change all to first person
I could entitle this He Wrote a lot of Essays in University; or The Misanthrope Me Speaks of the College Student Himself, but I will not. To title is a form of entitlement, something the author gives to the text? What am I entitled to here or elsewhere in any text over which I have command? That is what authorship is, as I have read, as I have written about, over which I have spent so many words. To say in the title–all titles say something and do set certain limits of entitlement, what is it that can be said about the text, what is in the text, what the limits of the text are . . . these cannot all be answered by what the title entitles but the entitlement of the titling by the author does point to boundaries either explicit or implicit where these questions arise.
He spent a long and protracted university career as a student writing essays about literature. He wrote essays in philosophy courses too; essays in political science classes as well, and in sociology courses, and in the history classes he was taking when he thought he was going to major in history. He changed his major many times, acquiring dual majors or many minors in the process. He had also imagined a degree in philosophy and political science, but to no avail–literature won.
He wrote essays in comparative literature and art history courses as well. Professional student was the goal rather than be an out of work professional–no? He was not going to be a bum, no matter how many in his working class neighborhood had already concluded he was the relevant deadly sin incarnate. The whole how sweet it is to do nothing thing was theme in variation with tune in and drop out which was not very far from his heart or his time. There was a close affinity between what tune in and drop out meant and what Christ had preached when he said, be in the world, not of it.
Critical essays are what you write when you are a literature major; critical and interpretive essays, maybe the two of them separate, but perhaps not. One or the other was always the goal for you. “Thesis driven essays were what we were taught to deliver in freshman composition courses,” you say. And this was honed through repeated practice in every advanced course he took in college, you say. He had two very good professors for both levels as an undergraduate, you add. He thanked them then. He has thanked them in mind recurrently over time; he thanks them again now. “Of course I do because I should, if only for helping me to fix what was wrong, what was very wrong with my writing, if what I regurgitated on the page could be called writing. It was awful,” you say he said.
“I eventually became an English major in university, on a return trip to college–yes we like to call it college, except some people from other cultures get confused by what we in the States mean by college, so I defer and sometimes say university. I had come and gone to college a couple of times before my last trip finished up what I was supposed to have completed on earlier excursions through university. Since my days in university, I have had an affinity for all forms of essay writing, the kind of writing we did the most often–even letter writing is kind of essay (and I did write letters; I had even acquired stationary, nib pens and ink wells)–the journal entry may or may not be an essay, or could be a kind of essay style or form in the making if it were persistently crafted, we like to say. I hate the word craft–I have always preferred art to craft.
Critically interpretive essays on literature were frequently practiced by any English major in any university. I cannot say this in the present tense. I have the suspicion that writing is waning in universities across America. We were expected to perform these in a manner consistent with the professor’s guidelines; there has never been a satisfactory definition of the form. Informative biographical essays were also engaged; bibliographic essays too were written; and the personal essay as well. I recall in my freshman comp 2 class, the lecturer, a grad student, had us read a number of essays by several practitioners, and we were to write essays on the the essays, perhaps as a mirroring exercise.” To write a critically interpretive essay on an essay that was in the form of the personal essay, somewhat of an inheritance from Montaigne, was from Bacon? from whom, really, when the form, essay, has had no satisfactory definition. It has always been, an essay in the style of Montaigne, of Bacon, of Emerseon, of Addison, of Steele, two proponents of the essay form he had an affinity for when he was thinking that the 18th century was going to be his century of concentration . . . it did not become that. He had this for the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 17th century, the 19th, British and then American, and so on, back and forth, and kind of tidal dynamic of changing my mind.
“Commentary, whether political, social, historical, or cultural, was also engaged by me, at first in my journals, which I kept copiously; I have perhaps more than 10,000 pages of what might amount to journals, but what I call notebooks because they also contain class notes and notes from readings–I then kept separate journals of readings, a nightly discussion on paper with what I had read that day for my classes or what I had been reading and what connections I could make and perhaps what papers could be written, and then were written in the notebook. My notebooks also included sketches of poems and stories and the commentary I would engage on them, where they were going, from where they had come, how they were progressing, what influences I recognized or had in mind consciously. Yes, I also kept commentary on texts read in courses in a separate notebook, the journal of readings, only these commentaries were not the journal entries in themselves a different style, but were a lot like the commentaries in Talmud, or as I used to say. But then Talmud has a lot of similarities and parallels for the kind of literary criticism as it was still practiced when I was an undergraduate, a style we had adopted from what was called the New Criticism, which is now an old critical approach, almost a hundred years old, which might frighten me if I allowed myself to think about the passage of time–yes, I do fear dying,” he said. How does one not see the Truth in traditions not his own, he used to wonder about, aloud or inbound in his notebooks, in the essays he wrote, how much of contemporary intentions from diversity were better handled by him when he was required to be more literate and much more if not better informed, of course, he thinks, has said, will say again. I agree.
