief in morals. Whose opinion do we take seriously? Where do we find moral authority? Seriousness and authority imply hierarchy.
As I consider this, I will say that I fear for the soul of the person who tries to take all opinions seriously. The person who tries to live out every moral creed will undoubtedly collapse under the weight of contradiction. The man who watches pornography as an element of a healthy sex life and also plays under the rules of religious restraint is bound to despair. One side of him screams one thing. Another side screams the opposite. The woman who believes that truth is fundamentally personal will likely have a difficult time engaging with opposing political viewpoints she feels are wrong and harmful to society.
Since embracing all opinions equally seems impossible to me, and given the cultural skepticism toward moral authority, we are left searching for a new place on which to build a moral foundation. Perhaps this moral restart is unnecessary; perhaps there are shortcuts to certainty. There are many assumptions that must be accepted before we decide to step off the shoulders of giants. But these assumptions are concerns for other essays. We must admit that we are where we are. If you are reading this and find yourself inclined toward the moral skepticism I’ve described, then let us take it seriously. Beginning again will be difficult. But the journey may be worthwhile nonetheless.
If one is to write an essay, one must, presumably, be a writer. And the writer, opinion editor, essayist, novelist, etc., is also hounded by the American insistence on expertise. Having written, I am a writer, and I’m sometimes haunted by the ghost of 500-word articles and a general American trust in the sciences that asks “What is your expertise?” I have had well-intentioned acquaintances – the best kind of acquaintances pleasantly paving the road to hell – ask me how I was able to write fiction without at least five decades of “life” under my belt. Young people don’t know how the world works, so how can they write about it? Admittedly, my short stories were no masterpieces, but the underlying assumption was that I should put my literary endeavors aside until I had “lived a little.” This faith in expertise might have convinced me out of writing altogether.
The assumption behind “you have to live a little” is that the writer must have lived the written narrative in an extended way in order for a reader to accept the narrative. The historical novel must be researched with 1 million facts. The memoir must be completely factual. The novel about a romantic affair is somehow better if the author has had an affair themselves.
The postmodern gutting of authority has placed expertise – this odd synthesis of lived experience and knowledge – on too high a pedestal. Traditionally, expertise was just one element contributing to a person’s authority. Social trust, religious reverence, royalty, age, and wisdom are examples of other pillars of authority. But now, many people conflate expertise with authority.
The problem is that many authors don’t have utter expertise. And many readers would like it if authors did.
In an effort to escape the exhausting process of discernment, both writers and readers take a leap of faith in order to fulfill the expectations for expertise. Mountains are made of specialized molehills. The reader raises the writer to the level of divine vision. The writer speaks with certitude and that is enough to convince the reader of expertise. It’s easier not to dig too deeply. Holding a PhD. (in 16th century courtly romance) conveys the right to make sweeping pronouncements on the nature of society and the human race. Being a news host conveys the same type of status even if the host never steps out of the confines of the newsroom. A high government office bestows the ability to speak to literally every aspect of the human experience.
Society suffers when credentials and job titles take the place of true moral authority.
What if there is a literary form based on an intellectual attitude that is less dependent on experience and credentials – a literary form that springs from the very lack of expertise itself, a literary form that creates expertise as part of its imaginative process, a literary form that does not begin but ends with expertise, expertise, and moral authority?
So, here I stake my flag on the essay, one of the few areas of life immune to the American insistence on expertise. I believe the essay has the vision to guide us through the depths of postmodern skepticism.
An Brief Etymology of the Essay
Montaigne has traditionally been called the father of the modern essay. Living on his French estate, he read widely and wrote widely on topics ranging from cannibalism, freedom of conscience, etc. He grew up speaking only Latin and held a career in regional politics.
But while he may have been an interesting man in person, Montaigne has become a cliche in many nonfiction seminars. That he was the father of the modern essay has been repeated ad nauseum. This statement is like the first-day question of “What is literature?” The only thing about Montaigne that I find relevant to this project is that he called his literary project “Essais,” a French word approximating “attempts” or “trials.” Many people translate it as “try.”
Therefore, the essay has its roots in the idea of “a try.”
About five years after Montaigne’s death, the term “Essais” caught on in English after Francis Bacon, the British philosopher and statesman, used it for his own collection of short pieces in 1597. One hundred years later, Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined an essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.”
