“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)
In the Babylonian “Dialogue of Pessimism,” c. 1000 BCE, a master suggests an activity to his slave, the slave heartily agrees, the master changes his mind, and the slave again agrees. This pattern repeats itself in nine dialogues, with a shift in the tenth and last. While “Dialogue of Pessimism” may seem to be a dialogue between master and slave, then, it is in fact a dialogue between the master and himself. Every idea the master has is echoed by the slave in such a way that, except in the final section, the master changes his mind. This is why “Dialogue of Pessimism” is such a pleasing example of the essay to those of us working in the form today: because it shows a mind in conversation with itself, a mind whose two opposing ideas must jockey for preeminence.
An anachronistic interpretation might even take “Dialogue of Pessimism” for a parable about writing: the slave is the master’s page, reflecting back his every whim with unexpected force and vigor. The slave’s echo instigates the master’s doubt, just as the act of writing so often results in changing one’s mind. The successful essay will capture this mind-change in print, as “Dialogue of Pessimism” does.
The dialogue thus takes place also between master-and-slave and master-and-slave: for example between “I feel like causing some trouble, what do you say?” “I like the sound of that, sir. By all means, let’s wreak some havoc!” and its opposite, “But evildoing’s not very proper, is it?” “Well they either end up killed, or flayed alive and blinded … no, it’s really not worth doing” (section five). And the pleasure of this doubled or tripled dialogue—master/slave, master/master, or master-slave/master-slave—the way it becomes a dialogue between dialogues, at once all and none of these possibilities—is where my real excitement about this essay lies.
Often when we think of nonfiction—I use the term deliberately here to mean that which resists falsehood—we think of a search for stable meaning. Certainly when I was in college, writing an undergraduate thesis about how autobiographical fiction would always make better autobiography than earnest nonfiction, this was how I perceived it. Static meaning, I knew, was impossible, and antithetical to the act of writing itself. Putting words into print may seem to freeze them for perpetuity, but in fact their meaning will change infinitely over time—so the very idea of nonfiction, as I then understood it, was founded on the fundamental falsehood that one’s intended meaning might be fixed permanently to the page.
Later, I’d encounter in Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of monologism and dialogism another expression of what I took to be the same idea: the multiply-voiced novel, precisely because it avoided the authority of a single voice or view, could approach truth more effectively than the story that used a single voice or vision throughout. I continued to believe that, by refusing to moralize or deduce explicit meaning from its own story, fiction could come closer to truth than nonfiction could. But Bakhtin’s framing of the matter helped me understand that old idea in a new way. Now, I understood that there were two types of fiction, monologic and polyphonic, and in my mind these categories corresponded to two types of meaning-making: static writing, which aimed to present a unified, unchanging meaning; and dynamic writing, where any meaning lay in the tension between a multiplicity of voices—somewhere off the page, in the mind of the reader.
What now seems so obvious—that nonfiction, too, can be categorized this way—didn’t occur to me until sometime around my first encounter with “Dialogue of Pessimism.” Here, as in the ideal of the dynamic novel, the essay’s meaning lies between its voices. Even better, the in-between space, like the voices themselves, refuses to be easily defined. Does the essay’s central tension—the thing that holds it together and keeps us reading on—lie between the master and slave, or between the master and himself? Is the slave’s response to the master a true reply, or only a kind of crescendo? Do the demarcations of “master” and “slave” even make sense here, when with his words the slave seems to exert such power over poor, suggestible mister master?
These instabilities delight me in a way that I once believed only fiction could. And though it’s probably important to note that this essay would not have been composed as or interpreted as “nonfiction” in its day, its truth-seeking is clear from both the aphoristic nature of its content (“He who has children secures his name in the future”; “He who starts a family ends up ruining his house”) and the punch of its conclusion. That tenth section’s break with the essay’s established pattern and its final words—“You agree with me, then? Lower your neck for me, slave, and I’ll put us both out of our miseries”; “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. But may I first say, sir: I am not as miserable as you”—suggest some moral, or meaning, to the dance of absurdity that has brought the reader to this point. Unlike in the previous sections, here the master sticks to his original idea, even after hearing the slave’s reply, and the slave achieves the direct impudence that his heightened repetitions of the master’s ideas have been threatening all along. Our contemporary reading of this as an essay is justified, then, even if no discrete meaning, in these final lines, can be named. Even if—as in all good literature—the essay’s meaning is left to interpretation.
The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is one sometimes structured around action and reflection: the action of fiction which, taken alone, offers no definite meaning, versus the reflection of nonfiction, which interprets and so makes seemingly definite meaning of the actions it observes. Just as dialogue is a form of action, though, in which two characters appease, conspire, or contend with each other, so too is reflection a kind of action, as unstable and open to interpretation as any struggle between selves. The best essays, like “Dialogue of Pessimism,” will enact this uneasy work of reflection, perhaps the most common and most human act of all.
All quotations from Emily Dimasi’s translation of “Dialogue of Pessimism” by Ennatum of Akkad, published in John D’Agata’s Lost Origins of the Essay, Graywolf Press, 2009.
Helen Rubinstein is an MFA student at the University of Iowa.