About a year ago, I set out to write an essay on the subject of embarrassment. It seemed like an interesting topic for writer and reader alike. The writer had experienced and continues to experience embarrassment on a reliable basis. Ditto the readers, who find themselves marooned in a cultural moment where embarrassment is both the norm and the least of their worries. I did what any self-respecting writer would do: scribbled some notes, posed arguments, sought examples meant to illustrate those arguments, all that stuff. Then … nothing. I hit a wall. Then I lost interest. You’ll find this happens every now and then when you write. Some ideas have a robust lifespan, like the 500-year-old Greenland shark; others pass like mayflies, so quickly you hardly notice. Sometimes, though, they resurrect unexpectedly, because their husks were commandeered by a “zombie fungus.” (I promise I’ll stop now.)
Embarrassment always ties back, for me, to the writing of essays itself. Essay-writing is an embarrassing endeavor—foolish, really. Someone who frames a text explicitly in his or her voice and all that attends it is in a vulnerable position. It is like convening a trial or an inquiry. (Some promise.) The reader is judge, jury, and executioner, while the writer is defendant, witness, and prosecutor. Whether the writer is exonerated or condemned, a painstaking examination of all available evidence must be undertaken before making that determination. I won’t dare to speak for other essay writers, but for my part the cold sting of guilt is always upon me after every piece; at least every piece on this platform.
But of what crimes? Well, there’s self-indulgence in style, circuitousness in structure, an ambiguity in tone that arises from a mix of earnestness and irony in a single piece (even a single paragraph), humor that is solipsistic or just not funny, a frivolous approach to morals, over-sophistication, pretension to sophistication, repetition of subject matter, random range of subject matter, lack of political commitment, sympathy to a politics the reader does not share, and a general lack of clarity as to what, precisely, I am getting at. Some of these charges are best left for the passage of time to determine, but the last one is both the most serious and the one to which I will readily cop.
There is a fashion nowadays for literary nonfiction to provide the clearest, most efficient route to its conclusion. Have a view, out with it, and let me get on with my day, the reader impels. There’s something to be said for that position. Concision is a difficult craft; sincere concision is virtuous and difficult. Some views or responses require few words, sometimes just one. And if not concision, then there’s entertainment. Tell me a story, damn you, the reader says, teary-eyed and red in the face. Make it good and looooooooong. I suppose there’s something to be said for that as well, but I do not feel like saying it.
The attentive reader will have concluded that neither concision nor entertainment is my way. Indeed, I suspect in the reader a frustration by my more searching approach, which looks like a stylist in search of a substance—like a game hunter trudging aimlessly through foggy woods, taking precise aim, but only hitting twigs. And if by chance I return trailed by the carcasses of three or so wild boars ready to roast, the reader will have long ago stopped giving a shit. And I do not blame the reader. For sometimes these excursions produce no kills of any size. Kills are entirely incidental, frankly. More frankly still, I’d rather not kill anything if I can avoid it.
The nicest way this tendency has ever been described was “intuitional.” It seems apt that it was a visual artist who said this. I took it to mean that my work had a more literary than intellectual cast. Intuitional things, as I understand it, are usually bereft of the trappings of logic or order. It’s kind of like saying how someone who is not very bright is nonetheless redeemed by “emotional intelligence.” Whether or not the word was meant in that way, there is the sense that I’m not following an argumentative path and, perhaps, that I am dodging arguments by boring my readers to death. (I did say if.)
I prefer to think that I’m merely being traditional. Following the essay form in the classical sense, not as a thorough investigation, but as an open-ended inquiry. It is a lark, a speculation, a leap in the dark, or (God forgive me) an attempt. “Few write as an architect builds,” said Schopenhauer. “Most write as they play dominoes: their sentences are linked … one by one, in part deliberately, in part by chance.”
The main problem with such a version of the essay is that it was meant for the smallest possible audience: the writer. The critique of me not knowing, precisely, what I’m getting at is a valid one because, sometimes, not even I know. The essay is the act by which I sate my curiosity to find out. They are excursions, winding ones; some are more interesting than others, some are more clarifying than others. This is evident when I find myself returning to a subject as though I’m looking on it for the first time. As one example: I’ve taken at least three separate occasions to write about Sub Pop Records. In no way have I done so systematically, in a way that implies a grander theme, though perhaps it is there, hiding. Why it chooses to hide I have no idea. It is up to me to coax it out into the light by the only means I know how to coax it.
Obviously something that comes close to a conclusion came to me before I wrote this essay. I wrote it in a notebook where I keep things that I may or may not use later. I had thought to weave it more seamlessly into the piece but, in keeping with the now somewhat vague theme of embarrassment, I thought instead to reproduce it verbatim from my scribbling:
It would seem that my formation as a thinking person began in 2000, when I started looking into grunge as a phenomenon. I had the distinct advantage of being privy to fringe culture of all sorts & knew not to go to Soundgarden so soon and not to Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains at all. Hype was the catalyst, I believe, in showing how people make a culture from scratch, all its positive & negative outcomes. I was really fascinated by this and by the additional exposition of Our Band Could Be Your Life. These were things that changed me, that made me care about ideas and human activity. The politics that appeal to me, as a result, are the politics that must accommodate this view. Initially I thought it was libertarianism, but now I find it might be communitarianism. It is quite possibly neither pure forms, but a mix and match of both. This leads me to suspect that I might want to look into William James for real this time.
There you have an idea whose lifespan has endured far longer than many others I’ve had. An idea concisely expressed at that. It’s maybe less of a wonder as to why I have this idea or that one than it is as to why I choose to publicize any one at all. True, in this idea I get a sense of fullness where otherwise I’d feel anemic. Yet also I come away from it with a sense of shame, of disappointment, and even a little bit of decadence: shame at its shallowness, disappointment at its obsolescence, and decadence at its uselessness. If an idea cannot be readily fixed into the machinery that is our present discourse, then the idea is just a trinket
, a swirl-patterned bouncing ball or plastic jewelry cranked out of a coin-operated dispensary at the grocery store.
Here I shall conclude this essay, even as reason tells me it is neither right nor serviceable to do so. But if I wasn’t erring on the side of reason before, what good is it starting now? I have looked back fondly on this essay. Even as I finish it, I feel nostalgia setting in—and truly it was good. This essay has done its solemn duty, even at the cost of making a fool out of its writer. No matter, I shall place on top of it a fancy, alliterate, and basically accurate title, planting the foolishness of reader and writer alike on an equal plain, as the good Lord intended.