Having breezed through the first 150 years of the modern essay, we can see the concept of the essay evolve and deepen. The original term for “Essais” is relatively simple. The idea of a “try” denotes a well-intentioned effort to explore a topic (often many topics). It is not a self assured piece of dogma, but it carries the weight of a serious young athlete practicing their sport. By Dr. Johnson’s time, the definition of the essay had taken on self awareness. The humor in “an irregular indigested piece” is evident. An essay is like a piece of bad ham the author has mulled over and then spit up for the eager reader. Lovely.
So, as Anthony Gotleib writes in his New York Times article on the essay, “Bacon’s compositions tend to drive at a single conclusion, but Johnson’s ‘sally’ is a nice fit for Montaigne’s meandering collection of thoughts, and those of his more whimsical descendants.” It’s also hard to miss the irreverent humor in some of Montaigne’s works.
I believe the heart of the essay, modern or classical, lies in the phrase “a loose sally of the mind.” It bridges the gap between the overly sincere “try” and the overly irreverent “irregular indigested piece.” Self deprecation is balanced by the idea of the “sally,” which holds military connotations. A sally is either an attack on an enemy or the beginning of an expedition. In terms of the essay, it is a loose sally, granted, but it is an endeavor requiring a level of bravery and energy nonetheless.
What about Oates’s modern conundrum. Where do we turn to for guidance on ethics, morals, and general wisdom? Whose expertise do we rely on? Perhaps the essay can be of some help here.
At its core, Oates is grappling with skepticism. And readers of the modern essay – at the risk of stereotyping – are generally secular, educated, and allies of science. This lends itself to intellectual skepticism. The college-educated reader of the essay isn’t ready to accept tradition or non-empirical evidence for belief.
We have escaped the danger inherent in dogmas. The skeptic no longer suffers under blind allegiance to fundamentalist religion. The dictator no longer steers the skeptic’s moral sensibilities with free rein. These are benefits of skepticism to be sure. In a way, we have entered a darkness that is more authentic than the “light of tradition” we have rejected.
But it is darkness nonetheless.
The skeptical life is very close to a life that embraces the existential absurd. One might say that the skeptical life is the logical consequence of an absurd worldview. The absurdist accepts that life is fundamentally meaninglessness. There are no preset plans or templates, no metanarratives or guiding lights. Yet, each absurdist/nihilist/existentialist (however you want to phrase it – I have in mind thinkers like Nietzsche, Camus, and Foucault) ends up proposing an alternative to isolation and despair. Whether it’s the will to power or the exercise of absurdist freedom, there’s always a way out.
The skeptic exists between the state of meaninglessness and the task of individual meaning-making. The skeptic knows they can’t live as though life is truly meaningless and yet, sensing that their choice is arbitrary, they have difficulty choosing a life path. With everything being equally meaningless (or meaningful), it seems as though meaning-making is a complete crap shoot. If meaning is rightly found in the acceptance of the task itself, then there is no way to calculate the odds of success from an outsider’s perspective. The skeptic is left saying, like Oates, “Who’s to say?”
We can also consider this conundrum from a psychological standpoint. To mature into individuated adults, people must learn and discern truth from falsehood. Skepticism is not an end in itself. Skepticism merely sets the stage for real and meaningful choices. We must form distinct identities, and this inevitably entails aligning ourselves with moral and ethical ways of being. Skepticism is the first step toward a thriving life. But it cannot be the last step. We cannot ask Oates’s question forever if we hope to develop strong, mature adult personalities. Otherwise, the eternal skeptic risks being steamrolled by those with the strength and clarity of vision to move forward with their moral endeavors.
Perhaps the key to Oate’s question does not lie in whether we give assent to someone else’s moral or ethical opinions, but on the degree to which we give it. Oates uses the phrase, “more seriously.” Who do we take more seriously? Is there a way to test a moral opinion without relying on an moral expertise our egalitarian society no longer acknowledges? Is there a way to ascertain moral authority without relying on the narrowness of credentials. Is there a way to escape skepticism without falling into fundamentalism?
Let us, therefore, sally forth. Let us, therefore, embrace the essay. For it is the essay that allows the skeptic to escape nihilism and embrace the meaning-making task without falling into dogma. It’s the essay, which embraces the humble, self-aware try. The essay is a stab into the mysterious meaning of life, humanity, and nature. It is an optimistic yet cautious step against the ever-encroaching darkness of absurdity and skepticism.
How shall we sally forth?
