I don’t think either of these qualify entirely as essays and therefore fall into inferior category for this collection. Ch’ien’s essay is thoughtful and poignant, causing me to underline and re-read entire portions (especially, “He loved to read books, and yet never puzzled over their profound insights”). The piece has a healthy doze of subtle sarcasm as well as irony but it reads more like a prose poem than an actually essay. Nevertheless, Ch’ien’s piece qualifies more for the category than Shang-Yin’s “Miscellany.” This essay disguised as a list is organized into categories with headings like “Incongruities,” “Shameful,”Dismaying” and “Desecration of Scenery.” It is brevity at its best and I found myself laughing out loud (Indications of Prosperity–> The sound of reading aloud). Yet I again can’t quite put it in the category of a superior essay in that I don’t really see it as an essay. As a prose poem and a list of aphorisms both pieces are great but I cannot go as far as to call either an essay. Perhaps, I am being too conservative in my thinking. Any thoughts?
After skimming through all of the essays in both books and reading a considerable number of them thoroughly, I noticed the various ways that writers experiment with structure. Perhaps I am just woefully uneducated on this subject but I was surprised to see that essayists have been taking liberties with I did not realize that essayists having been taking liberties with structure for so long. While Barry Lopez’s essays is one of my favorite of the entire book, I will now focus on one of the other essays from The Next American Essay.I didn’t necessarily want to critique an essay that I didn’t connect to, didn’t like or one that I found boring. Instead, I wanted to write about one I found inferior because it could have been (should have been) so much better. I really enjoyed Shields’ fresh and unusual approach to the structure of the essay and his way of putting together sentences, each of which is fully capable of standing on its own like a bumper sticker. For example, “This vehicle not purchased with drug money. Hugs are better than drugs.” Shields also does a good job of bundling together related, or seemingly related bumper sticker sentences into sensible paragraphs that read somewhat like a prose poem. The speaker oscillates between first, second and third person perspective, depending on the paragraph. The overall tone of the essay remains lighthearted and sarcastic, consistent with the tone of the individual bumper stickers. While this approach makes for a colorful piece with a creative use of language and rhythm, it also prevents the essay from standing on its own as a coherent and complete work. In particular, the essay tends to fall short by not being able to create appropriate tension or conflict. The essay reads like a funny, quirky, and caustic list of poignant comments (sometimes infantile but always humorous). It does not seem to progress past this point and I am not sure whether it can be salvaged or improved upon. If the author were to all of the sudden stop writing in bumper stickers or short declarative sentences, some semblance of conflict can be created but the integrity of the style will also be compromised.
The Lost Origins of the EssayThere are many writers whom we have read who inspire me to copy, emulate, and experiment with their approaches in order to grow as a writer and to improve my own writing. With Pessoa, however, I feel that he is actually me, in another life. I like to underline things while I read, things that are interesting and things that really speak to me. After the first couple of pages, I’ve noticed myself underlining every other sentence because it felt like he was speaking for me and revealing things I never even realized about myself. It is hard for me to analyze this essay critically because I feel so personally attached it. Nevertheless, I will try. Some parts of the essay are thoroughly philosophical. For example, “to recognize reality as a form of illusion and illusion as a form of reality is equally necessary and equally useless” and “That is why the contemplative person, without ever leaving his village, will nevertheless have the whole universe at his disposal. There’s infinity in the cell or in a desert.” Other parts of the essay a personal. For example, “While I once took the smile is an insult, because it seemed to imply a superior attitude, today I see it as a sign of an unconscious doubt. Just as adults often recognize in children a quick – wittedness they don’t have” and “I am still obsessed with creating a false world, and will be until I die” and “I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, and perfect lives. Some of them are full of problems, while others live the humble and picturesque life of Bohemians. Others are traveling salesman. (To be able to imagine myself as a traveling salesman has always been one of my great ambitions – unattainable, alas!) Others live in the rural towns and villages of a Portugal inside me.” Then of course there are parts of the essay (the best!) where the personal and philosophical bleed into one: “Better and happier those who, recognizing that everything is fictitious, write the novel before someone writes it for them and, like Machiavelli, don courtly garments to write in secret” and “ I am at one of those points, and I write these lines as if to prove that I’m at least alive.” It is hard to separate the philosophical from the personal parts of the essay and it is even harder to know if they truly belong to the author. What I do find curious, however, is that perhaps it is like this with many writers. The only difference is that Pessoa and possibly a handful of others are honest enough to create authentic and independent and often contradictory personas that exists within all of us.
