Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I”


The Lost Origins of the Essay

I have enjoyed many essays in this book but if I were to pick one I haven’t commented on before, it would be Ginzburg’s “He and I.” A lot of writers featured our texts tend to experiment with form and approach but this one is one that is at once both experimental and complete thus appearing to be the essay at its best. Ginzburg uses the character of ‘He’ to create her own reality. Much like the crows in Lopez’s “The Raven,” Ginzburg uses the unnamed ‘he’ character to create and establish the speaker of the essay. The speaker (presuming she as the author) is forged in opposition to ‘him’ and the reader is presented with a cohesive understanding of both characters as individuals and as a couple.

T’ao Ch’ien’s “The Biography of Mr. Five-Willows” & Li Shang-Yin’s “Miscellany”



The Lost Origins of the Essay

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?

David Foster Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair” The Next American Essay


The Next American Essay

This is a lengthy essay about the author’s experience at the Illinois State Fair in 1993. It is written in first person and is organized into sections according to day, time and location. This organization contributes to Wallace’s almost anthropological approach to writing about his experience. He provides readers with a plethora of details about the types of people, food and animals and spices up the details with occasional comments. These comments, humorous, poignant, and often sarcastic, help Wallace reveal himself without going into mundane background details.

For example, “Middle-management types enter…The words ‘excited,’ proud,’ and ‘opportunity’ are used repeatedly. Ms. Illinois County Fairs…is proudly excited to have the opportunity to present two corporate guys, sweating freely in suits, who report the excited pride of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart to have the opportunity to be this year’s corporate sponsors.” Statements like these help illustrate Wallace and his world view by, in a way, mocking others’. This mockery however does not come off judgmental or arrogant because no one escapes its wrath. Wallace does not hesitate to mock either Harper’s, the magazine that publishes the essay (“I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts”) or himself (“I’m reluctant to go shirtless because there’d be no way to display my credentials”), thus maintaining the same casual, curious, and occasionally sarcastic tone throughout the piece.

“Ticket to the Fair” is reminiscent of a travelogue so the primary tension is between the author and his environment. But instead of taking the readers to a far away locale, Wallace travels to the most commonplace of environments to illustrate that one does not need to go far to encounter something exotic. In particular, Wallace addresses the question of why people in the Midwest go to state fairs. In the end he writes, “The East Coast existential treat is escape from confines and stimuli-quiet, rustic vistas that hold still, turn inward, turn away. No so in rural Midwest. Here you’re pretty much away all the time. The land is big here-board-game flat, horizons in every direction…Thus the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of a crowd. To see something besides land and grass and corn and cable TV and your wife’s face. Hence the sacredness out here of spectacle, public event: high-school football, Little League, parades, bingo, market day, fair…The real spectacle that draws us here is us.”

D. Shield’s “Life Story,” The Next American Essay, pg. 339

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.

Response to “Metaphysics has always struck me as a prolonged form of latent insanity” by Fernando Pessoa


The Lost Origins  of the Essay

There 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.

Response to ‘The Night’ by Campana, The Lost Origins of the Essay

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.

Another major thing that stands out about this essay is the author’s use of colons. I’m undecided whether it is the colons or the author’s approach to sentences that give many of the sentences within the essay an uncomfortable feel. For example, “at the edge of the countryside a door cut in the stone, watched by a young woman in a red dress, pale and fat, caught its eye: I entered.” There is a definite lack of action verbs and I’m sure that this is a conscious decision on the part of the author. However, I’m not sure if that works. Furthermore, there are many other sentences which are much more complex, mostly as a result of the use of more than one colon within the same sentence.

I have never seen more than one colon used per sentence before and, though it makes for an interesting style, I’m not entirely sold on it. It seems to me the literary devices such as these should be used sparingly so that they did not standout too much and take away from the actual writing. This essay’s style makes me consider my own essay and my decision to use footnotes. I’m trying very carefully to use footnotes in such a way that they actually add to the writing and the content of the story rather than standout as a novelty act (even though footnotes in fiction are no longer that novel). Perhaps footnotes and colons and other devices in writing should be treated like decorations in a house. While a few oddball pieces may add just the right amount of eccentricity to enhance the house’s beauty with a touch of authenticity, a large amount of oddball decorations can hide the house’s beauty and make it look like a bad garage sale/crappy thrift store.

Response to Egypt by Butor, The Lost Origins of the Essay

The Lost Origins of the Essay

This is an interesting essay that expands and plays with the concept the sentence. After checking a couple of times, I am confident to say that the first sentence ends in the middle of page 546. The author makes use of semicolons, commas, and paragraphs to allow the sentence keep going in a semi-organic form. The essay is both set and centered around Egypt but the author’s use of literary devices appears to take away from the content of the essay. I don’t think I am a very old-fashioned reader or writer and I enjoy experimental writing. However, my enjoyment of experimental writing ends when the experiment interferes with the actual writing. In particular, this essay is a good example of a literary device which passed the first paragraph or two starts to take away from the actual quality of the writing by bringing too much attention to itself.

Response to “The Raven” by Barry Lopez

Response to "The Raven" by Barry Lopez, The Next American Essay

The 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

Response to “The Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf, The Lost Origins of the Essay

The 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

Response to “Definitions of Earthly Things” by Bernardino de Sahagun, The Lost Origins of the Essay

The 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.