Includes repeated mention of Proust, plus a trampoline, lyrics used without credit from Stephen Stills, cave trolls, and Dune.
Dr Essai has collected every volume of the annual The Best American Essays, and for several years now has been working his way through them, piece by piece by piece. Working his way at a stately pace—he is up to 1999. He started with 1986, so don’t judge. The task is 35 percent complete, though that will drop to 34 percent on October 17 when the latest edition comes out. That one was curated by Vivian Gornick, who knows what she’s doing, so it should be worthy of attention by discerning readers such as yourself, whose discernment is obvious.
Edward Hoagland edited the 1999 edition currently on the doctor’s nightstand, and in his introduction he wrote this:
You multiply yourself as a writer, gaining height as though jumping on a trampoline, if you can catch the gist of what other people have been feeling and clarify it for them.
Hoagland was not an anxious egoist reducing the essay to a means of pumping air into his own feathers—look at all the people who agree with me! What he meant was that each piece he’d collected for Best American Essays 1999 was the work of an author who had sensed something going on beneath the surface (there’s something happening here), devoted intense concentration to it (what it is ain’t exactly clear), did his or her best to create meaning (what’s that sound), then published the result (everybody look what’s goin’ down).
Write something just to multiply yourself and you produce the banality of the content provider or the social media influencer. All noise, no signal.
The poet Anne Carson told The Paris Review in 2004:
I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action.
The essayist does the same, though with far more words. And the art of it, if the author’s an artist, is to summon more than reason, to bring emotion and mystery and profound connection. One person’s insight prompts another’s. That’s a powerful thing.
The first of Hoagland’s selections was written by André Aciman and is titled “In Search of Proust.” It’s a lovely remembrance of the author’s visit to Illiers-Combray, where Marcel Proust spent holidays and set a good bit of In Search of Lost Time. Proust’s massive novel has deep personal significance for Aciman and he had long wanted to visit the town’s Proust museum. In his essay, Aciman recalls a favorite scene in which a father leads his family on a moonlit walk. Aciman observes:
It reminded me of the way Proust’s sentences roam and stray through a labyrinth of words and clauses, only to turn around—just when you are about to give up—and show you something you had always suspected but had never put into words.
In the doctor’s experience, the best writing comes out of some agitated soul compelled to surface something that’s deep in his own heart and mind, something ordinarily unacknowledged or unexamined. Often this requires some courage. The human mind is capacious and indiscriminate in what it harbors. Any writer delving her own consciousness will find angels and cave trolls, piety and devil worship, laudable kindness and vicious meanness. We do contain multitudes and bad actors lurk in our cranial neighborhoods.
We can be deeply moved by writing that catches the gist and says what we’ve been unable to put into words. We suddenly feel less alone, because look, on page 43—someone else feels the same way we do and just said what we’d say were we better with words. We take it in and say to ourselves, Yes, exactly! Something we had vaguely sensed for a long time now feels true in a fundamental way. Sometimes we also embrace the relief of realizing we’re not alone.
All of this is great for us as individuals, and good for a society and a culture, until it goes wrong. The same capacity of language to distill insight can be deployed to harden prejudice, confirm hatred, and incite the worst of human behavior. The tools that open minds can be used to close them off and shut them down. While shared clarity can be persuasive, persuasion usually isn’t the essayist’s point. But polemicists and propagandists have something else in mind. They want their readers to fall in line and think the right way as decreed by some self-ordained authority, to fall in line with an orthodoxy. An essayist has less interest in promoting right thinking than in achieving clear thinking. The writer Amina Cain once described her practice as, “I write to see what is inside my mind. For me, it is often far better, healthier, than recording what I know is already there.” She isn’t trying to gather adherents, she’s asking questions, interrogating her own mind, trying to understand and then say to readers, “What do you think?” The shill for authority says, “We will tell you what to think.”
Imagine it this way: “If you think this, maybe you’re one of us” versus “if you want to be one of us, think this.”
In Dune, Frank Herbert wrote, “Fear is the mind-killer.” Our best writers—more than that, our best artists and thinkers—want to open minds and demonstrate that we each know more than we thought, have more insight than we believed we had, and have hearts and minds capable of extraordinary understanding and goodness. We have the ability to leave this earth better than we found it. Cynical punks grasping for wealth and power want to keep us perpetually afraid by saying whatever crystallizes our anxiety, using language that makes what they say feel like revealed truth.
That we are as vulnerable to our inner cave troll as we are to the angel causes no end of problems. What may save us, not this week or this year but over the coming centuries, if we have that long, is one mysterious human quality: Deep within ourselves, we know when we’re wrong and we know when we’re doing evil. I don’t know where this sense resides or what it’s made of, but I am convinced it’s always been in us.
In 1504, the king of Spain ordered scholars and lawyers to guide him in justifying the actions of the conquistadores in the New World. By 1513 they had drafted a document called the Requerimiento, that conquistadors were required to read to those who already lived on the land they were about to seize—that is, the Amerindians. It was a “history of the world” that began with Adam and Eve and in a few paragraphs arrived at the historically determined inevitability of the Catholic Church and Spain ruling the New World. Submit and we’ll treat you well, the document claimed. (Uh-huh.) Resist and you will be killed or enslaved.
There were cold, pragmatic reasons for the Spanish throne to keep the Church happy, and the Requerimiento was designed to do that. But I also believe that deep in their greedy, bigoted, cruel hearts everyone involved knew they were wrong, and so had to justify their conquest. If you were a Spanish state desperate to replenish its treasury, a member of the Spanish royal court, an investor betting on big returns, or one of the hard men marching through the Americas with sword and armor, you needed to tell yourself, in your darker moments, that all this bloodshed and destruction and cruelty wasn’t really your fault, or even your choice. It was God’s will, the natural order of a pitiless world.
Dictators, emperors, religious zealots, and robber barons all grasp for justification. Why? It’s one thing to argue your moral case because you can’t get what you want without enlisting allies. But people with overwhelming power, who can do whatever they want, still seek ways to justify their actions. They always have, because they have always known they were wrong, and I think that knowledge prods even the cruelest of people. That’s not enough to stop a psychopath. Stalin, Mao, and Jeffrey Dahmer did what they pleased and lost no sleep. But most people are not psychopaths. Our collective moral agency, often silent but still present, may be enough to perturb society toward justice. Clarify a moral idea, then multiply it by convincing one person at a time that they’ve had the same idea inside them all along—Yes, exactly!—and we all might have a chance.
It’s a big and extraordinarily slow project, and hard not to be pessimistic. But do we have a choice?