February 02, 2007

Literary Madness

I have been an avid reader throughout my life though it seems that “litra-ture” had somehow escaped me until I returned to college and had it introduced to me in a vain attempt to make me a logical thinker. Like writer Joan Didion wrote, “I do not think in abstracts”, and from what I have ascertained, abstract is the realm of the literary mind, a part of my mind that failed to develop.

I knew from the start that literature and I could be civil but we would never be best friends. This became embarrassingly apparent in my first college composition class. We would read an essay from some esteemed author and during the class discussion the professor would ask my interpretation of some inane paragraph. I would give my sincerest interpretation and then get the look. The slight grin, an upturned eyebrow. “Interesting.” she would say, with a tone that was apparently her metaphor for “Ok, so you are a loon”, before moving on to the more enlightened in the front row. Further indoctrination with the likes of Faulkner and Tan failed to garner any improvements in my perception. Perhaps it is the annoyance of having to read and reread in order to flesh out exactly what the author has said that makes me think that literature is itself just a code word for lunacy.

This groping to understand these hidden meanings has led me to resent literature as having a bit of snooty pretentiousness. I recently read that even a “ rancid maggot covered piece of meat can make anyone feel something. And any pretentious moron in a beret can call it a metaphor for anything.” When EB White says that he has hanging in his closet the “ Mantle of Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor” who is to say White is not just wondering, what is that smell?

I now find myself in one final attempt at understanding literature, studying a genre hell bent on unique and interesting ways to state the obvious. But this time as I became acquainted with the God-father of the essay Michel de Montaigne I found myself agreeing with what he was saying. Cynthia Ozick reflects that it is the intrinsic power of the essay to “… be a force for agreement. It co-opts agreement, it courts agreement, it seduces agreement.” Not that what Montaigne wrote was some eye opening revelation of something I did not know but instead was like carrying on a conversation with an old friend as he reminded me of my own similar experience that I would then like to recount.

It was Montaign’s “Of Idleness” and the images in my mind that his piece evoked that convinced me to try my hand at an essay. To take the topic of what is the essence of an essay and define my understanding of the subject by steeping it in imagery and a variety of literary devices to see where it might lead.

"The Madness of the Essay" :

Picture if you will, the disheveled man in the crumpled hat, we have all seen him shuffling through town, as he carries on a conversation, with no one else around. We smirk and then we reason, “I’m glad as hell that I don’t act that way”, but when you think about it, we are all a touch insane. The difference between him and us? We don’t move our lips.

“The lunatic is on the grass
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs

(Pink Floyd)

The mind is never silent; it banters back and forth but that is perhaps the one thing that defines that we are real:

“I think therefore I am.”
(René Descartes)

There is never respite from it, it continues as we sleep. Those “monsters” that jolt us wide-awake at night are visions that make no sense to us:

You lock the door, and throw away the key, There’s someone in my head but it’s not me. (Pink Floyd)

Our heads are packed with stories that we tell ourselves, or friends. Each one our skewed reflection of the places we have been. If we could only take the time to jot these ramblings down we could fill the cellar walls with these memories that we’ve built.

But I for one have this “childish notion” that someone more might care, so to quell this vain compulsion I will bottle up these memories and present them to the world. Montaigne called it the “essay” but madness fits as well, a thousand words in each “attempt” to share my private tales.

I will pick these words with caution like the grapes for a fine wine. Message them with the greatest care so they age well over time. I have no crazed delusions that by this folly I’ll gain fame, my goal is purely “pleasure” for those minds that might partake. My one great hope is when they are through and we find we both agree they will raise a hearty toast to this, the earthy brew I‘ve made.

There I’ve done it. I have created litra-ture. As I look at the finished piece I am amazed that it in no way resembles the initial thoughts that I put to paper. It evolved as I tried different words, ideas, and similes in search of the perfect feel to make my point. This process was described by Virginia Woolf “the essay… can be polished till every atom of its surface shines, there are dangers in that too.” Too much polish can lead to as she stated, “…grapes on a Christmas tree, that glitter for a single night but are dusty the day after.” You have to know when to stop and on that point I am afraid that I didn’t heed her advice in this attempt.

I don’t know that my essay will reach the level of pleasure that Woolf and others referred to, beyond my own pleasure in writing it, but the critiques I received from my fellow students have been encouraging. The one recurring theme in the reviews though has been “creative” which may just be a metaphor for “Interesting.”

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