“There were many personal or critical essays written by me that I disseminated by hand among my group or groups, sometimes making several copies to distribute. What used to be called the literary essay was a model in a matter of style I used to convey any one of the former mentioned essays, and was proud to acquire a degree of expertise recognized by professors and peers. What any of this means to anyone else I will not speculate. Every one of us who writes an essay for dissemination understands that we do not write for anyone but those who understand already–most of us are preaching to the choir; but I cannot help but imagine that I am also writing especially for those who never will understand. In between these extremes I hope to persuade or entertain or inform or elevate (I am hopeful, really) some of those who might not be inclined to be any of the formerly mentioned intentions, hopes, aspirations–can I elevate anyone?”
Every preacher preaches to the choir in every sermon, but that’s what call and response needs, the coir leading the congregation; but that preacher preaching to the choir is also preaching to the congregation who believes, the congregation that doubts, the congregation that has fears, has troubles, has crisis. The preacher also hopes to get the apostate in the church who might only be there because the woman he fancies in his bed goes to church on Sundays.
What more do you want me to say about him, about his having written a lot of essays in university, what we call college here in the States–I knew a Canadian chick who called it University, what we refer to as college. I know Russians who are confused by the synonymity of the two in English–but Russians are generally confused by a lot. I used to say that if five Russians who had never seen a door were put in an unlocked room and five chimpanzees were put in another room with a locked door that could be turned from inside, the chimpanzees would get out of the locked room before the Russians would get out of the unlocked room. I didn’t like Russians–I do not make any apologies for this. In fact, Russians do not like Russians–why should I? This is not something he would say, but is what I would say, and I wonder what it would be like if this existed in one person, of course, without schizophrenia, which is not something too many people understand enough not to use malignantly in their observations or understandings. There would only be a literary schizophrenia and not a clinical one, anyway, if it were to appear at all. But this two in one is what I had observed of Hamlet being both Orestes and Electra in Sophocles Electra, the play closest to Shakespeare’s Hamlet of any play from anywhere prior to Shake’s scene.
I do not want to hear anything from Russians about racist attitudes towards Russians because it is not racist but political. The Totalitarian mind -fuck they have experienced is like they have all been victims of repeated mental rape; the rape chambers of Bosnia, only of the mind, in the mind, by the mind of totalitarian brutality that every Russian openly or secretly respects because in matters of democracy and social order, a Russian or Russian speaker is no better than a chimp. You want to know why the Russians have Putin? Because they want him. We live under a totalitarian capitalist tyranny
Am I going to say something about the origins of the essay form, the development of the essay form, the practitioners of the essay form as we have understood and inferred having come from Montaigne? No. Not maybe; no.
Are there readers patient enough to read well, which means to read deeply? Literacy can only exist where there is literature. Being able to spell is not what I call literacy; alphabetics, maybe, but not literacy. Literature–the literary endeavor in writing–requires more than being able to spell, or to know what to do with your commas. Not everything written is literature, qualifies as such—how could it? You might ask. He has asked rhetorically. I have asked epistemologically, a Socratic exercise in the limits of knowledge, what is knowable or known. I, you, he.
You ask too many questions even when you say nothing. He does as well; so do I. They’re always there, hovering in pauses. Waiting like Nemesis. Not out of arrogance or condescension do I scoff at many on the reading lists in Public School—not everything mind you, but a lot. You think the first people to be shot in any revolution should be the school teachers, but that would be a mistake; revolutions need teachers, especially wherever teaching has become adjunct to the the bureaucracy, where teachers are bureaucrats. You would not want to know how many school teachers and women came out en masse and voted for the Nazis Party in 1933.