The Lost Origins of the Essay
This essay is broken up into numerous disjointed paragraphs that are more like a collection of prose poems than anything else. One thing that I noticed right away is Campana’s use of setting and colons. Each paragraph discusses setting, making the entire essay appear almost obsessed with it. Even the characters (the narrator and others) are somehow part the setting, as if they are mere placeholders within the setting.
Response to "The Raven" by Barry Lopez, The Next American EssayThe tension of this piece is the difference between crows and ravens and why there are no longer any crows in the desert. The raven (both as the bird and the metaphor for this type of person) is the protagonist while the crow is the antagonist. Lopez spends a lot of time discussing the crow’s faults (his arrogance and flamboyance) in order to illustrate how and why the raven has survived. In particular, the author shows how the crow’s arrogance leads to its downfall while the raven’s humble way of life and its quiet confidence allows him to thrive. The essay is written in third person and has no dialogue except a few instances where the author addresses the reader directly as ‘you.’ The essay is set in the desert but is not limited to it. Instead the author uses this setting to illustrate what characteristics of the the crow allow it to thrive in the city and die in the desert. As a result, the theme or the moral of the story is that people should try to live their lives like the raven, in a quiet and measured confidence. The essay works on many levels because Lopez does an excellent job of illustrating why ravens (both as birds and metaphors) are superior to crows. The essay is reminiscent of a fable or fairy tale in that it does not cross into the realm of fiction any more than necessary and makes its point without being the least bit judgmental. This is one of my favorite essays and there is nothing about it that does not work.
Response to “The Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf, The Lost Origins of the EssayThe thing that is at stake in this essay is the life and death of the moth. As a simple creature that is often overlooked, the moth has a lot to teach people. The moth is the main character that undergoes a change from living (and fighting to live) to dying. There is no traditional dialogue but Woolf does put herself in the story in first person. The moth fights its epic battle in the corner of a room with a window (setting). The theme or the moral of the story is life is worth fighting for no matter how insignificant and inconsequential one might feel. This is a marvelous essay which works on many levels, just like “The Raven.” It uses a simple commonplace being like the moth to illustrate the meaning of life, perhaps to say that the meaning of life is just to live. For example, “this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.” Perhaps what Woolf is also trying to say is that people need to stop relying on other people’s metrics of what is valuable and instead find their own value in life. The essay does not cross into fiction and there is nothing about this essay that does not work.
Response to “Definitions of Earthly Things” by Bernardino de Sahagun, The Lost Origins of the EssayThe tension is man vs nature and the essay is separated into different parts under various subheadings like forest, a mountain, mirror stone, etc. Man or human kind serves as the protagonist while nature is the antagonist. For example, the forest is described as a desolate place where there are no people and nothing is edible. Man has the tendency to view the natural world as separate from him and society and this essay is great at illustrating that. There is no traditional dialogue but there are instances of first person. The essay has numerous settings, all of which are elements of the natural world. The theme or the moral of the story is that man has a lot to fear about nature but that he should nevertheless confront and become one with it. The essay works by being way ahead of its time in its approach to creative nonfiction. However, while this approach is creative it does not work particularly well because it makes the essay appear disjointed. The cross into fiction is effective and thoughtful. For example, “A Mushroom: It is round, large, like a severed head.” This sentence, and others like it, make me think of an encyclopedia entry turned on its itself.