from Meandering Through, a literary criticism that I wrote back in May 2015
My time as a BS Applied Mathematics undergraduate in this university is about to come to an end. I’ve spent several sleepless nights in four years, forcing equations and theorems inside my head and proving how they came to be. And with this habit, the best way for me to comprehend mathematical concepts is by directing my understanding of these outside of the supposed context. The last sentence of the textbook we’ve been using ended the discussion of controlling convergences with this: “Just because we cannot ﬁnd the link here and now does not mean that it is not there.” It must be said that many mathematicians expect convergence all the time; it’s more convenient to us to find solace in the fact that convergence happens in stasis. Divergence, its opposite, may excite us – after all, volatility is quite a challenge – but we know for a fact that we cannot guarantee any coherent statement in the absence of stability.
So maybe what I have right now with regards to the genre comprising essays is a convergence of thoughts with no definite conclusion on what this really is. Four anthologists before me that I will be mentioning here have attempted to provide concrete features of this genre, and many of them are contrasting, if not cancelling out, each other. But I have taken to a few interests that this genre seems to comprehend. I am personally intrigued in the notion of build-ups, how everything adds up to a certain extent of logical cohesion or an engaging rendering of an experience. And since the genre I’m about to talk of is hard to encapsulate, some kind of accumulation of ideas is necessary in order to drill into this entire world which a lot seemed to call “creative nonfiction.” It must be said that the way we try to locate a specific aspect particular to this genre alone is an exercise of meticulous exploration. What can this fascination of mine with opening sentences and their ability to draw in a reader with the proper subtext and intriguing vagueness pave? Perhaps the way for a certain amount of clarity on the subject matter or at least of what the author wants us to know may suffice. Then again, it may not.
This is an anthology of literary essays, particularly because “literary” has come to the point that it has to be something not necessarily journalistic in terms of its endeavors, and neither has the “essay” been reduced to a mere narration like in memoirs and biographies. As d’Agata had prompted, we are not in search of facts but rather of art. The term “meandering” has been promising in the features of this genre, as noted by Mary Paumier Jones – like a river crashing against the banks, eroding a few parts of land from the sides, and splashing against the rocks, the essay meanders through ideas, reacting in light and against the essayist’s own views, bringing with it insights from other factors not usually considered, and providing tension against this whirlpool of musings.
While the study of this genre is better framed with a diachronic approach rather than a synchronic one, I still think that we are provided with an impetus that we try to make sense and deal with, leading us to the search for the true definition of the essay we can entirely ascribe to. But this certain unveiling, this subtle exposition lends me the doubt that anything written with facts can be an essay. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo focuses on the essay as the genre having a true story to tell – by way of facts and information, confessions and observations. In Creative Nonfiction: A Manual, she generally describes creative nonfiction in a nutshell as “nonfiction prose which utilizes the techniques and strategies of fiction.” Fact-feeding fiction, I must say, and so here is the first proposition: because there is a need to distinguish fact from fiction, and the facts we write about is something we can easily check ourselves, the essay learns to digress from mere information.
Perhaps this is why Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo sees personal essays as some sort of descriptive narrative. Using techniques taken from fiction, what more can Alfred Yuson’s Confessions of a QC House-Husband provide than a detailed day-to-day experience of a man in such a specific vicinity and lifestyle? In its comical tone, we are provided with a caricature of a frustrated husband who is aware of the mundaneness that he seems to go through. Perhaps this can be seen as some sort of vulnerability that the essay is searching for. We are also engaged in Resil Mojares’ I Never Sang for My Father which captures the author’s musing on the memories of his father which seemed rather contradictory to the perception of others. Full of insights and reflections, the essay is seen through different angles: from the son’s own experiences to the father’s personal background to the interaction between the two.
The essay is then seen as some kind of evaluation, of proving and disproving, not with explicit means of argumentation, but some sort of exploration, an almost philosophical journey had it not been for the nuances of rendering the experience of the narrator, the essayist himself. Therefore, Lee Gutkind provides us the second proposition: Because there is a need to separate the informal from the formal, in as much as we should separate an argument from a personal musing, the essay wanders between the universal and the personal thought. An argument convinces people that this must be the proper way to comprehend a subject matter; a personal musing is a defense on itself as to why the essayist has thought of such.
