This is really weird to me because I feel like one of the least mature people I know now. Endless queer youth, second puberty, refusing to settle down, all that stuff. And part of the way I’ve fashioned myself is very 1992, black eyeliner and plum lipstick but messy, all my heels could be called chunky. In 1992 as I was learning about math or something and being very serious, also in the world Kate Bornstein was performing her early plays and getting ready to publish Gender Outlaw, the Young British Artists had that show where they were called the Young British Artists and Tracey Emin dirtied a bed, Bratmobile was performing for the first time the songs that would be on Pottymouth—all these things were happening that would be formative to me later but of which I was ignorant at the time.
Of those things that would become formative Susan Sontag should be included, who was then entering year three of her relationship with Annie Leibovitz, and was continuing to think and write about photography and about AIDS, a strand of thought that roughly began in 1967 when she astutely wrote that “the white race is the cancer of human history,” then apologized to cancer patients for making that association and became critical of using human illness as a metaphor. And of course she was doing all of this with the kind of beautiful clarity of prose that gets me every time.
So when I looked at the list of past Best American Essays, reading Susan Sontag’s 1992-in-essays seemed instructive. She was queer and thought about art and she loved essays, and she had a lot of politics with which I agree, and she also fucked up all the time and said things I find problematic, just as I also am queer (or whatever) and think about art and love essays and fuck up all the time and say things that I later find problematic. How was Susan Sontag thinking about the essay in that year that weirdly matters to me? I really wanted to know.
The essays that compose the anthology could be roughly divided into two camps. There are a number of wonderful pieces appearing in their early forms, and which would later become standards in the writing classroom—Anne Carson from Short Talks, Jamaica Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Wayne Koestenbaum (apparently before he realized the royal fellatio pun) with an essay called “Opera and Homosexuality,” and George W. S. Trow’s “Need.” These essays (and a couple of others), each inventive and challenging and engaging in their own weird ways, keep company with a larger number of essays that are, frankly, really boring.
Boring maybe doesn’t do it right. Stuffy? Uptight? Prim? Staid? Conservative? Straitlaced? Square? Something along those lines, and in such measure that I honestly couldn’t bring myself to read all of them. They could have been written whenever. They are essays often of American political history or European literary traditions. Thinking of Hamlet, Philip Fisher instructs us “The German word for tragedy, Trauerspiel, places mourning (Trauen) at the heart of what our word tragedy only notices as an incident of a certain time.” This etymological yawn comes after another essay that makes great use of Hamlet. Gone with the Wind likewise receives a full essay devoted to its analysis as well as mention elsewhere. There’s an essay on pornography and the concept of liberty that managed to bore me out of it and into just streaming pornography instead, as well as a really god-awful essay on “political correctness” and self-help books in which “however vociferously and disingenuously the militants themselves continue to deny it, the teaching of the humanities has largely been hijacked, replaced by the factitious cant of deconstructionism and Third World apologetics, or, as its proponents, with their flawlessly tin ears, prefer to call it these days, “postcoloniality.” This ridiculousness is as abhorrent as the shit breakdown of gender and the shittier breakdown of race, and then there are two essays by John Updike, each of which originally appeared in Art & Antiques.
What the hell, Susan Sontag?
There are many reasons that I actively work against my own tendency toward nostalgia, the tendency that makes me at times daydream of the early 1990s as a sort of queer political uchronia instead of the actual, messy, fucked up political time-space that it was. One of them is the simple fact that nostalgia in this way prevents us from seeing the past for what it was, or as accurately for what it was as is possible with the divide of time. That has always been clear enough to me. But the other reason, which took me considerably longer to understand, is that nostalgia for the past further prevents us from developing the literary/political/survival tools that are necessary for the present. This artwork says it all more clearly than I can.
The easier thing would be to discount some of the anthology and celebrate the parts of it that I want to celebrate, but this is a disservice, like when we call something a hybrid rather than letting all of its components exist as a contradictory whole. “The space between an idea of something and its reality is always wide and dark and deep,” Kincaid reminds us in her essay, and sure, I’m happy to read a handful of those boring essays if it leads me to revisit Kincaid’s. I turned again to Sontag’s introduction after finishing the collection and was struck by the fact that it repeats many of the same things every other introduction states, those things I heard in classrooms most often. “The word essay comes from the French essai, attempt—and many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking,” she writes.
What future does this past offer us? This is a question I often ask myself. I’ve written that same sentence on this blog before. If we allow nostalgia to enter, if we approach the anthology as I did, oh, Sontag! yay!, the lessons falter. This is five years after Borderlands was first released, just a moment before Trenchtown Rock, fifteen years since Sontag herself opened an essay “The more that places, customs, the circumstances of adventures are changed, the more we see that we amidst them are unchanging.” If the essay is so invested in the world and in history, as so many writers in this collection claim, then there’s really no excuse for the most boring of these essays, talking endlessly about Hamlet, essays where boring doesn’t just mean boring but instead limited, instead conservative, instead stifling, instead damaging. Including Anne Carson doesn’t remedy this, it just shows that our flaws and our insights can be of the same thinking.
What future does this past offer us? Are we doing any better today? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe that most anthologies, academies, or publishers are significantly more attuned to the most interesting and vital ideas in essay-world today than Sontag was then (maybe catching a thing here or there, but missing most of it, and most of it that matters to our time). I’m talking about form and politics here, material realities and aesthetics, all of that.
There is this, however—that the biographical notes open “Anne Carson is a professor of ancient Greek and Latin at McGill University in Montreal. She is currently working on a volume of essays entitled I Can Swim Like the Others: Three Essays in the Anthropology of Water and is also training to paint volcanoes. Her book Short Talks is to be published by Brick in 1992.” I still have trouble shaking nostalgia sometimes, but at the very least I can direct it away from simple praise and toward something like a uchronia of mistakes, the reminder that seeing the failures of the past means that we have no excuse for repeating those errors today. I love the hell out of some Anne Carson, and even she had to learn to edit herself down to what really matters, had to learn to paint.
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty, and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay. They are a Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM and a Visiting Writer at Columbia College Chicago. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow them on Instagram @tclutchy.