The question then becomes what kind of sallying forth does the essay properly undertake? To extend the metaphor, is this sally a brief scouting mission? Or is the sally an expedition across the world or the far reaches of the galaxy? Many writers have perhaps thought too highly of themselves and presented their thoughts as gospel when their thoughts more likely resembled an irregularly digested piece of ham. How many millions of lives could have been saved had writers written self aware essays instead of treatises, declarations, and manifestos?
To answer this question, let's first examine the state of the modern essayist.
The essayist living within an egalitarian and skeptical society begins alone. Unless they have already decided to put their faith in the morality held by another person or worldview, they must decide for themselves what direction they will go. They stand like a runner at the philosophical starting line, so to speak. The starting gun fires at birth but there is no track to follow and no finish line to pursue. The essayist must stumble into the darkness like a blind person through unknown terrain. They must feel their way forward one step at a time.
Therefore, humility and optimism undergird the entire essayistic exercise. First, humility is merely an acknowledgement of one's epistemic situation. The essayist says, “There’s a lot I don’t know, and the stakes are high.” Second, optimism provides the hope that stepping into the darkness, embracing the meaning-making task no matter how small, will in fact lead to a better, more fulfilling life. Otherwise, one remains paralyzed in skepticism.
Humility is also necessary if we're going to take Oates’ question seriously. It’s only fair that the question, “Whose opinion should be taken more seriously than anyone else’s?” applies to the essayist as subject as it does to essayist as object. If you are skeptical of others, you can be sure that others are skeptical of you. To be consistent, the essayist cannot place themself upon a privileged pedestal without demonstrating sources of that privilege. The essay is no place for ivory towers.
We see these attitudes expressed in actual essays, especially in the genre of the personal essay. The personal essay is inherently limited to the experience of the essayist, and although the line is thin between the personal essay and the self centered self exposé, the best personal essays (and I argue best essays in general) embody humility and optimism. The personal essay looks back at a set of experiences and asks, “Where have I come from? Now that I’m here (wherever that might be) is this the place I thought I’d find? Is it a good place? Where might my next steps take me?”
We see this synthesis of past, present, and future occur within the genre of reflective memoir. Consider E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” or Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” What makes these essays shine is that they pair forward looking vision with an honest exploration of the past. They don’t lose themselves in “The Good Ole Days.” They don’t despair for the future. Even the bleakest essays are written to shed light on sadness or to present an alternative way of living. By looking to the past, these essays then theorize on how to move forward. E.B White frames the essay around his own children. Joan Didion reflects on her new life in LA.
Marilynne Robinson uses this same approach for her intellectual essays. Her essay, “Memory” begins with a discussion of diversity and complexity in American life and ends by reframing Christian metaphysics. She examines the past and present in order to present a new vision for the future.
And yet, despite the breadth of scope, each of these essayists take the posture of an explorer staring out into Terra Incognita – the edge of the map – and they ask, “What do I know? How much am I willing to learn? How far will this essay take me?”
Given an assumed belief in egalitarianism and skepticism, this is how the essayist should receive and approach ideas. In that case, the essayist, beginning on a level moral playing field with everyone else, understands that any idea they have must simply be sampled as one among many. The essayist can still be confident. They might even recommend their ideas to the reader. But the essayist does not impose out of a duty to humility.
Unfortunately, writers and public intellectuals are not often known for their humility. Many public figures and intellectuals over the centuries have presented a quick scouting mission as a whole expedition. What should have been an imaginative essay metamorphosed into all-consuming doctrine. The overconfident intellectual acts like a crazed conquistador who says, “I know the way to the gold. Follow me.” The quest may seem exhilarating at first. The bayonetts shine in the sunlight. Flags wave proudly in the wind... but soon enough the water runs out, the mosquitos bite, and the intellectual’s hapless followers cry in despair once they see their ships burning on the horizon.
The difference between a cautiously optimistic essayist and a self assured intellectual is that the essayist relies on others to verify their ideas. Thomas Sowell makes this a key part of his book, Intellectuals and Society:
Conversely, ideas which might have seemed unpromising to their fellow engineers or fellow financiers can come to be accepted among those peers if the empirical success of those ideas becomes manifest and enduring. The same is true of scientists and athletic coaches. But the ultimate test of a deconstructionists’s ideas is whether other deconstructionists find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant, or ingenious. There is no external test…. Vince Lombardi was judged but what happened when his ideas were put to the test on the football field.