In Fact by Lee Gutkind mentions “rounding off corners” and “the need to take liberties” – a digression from Hidalgo’s decisive sticking to fact and information. In the Woods by Leslie Rubinkowski intensifies the dialogue between distinguishing fact from fables, truth from lies, and how failure to do so creates a different kind of mindset for the essayist herself. This intersection between the writer’s inner world and external reality is some kind of convergence – one that gets stuck in the idea that made her believe consuming lies has made her “the kind of writer [she is] nowadays.” Meanwhile, Ruthann Robson’s Notes from a Difficult Case is a juxtaposition of different languages – legal terms, medical records – in an attempt for the author herself to understand where the misdiagnosis went wrong. Another convergence, this time with more layers exhibited by the Robson’s ability to string together varied interpretations of the same subject matter.
In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate demands for a consciousness in the essay, one that needs interaction from internal and external factors. The third proposition then goes something like this: Because the informal desires the implication of the narrator through fact and memory, the essay also demands a kind of consciousness that subscribes to the context and disposition of the subject matter. And to encounter this human consciousness – no matter how erred or delusional it is – speaks now closer to the essay than any other form of nonfiction. Should the essay doubt anything beyond the personal consciousness of the essayist, it must be deemed understandable. I believe this is what Lopate claims to be the “contraction and expansion” of the essay – a necessary breathing of which its pace depends on the factors that surround it.
Richard Selzer’s The Knife is the blend of poetic and prosaic language – the act of using the knife in medical procedures is then combined with Selzer’s personal story of how he came to be a surgeon. Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting is not just about the search for a pencil; it’s about how experiences change the way we perceive. In the same way that The Death of a Moth is not just about watching a moth in silence; it’s about a meditation of life and death and how death seemed to be a certain kind of fixation that the essayist is banking on. Roland Barthes’ Leaving the Movie Theater, on the other hand, provides a striking contrast from the rest: what happens on the musing if the experience remains in a fixed point in time instead of a progression? How do we then separate the literary essay from art criticism?
This may be the best answer I can come up with: the essay as a search, an introspection of oneself by covering issues outside the self, not including the self but more on implicating what it means to the self, provides a lens or framing on the context. The fourth proposition is then inspired from d’Agata’s musing on the search for art: because there is a need to bridge the disjunction between introspection and perception, we need to trace the roots of the essay from its conventional ground – that is, by way of narrative, exposition, and story-telling – to the nonconventional, in which form and language shapes how we perceive things.
In John d’Agata’s The Next American Essay, Joan Didion is searching for some logic in the stories she knew in The White Album through her catalogue of narratives, resembling an album, but of things that don’t make sense to her. John McPhee in Search For the Marvin Gardens is creating the delineation between the actual game and the place itself that fell into dilapidation, as well as how the board game’s concept of quick kill is seen in real business, while EB White in Once More to the Lake is searching for some sort of retribution in the passage of time witnessed by him both as a son and as a father.
In addition to the essays already included in previous anthologies of renowned writers, I also included two of my own. The ability of the essay to digress and redirect itself into different modes of thinking – from recollection to a seamless kind of meandering – allows room for the narrator to prove and disprove the notions that have been forming in his or her mind. It is in this kind of hovering above a certain theme or subject matter that breaks the chronological sequence of events – a type of technique most visible in fiction. In Salt to Taste, it is evident that there is no singular time frame that remains static; moreover, the essay goes back and forth from the present event to the events that had occurred in the past. Meanwhile, The Permutation Act is in defense of the narrator’s personal mindset, so to say. With the essay providing me the ground to talk about college courses in relation to the different factors that personally affected my decision process, it is in this ability of the genre that allowed me to trust in my own understanding.
I then give the fifth and final proposition: because there is the propensity to meander within the convergence of propositions, the essay desires to seek a certain understanding how the personal affects other context – be it social, political, philosophical or cultural. While it may not be the case that Hidalgo, Gutkind, Lopate, and d’Agata have learned from each other, adding up theories and speculations on how to go about in describing this genre we have come to call as the literary essay, there is still this convergence among languages and context. The essays in this anthology are perhaps just an amalgamation of all the aspects I have noted from the other anthologists who have come before me and have contributed to the definition of an essay. But the propositions are an attempt to justify how they came up with all these understandings. After all, the word “essay” comes from the French verb “essai,” as coined by Michel Montaigne, which means “to try.” May meanderings then make meanings, in case the attempt to converge definitions fail.