I am none of those who write of grand issues, who peek behind the scenes of our systems to diagnose and prescribe, whose important ideas change minds and hearts and lead to action. Thus I have been struggling with what I might write here, and now, mostly because I am a frivolous forty-something writer of no real consequence, a person who recognizes that, while I quite enjoy writing, and I am deeply grateful to live now and here in a time and place that allow me to earn a living not quite as a writer but as a teacher of writing, my essays serve very little purpose and affect very few lives and only in very small and temporary ways. In the introduction to The Best American Essays 1997, Ian Frazier wrote that one of his favorite essays is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (“an essay from [King] was above all an action—from the anger and sense of injustice that impelled it, through the disciplined prose with which it meant to tear injustice down”). Mine, though it’s predictably impossible to choose, might be Charles Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve,” in which the forty-something writer foresees his own nonexistence and cowers, pining at length for the pleasures of life he will then miss: “sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests…” Unlike many of his contemporaries, who celebrate the new start afforded by the new year, Lamb claims,
I am none of those who—Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties; new books, new faces, new years,—from some mental twist which makes it difficult in me to face the prospective.
Which phrase inspired this essay’s opening. So that’s a little essay-referential game I play with myself when I’m writing, to no benefit whatsoever other than my own amusement.
I am also a middle-aged, middle-class, religious white male, nearly all of the demographical categories who recently slayed my vision of progress by electing the most spectacularly dangerously unqualified person imaginable to “lead” our country. I don’t know what to do. It has been my belief that even writing his name was a perilous act, because in the digital age the old adage “any publicity is good publicity” is multiplied tenfold, given the amoral algorithms crawling the ether to determine and reproduce what is popular, with no care whether it be for good or ill. So, with Lamb, and with many of my friends, I look with dread upon the coming new year. I would like to believe in “moral evolution” as my dear friend Brian Doyle believes, and yet this event has come as such a blow.
Nearly two hundred years ago, soon after Lamb wrote his new-year’s reflections, William Hazlitt, upon noticing and deciding not to kill a spider, launched his most enduring (and least endearing) essay, “On the Pleasure of Hating.” His thesis states that “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” suggesting that though we may learn to keep our gut reactions in check, we remain, at core, tribal and reactionary, responding to deep urges that betray our noble public personas. Perhaps ingeniously, but almost certainly ingenuously, Hazlitt provides a prescription: “It will ask another hundred years of fine writing and hard thinking to cure us of the prejudice and make us feel towards this ill-omened tribe with something of ‘the milk of human kindness,’ instead of their own shyness and venom.” In the past, Hazlitt was always talking about spiders here, but when I read the essay again for the umpteenth time a pair of weeks ago, I felt I suddenly understood that he was talking about how we treat one another. Certainly that’s what the rest of the essay is about, so it makes perfect sense. But I asked myself: Did he truly believe that fine writing and hard thinking could cure us of our prejudices? Haven’t I often preached that reading and writing essays can make us better people, more empathetic, more compassionate and kind? Of course, with his “hundred years” prediction, he’s way off, though I wonder if he’s right in spirit, or for a smaller “us” to be cured.
As this essay occupies a spot in the Essay Daily Advent Calendar, I would be remiss not to at least try to make a metaphorical connection. I will do this not with a nod to the liturgical year, but with a sidestep to Joan Didion’s borrowing/reimagining of W. B. Yeats’s apocalyptic-adventish poem, “The Second Coming,” which asks “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” As with so much prophesy, we find its fulfillment always. In 1967, Didion felt its lines “reverberat[ing] in [her] inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.” She says, “The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been…the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.” Read the opening of her essay, with its bankruptcies and casual killings and disappearances and children never to learn “the games that had held society together,” and you might think she’d seen our day. Perhaps she had. She surely sees it now. Or perhaps she sees the inevitable entropic result of all she saw fifty years ago, an “atomization” which, she says, left her “paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act.”
The conviction that writing was an irrelevant act. And this was Joan Didion! What hope is there for the rest of us writers?
This past summer, when the current political reality seemed only a bizarre, inappropriate joke, I spoke at length with my dear friend Mary Cappello, whose compassion and wisdom are unmatched. We were recording our conversation for later transcription and editing into a Fourth Genre “inter-review.” I felt (we both felt) that the turns and meanders, the profundities and expansions, were edifying and inspiring in ways few conversations are. We looked forward to sharing the highlights. But we discovered that the electronic recording had failed, leaving a corrupt file that captured only the last half hour of what had been a two-and-a-half hour discussion. We were disappointed, of course, deflated even, realizing that there would be no record for others and only summary-in-memory for ourselves. We spoke again a week later, via Skype, with backup recorders on both ends, and this new conversation (also edifying, but differently so) will appear in print soon, but that first one resounded only in its moment and was muffled into the background almost as soon as its sound waves were troubled.
In writing this essay, hoping for some inspiration about what to do, wanting writing to be a relevant act, I recalled that one of the topics Mary and I touched on in that first conversation was the value of writing like ours: essays published in small-circulation journals and later in university-press books, literary think pieces that meander and apprehend a menagerie of ideas toward inconclusiveness. I had mentioned to Mary the lament I began this essay with, that I am a frivolous writer who admires but cannot seem to write culturally conscious and –active essays, like Martin Luther King’s, which approach social ills head on and, with power and grace, signal a way forward.
To my great joy, I found that Mary’s response begins exactly where the recording became coherent for a half hour. This is what she said:
Do our books not tackle social issues? Not head on. That doesn’t mean that they don’t contribute to changing the landscape from which social issues emerge. … If [a book is] going to help a reader to think and respond with you in concert, you’re modeling a different kind of response to being in the world. This is what writers do. That’s what I want in great writing.
If that man had a different surround sound, would he have been encouraged buy a gun? And the people who trampled the guard at WalMart: they all must have been tuned in to the same station. All it takes is trying to listen differently, being encouraged to listen differently. What is it we do if not ask people to try to listen differently?
Although I’ve known about, read from, and written for this site for years, just now, for the first time, I am hearing its name, “Essay Daily,” as a command or at least suggestion, like the exhortation at the end of Mass: “Go forth to love and serve the Lord and each other.”
Patrick Madden is the author of two essay collections, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates www.quotidiana.org and, with David Lazar, edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. A Fulbright and Howard Foundation fellow, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.