This brings us back to my claim that Americans have a strange love affair with expertise. We are used to having our hypotheses and play charts verified by external means. The surgeon is an expert because her surgeries are successful. The engineer is an expert because the bridge withstands a hurricane.
I believe verification by experience can also apply to essayists. However, the scientist verifies their experiments by taking the position of objective observer. The essayist, however, must change the rules of the scientific method. Science primarily relies upon empirical experience to verify its claims. The essay primarily relies upon subjective experience to verify its claims. Regardless, the moral, ethical, and wise ideas must be lived out by the essayist.
Readers, too, should probably be warned at the start of every essay: “Live at your own risk.”
Postmodern thought has, to paraphrase Foucault, diminished our trust in metanarratives. Anyone who prescribes to postmodernity can no longer take comfort in the grand theories and stories that used to make sense of life. This shift toward meta skepticism has happened largely within the humanities, but as human-centric truth has been stripped of any claim to objectivity, the sciences have become a refuge for American certainty.
In 2019, Pew Research found that 86% of American adults have “a fair amount” to “a great deal” of trust in scientists. While the belief in relativity may be present – 57% of Americans believe morality is ultimately based in personal experience – Americans seem to have shifted their confidence in human explanations to naturalistic explanations. We still share a faith and optimism in the sciences. We believe that medicine will cure the pandemic and agricultural advancement will keep food on the table despite rising populations. Investment in renewable energy will redeem the planet. It only makes sense that a faith in science has elevated its practitioners. Broadly speaking, scientists are praised as objective observers, defenders of truth.
In other words, scientists are experts. They understand the deep laws of the universe and build upon these first truths to produce machines and chemical compounds that are beneficial to the human race. Scientists are the defenders of the common good. Despite pushback in some pockets of the culture, Americans consistently rate nurses, doctors, and engineers as the professions most likely to promote the common good.
However, some commentators complain that scientists have risen above criticism. While scientists are assumed to operate without bias or subjectivity, they are still human. The concern is that scientists will become a new priesthood of the modern era. Popular science will become a new kind of cult in which the “experts who know” pass down veiled knowledge to its followers. It might become a “sin” to question the authority of the white lab coat.
If science becomes a cult, however, it will not be the fault of science itself. For science as a discipline is quite essayistic. Imagine a doctor practicing before the discovery of microbiology. This doctor has spent their life learning herbs and minerals and treatments. A patient presents symptoms. What does the doctor say – what can they say except, “Try this.”
Imagine Archimedes in his bathtub thinking about the king’s counterfeit crown and then “discovering” the law of buoyancy. This discovery was a complete accident. And then the mind likely tumbled through a flash of “and what if’s” to connect the observable phenomenon to the case of the fraudulent crown.
Or what about Benjamin Franklin and his mythic lightning experiment? He literally sallied forth into a lighting storm to observe the effects of static electricity. He bravely (or foolishly) held the kite aloft during the gale all to gain a deeper understanding of a natural phenomenon. No, he wasn’t electrocuted. But his experiment carried great risk.
All of these proto-scientific anecdotes illustrate the principle that science relies on evidence, not proof. Science’s approach is open handed, much like the essay. It requires bravery and experimentation. The medieval doctor, Archimedes, and Benjamin Franklin all become “experts” by living life and observing the consequences.
Nathan Pinkoski provides an insightful summary of science’s authority when he writes in First Things, “… unity among experts is often a fiction: experts argue amongst themselves. Indeed, even the most carefully studied of social phenomena are debated long after the events themselves have concluded. Arguments about the real lessons to learn from the Great Depression, Great Society, and Great War continue unabated. Properly understood, expertise is not about legitimating power. Serving the ends of true enquiry and true science, it casts an always partial light on human affairs and helps us to better understand our condition as social animals.”
Let us return to Joyce Carol Oate’s question on the essay: “In such uncharted areas as ethics, morals, and general wisdom, whose opinion should be taken more seriously than anyone else’s?” Applied to the doctor or scientist, the answer is that which has been tried, that which has undergone experiment. Clinical trials matter. The common person, not the scientist, must try the conclusion for themselves. The patient must apply the poultice. The volunteers must take the vaccine. The tyrant must put the gold crown into its own bath water.
The same rules apply to the modern scientific publication. Are we to take a scientific study as dogma or a set of recommended instructions? Certainly study results must be tested before they are accepted. Studies are meant to be replicated. Methods are presented clearly and shared widely. If the study cannot be replicated, then it is cast aside. But barring a gross realization of incompetence or error, the study was never not published in the first place. Science is more like a very focused dialectic. The thesis and antithesis collide for a synthesis. From microwaves to solar power, microchips to bionic limbs, the scientific dialectic has proved wondrous for the human race.
So, given the advances of science, might the essay also give us similar advancement in “such uncharted areas as ethics, morals, and general wisdom?” Yes. The slow, steady march of the scientific method closely mirrors the humble caution of the essay. Hypothesis – Experimentation – Results – Peer Review. Then repeat. To repeat Pinkoski, the writer of the essay is not out to legitimate power. Rather, they cast “a partial light on human affairs and better helps us understand our condition as social animals.”
A Partnership with the Reader
One of the most interesting “essays” of the 21st century has been Seattle’s CHAZ/CHOP commune. For the span of two weeks, the city government ceded control of about six square blocks of city property to protestors.
These anarcho-inclined individuals set up their own community, which Rolling Stone reports, “Since then, the area has been reimagined. An improvised street-side market created with folding tables and open coolers, called the ‘No-Cop Co-Op,’ offers free items from maxi-pads to oat milk. Street art adorns the pavement. Hitch trailers hold cubic yards of compost to spread in pop-up gardens that partially cover what, days ago, was open greenspace.”
These idyllic scenes did not last long.
To an outsider like myself, the project seemed to crumble under its own weight. Community organizers were able to support the zone through generous crowdfunding campaigns. If the autonomous zone was meant to be self-sustaining, it wasn’t. Economic issues weren’t the only problems.
According to Vox, “Over the past nine days, the area saw four shootings, two deaths, arson, and several alleged sexual assaults. According to FBI data, there were 34 homicides reported in 2018 in all of Seattle.”
Self-proclaimed warlords patrolled the streets with automatic weapons. Halfhearted gardens popped up in greenspaces. Checkpoints and barriers were erected to control border immigration. One news article reported, “While it’s not dangerous to enter, it’s not quite peaceful either. Security, some armed, are stationed at borders fortified with metal and plastic traffic barricades. There’s only one entrance that allows drivers, but you must first check in with CHAZ security.”
While I wouldn’t have wanted to live in CHAZ myself or have it forced upon my own home, I appreciate the idea. I appreciate the fact that CHAZ was allowed to exist, that willing participants were allowed to experiment. At least briefly. It seems to be a strange badge of pride for America that these odd experiments are allowed to rise and fizzle on their own volition. This is the land of communes and cults – The Mayflower, Mormon Utah, and hippy communes. These cultural experiments seem to be the very definition of a “loose sallying forth.”
For every “American vision,” there have been hundreds of followers who have tried to make the vision a reality. They mirror the reader of the essay, the necessary partnership needed to bring an idea into the world. It is true that the essayist writes for themself, to understand life and where life might lead. But the essayist also writes for others. Ideally, the essayist will write for the benefit of others, but as we’ve said, the skeptical reader finds confirmation not in the stating, but in the act of living. The reader must try.
The reader must try with humility, optimism, and integrity. One step at a time.
Compare this to the intellectual’s fascination with Marxism and its practical manifestation of communism. The conservative response to Marxism is usually, “The doctrine has been tried and has killed more people than any ideology in history.” The Marxist response is often, “But we’ve never tried ‘true’ communism.”
However, how many proponents of Marx have truly read Marx? Marilynne Robinson, a writer and professor whose career has spanned decades and a great essayist in her own right, explains:
For many years the dominant thought fad was something called Marxism. This fad was basically coterminous with the Cold War. With the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of Freidman-ism it folded like a cheap tent. But when the fad was at its height, when people swept along in it felt bold and even dangerous, I began to learn that in the overwhelming percentage of cases, these Marxists had not read Marx. I assume some must have, but I never found a single one. The confession did not embarrass them…. It is appropriate to wonder what Marx’s thought ever had to do with the Soviet economic and social order. But they claimed him, and we in America used Marxism as a synonym for their ideology and their political system. Therefore, as a courtesy to the larger world, which has inevitably been deeply affected by the nuclear testing and the proxy wars and the defensive imperialism both sides engaged in, wouldn’t it have been the propter thing, true, honorable, and just, to acquire some meaningful grasp of the nature of the argument?
I don’t intend to support or attack Marxism here. Rather, my point is that this passage by Robinson expands the scope of the essay from writer to reader. The essayist may write an essay as a personal sallying forth in order to make an attempt at truth – a la, Marx as author. The verification of the essay for personal purposes lies in the essayist trying out their own ideas. But the odd posthumous release aside, all essays that you or I have read were not written for that purpose for the very fact that we have read the essay. It’s clear that Marx intended his works to be read.
No movement changes the course of history with a leader only. Movements need followers. Essays need readers. And readers cannot punt responsibility for outcomes simply because they aren’t the ones to pose the initial ideas.
To be fair to all, this blame hardly rests with Marxists alone. There are also too many self-proclaimed Christians who have spent very little time in the Bible. This often leads to a churchy conservatism, which leads to a moral superiority that pushes people from the church. Many political conservatives like the thought of guns and “freedom,” having never read John Adams, Milton Friedman, or Thomas Sowell, the actual minds who have shaped the deeper tradition of conservatism.
Therefore, given how much pain “non-reading” has caused throughout history, how much pain foisting of theory upon innocents has caused, the reader might think to adopt an essayistic approach to reading.
One may read to reaffirm one’s deeply held beliefs. One may also read to escape the stress of daily life. These are legitimate reasons to read. But essayistic reading allows us to try on new ideas, and, if what we’re reading happened far enough in the past, to see how those ideas impacted the lives of human beings.
What I’ve described here is a cause-and-effect approach to essayistic reading. This is likely the most obvious way to learn “how” to live better. But this logical, removed way of thinking probably isn’t helpful for a Western culture that has lost its roots in emotion and mystery. Therefore, I believe the essay can help readers experience new ways of living as opposed to simply observing.
I have the lyric essay in mind, specifically. The lyric essay embraces the fragile, liminal spaces of human experience. It may act as a Rorshack test that allows the subconscious a greater role in the reading process. The form relies on aesthetic particularity, i.e., an emphasis on instances and momentary flashes of meaning.
In fact, the lyric essay thrives in its particularity. It’s an artform that I would argue is best experienced in an instance, not as a reflection of a metaphysics. I do not think the lyric essay should be extrapolated. Given this, perhaps the value of the lyric essay is not so much found in the stable meaning of its content, but the quasi-poetic aesthetic experience of association.
Of course, many readers have trouble limiting the lyric essay to the scope of its own instance. GD Dess in the LA Review of Books bemoans the lyric essay’s apparent sloppiness of meaning: “But this tangled concatenation of sentences is an example of what the critic John Simon maintained occurs when an author’s language use exceeds his or her grasp of their subject matter: ‘When gratuitous paradox and arbitrary pseudo-equivalence become the units of discourse, neither comprehension nor refutation is possible.’ We’ll leave it at that.”
The essayistic mode asks the reader to prioritize the specific essay in light of lived experience: “How does the essay affect the ways in which I live?” And because essays can focus on a very narrow band of lived experience, I do not agree with critics who dismiss the lyric essay simply because it evades direct comprehension and refutation. The experience of reading a fragmentary collage of images is a pleasant aesthetic experience that may engender a sense of deep personal meaning. The lyric essay engages a creative aspect of the human psyche of the self that not many literary forms can do – that strange, nearly subconscious space of free association.
However, human beings are notorious for equating pleasurable sensations with metaphysics and metanarrative. When we find a literary form we relate to, we then extrapolate it to encompass how “the world” works. The lyric essay, however, is a subset of the essay for a reason. It has its limitations and is best enjoyed when read in that light.
The essayistic reader searches for limitations to arguments, experiences, and literary forms themselves. The essayistic reader has learned that limitations allow for particular merits to stand on their own. For good things stretched too thin can easily become false and harmful. The law without mercy oppresses those it was created to protect. The benefits of technology turn sinister when used to create an all-seeing technocratic social vision.
Moreover, the personal and lyric essay gets its power from its formal limitations. By operating largely within the realm of the author’s experience, it allows the reader freedom to weigh and measure against their own experiences. It urges action without being prescriptive. By limiting the authority of the author, it allows the reader to engage more fully. In fact, the lyric essay is perhaps the starkest example of prose that empowers the reader with the task of meaning-making. Yet in the same breath, the reader must acknowledge their own limitations and refrain from making a mountain from a metaphysical molehill.
The essayistic appreciation of limitation is what promotes the underlying virtues of humility, optimism, and integrity. The essayistic reader embraces the good in all things but remains wary of utopias. The essayistic reader seeks to better their life, not perfect it. The same applies to their relationships with others. For as many limitations as there are in the ideas and actions of others, there are just as many limitations in oneself.
To try entails the possibility of failure. To try implies that one might be wrong. To try assumes that there are things outside oneself that need contending, that one is not the sole creator or judge of reality.
The Essay as an Attitude
In this essay, it should be clear that I’ve considered the essay well beyond the scope of a published piece of prose. I’ve blurred the lines between essay as a writing form and essay as lens for engaging with the world. I have treated the essay as an attitude that infects specific works, actions, and perspectives. It is an attitude best summed up in the words, “a loose sallying forth.”
The essay is a dynamic form that balances humility with purpose. Many an atheist have believed in God after setting out to disprove that very same God. An open search for truth may lead to an unexpected journey. In this way, the essay is a mode of becoming. At least it holds great potential for becoming. The essay always carries the risk for personal change.
It’s strange to me that so many people double down on lifestyles that produce unbearable anxiety. The rage caused by social media is one example. Too many people seethe at virtual avatars and lash out behind the mask of their own avatar. The articles keep scrolling. One more related topic, one more knot in the stomach. But though I call it strange, it’s quite familiar to me. My own life is a constant struggle against this digital anxiety. It is not easy to change one’s daily habits or ways of thinking. The essayistic attitude, however, in promising alternatives, provides a way out from confusion, meaninglessness, and even addiction.
The essayistic attitude encourages me to ask, “What do I know? What am I trying to discover in order to improve upon what I know? And where have I come from?” This self inventory often demands a pivot, an urge toward progress. Thus, the essay repeats itself in its slow process of transformation and should begin and end any season of transformation for a writer or reader. The essay preceding a season of action is creative. It sows widely, seeing what will emerge. It asks, “What alternatives can I try?” The essay closing a season of action is reflective. It prunes. It keeps wildness in harm, harnessing the energy and making sure it is not harmful. It asks, “Were these alternatives better than the life I was living before?”
The essayistic attitude also promotes agency, a quality desperately needed in a complex, global culture characterized by stark inequalities. Agency exists between the poles of powerlessness and total responsibility. Take climate change, for example. Many of us feel powerless to make a difference in the face of world powers, billion dollar corporations, and complex ecosystems. In the same breath, we use language like “Save the planet!” when advocating for recycling. These two mindsets are incompatible. The essayist regains agency by asking, “What can I do as an individual to solve this problem?” This may entail changing the lightbulbs in the house, purchasing a cleaner car, or moving to reduce commute times. Yes, broad social issues exist, but the essayistic attitude begins with the individual’s ability to act and moves outward to encompass larger groups of people.
And yet, this agency only occurs when we acknowledge that our control is not ultimate. This is both a terror and a relief. Although some deep part craves it, we cannot be responsible for the world. Few kind-hearted people want that responsibility. Rather, the limited freedom of the essay opens us up to engage with the immediate world around us. We find stability and meaning when we focus on the next step. And then the next step.
And so I return to Joyce Carol Oates: “In our egalitarian culture we tend to feel, rightly or wrongly, that an essayist’s opinion is only as good as his or her expertise, and in such uncharted areas as ethics, morals, and general wisdom, whose opinion should be taken more seriously than anyone else’s?”
I believe the essay would give this answer, “We should take seriously the essayist whose opinions have been tried and found to be beneficial, beautiful, and loving. Whose opinions aren’t hypocritical but rather focus on the self before prescribing solutions to others. Whose opinions hold up the reader as an equal, a person of value who is able to make choices for themself.”
From the beginning, I intended for this essay to be a creative essay. I wanted to ask, “What could be?” rather than “What is?” The essayistic attitude is not the answer to every situation, but I hope that this particular essay provides a fresh lens for viewing the world. I hope to envision new ways of living, new ways of engaging with literature, new ways of interacting with other human beings. I suspect that an essayistic attitude might be useful in dealing with addiction, crossing political aisles, reviving struggling neighborhoods, managing business divisions, and raising children. But of course, I am simply writing from my own experience, observations, and expertise.
I need partners. I need readers to try out these ideas.
You must ask yourself, “Are these opinions to be taken seriously? And if so, what does that mean for me?”