Top Leaderboard, Site wide
August 29, 2014
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
Help us grow by sharing
and liking Truthdig:
Sign up for Truthdig's Email NewsletterLike Truthdig on FacebookFollow Truthdig on TwitterSubscribe to Truthdig's RSS Feed

Newsletter

sign up to get updates


Europe’s Warming Raises Tropical Disease Risk






Truthdig Bazaar
God Is Back

God Is Back

by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
$18.45

more items

 
Arts and Culture

Cristina Nehring on What’s Wrong With the American Essay

Email this item Email    Print this item Print    Share this item... Share

Posted on Nov 29, 2007
Essay Book Cover

By Cristina Nehring

(Page 2)

Although Michel de Montaigne, who fathered the modern essay in the 16th century, wrote autobiographically (like the essayists who claim to be his followers today), his autobiography was always in the service of larger existential discoveries. He was forever on the lookout for life lessons. If he recounted the sauces he had for dinner and the stones that weighted his kidney, it was to find an element of truth that we could put in our pockets and carry away, that he could put in his own pocket. After all, Philosophy—which is what he thought he practiced in his essays, as had his idols, Seneca and Cicero, before him—is about “learning to live.” And here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition. It is as though they were unthinking stenographers—“recording secretaries,” as indeed the most self-conscious 20th-century essayist, E.B. White, called them—pedantically taking down their own experience simply because it is their own.

The problem, of course, is not merely our essayists; it’s our culture. We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke. “Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne’s by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter.

“The next best thing to a good sermon is a bad sermon,” said Montaigne’s follower and admirer, the first American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a good sermon we hear our own “discarded thoughts brought back to us by the trumpets of the last judgment,” in the words of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In a bad sermon we formulate those thoughts ourselves—through the practice of creative disagreement. If an author tells us “love is nothing but jealousy” and we disagree, it is far more likely we will come up with our own theory of love than if we hear a simple autobiographical account of the author’s life. It is hard to argue with someone’s childhood memory—and probably inadvisable. It is with ideas that we can argue, with ideas that we can engage. And this is what the essayist ought to offer: ideas.

In our own day the essay is an apologetic imitation of the short story. Like the short story, it tells a tale. Unlike the short story, it usually does not tell a very interesting tale—after all, this is nonfiction, so the bar for excitement is set lower. But speaking historically, the essay is not just a duller and tamer form of short fiction. It is in a different business altogether—and it should be. The work of the greatest essayists, past and present, is replete not with anecdotes, not with narratives, so much as with hypotheses; it is replete with bold theories, muscular maxims, portable inspiration. This is the very tradition that Montaigne himself drew upon. For much of his life Montaigne was known as “the French Seneca”—and not by accident: He modeled his essays after the thoughtful, feisty, pragmatic letters of that Roman writer and statesman. And Seneca, like Montaigne, like Francis Bacon, like Samuel Johnson, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, like Henry David Thoreau, was in the business of learning—and in the process of showing others—how to live and die. “Philosophy is good advice,” writes Seneca, before proceeding to mock the scholars of his own age who (precisely like those of ours) spend their time playing word games and toying with their navels. “I should like those subtle thinkers ... to teach me this, what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used. It makes one ashamed,” he declares, “that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this into a game.”

There was a feeling of urgency in Seneca’s prose—as there is in the prose of all the great essayists after him: “You are called in to help the unhappy,” he reminds his fellow intellectuals. “Where are you off to? The person you are engaging in word play with is in fear.” Seneca himself was in fear for much of his days; like every honest essayist-philosopher, he needed all the good advice he could give himself. After a life of political intrigue, success and persecution, he was asked to commit suicide by the emperor Nero, and he did—slowly slashing his wrists, then his ankles, then his knee interiors, before taking poison and ultimately climbing into a steam bath to drain his aged blood, which refused, stubbornly, to flow from his veins. He was, in some sense, prepared: His essays had proposed many ways to combat the fear of death, if not the pain of it: “A lamp,” he had wagered, is not “worse off when it [is] put out than it was before it was lit. ... Wouldn’t you think a man a prize fool if he burst into tears because he didn’t live 1,000 years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn’t going to exist 1,000 years from now.” A good point—and, it appears from Seneca’s own biography, a useful one.


New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

By hetzer, September 21, 2008 at 6:22 pm Link to this comment

One of the reasons for the decline of the essay is that we are now in the clutches of a religion called scientism.  Nothing can be accepted unless it can be proven.  Intellectual play and enjoyment is always suspect.  Worst of all, folk wisdom is considered trite or juvenile because it is only situational and can not be applied to all cases.  We have a phony argument between religionists and scientism which dwells on endless trivialities and occupies too much of everyone’s time.

Report this

By Deirdre Maultsaid, September 21, 2008 at 12:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My essays sometimes struggle to find markets, but I thought this was because they are arguments, polemics, attacks on social trends, commentaries on womens’ lives as relevant as I can make them. They better not be “miniaturist” and “narcissistic”. I am a Canadian writer with intellectual aspirations. Why not? Cristina Nehring says, “life is short”.

Report this
Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, September 10, 2008 at 6:02 am Link to this comment

It has been fun going back over this almost a year old article, for it is really timeless in content.  Sadly some of the posters have not been seen for awhile.  Empty void of Politics has overshadowed some of our lives.

Report this

By Norman MacInnis, September 9, 2008 at 8:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I write poems to organize my feelings.
When there is organization of these elements I am free to act.

In elementary school, I was taught that an essay was used to express the points of an argument or point of view.

In my view, an essay is not a story of one’s experience.
It is the attempt to improve the experience of life, the life of all.

Thank You,
One Love

Report this

By John Hanks, December 13, 2007 at 6:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Here is a topic:  Anger is exhausting.  Hatred is sublime.

Report this

By Holmes, December 13, 2007 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think this essay also explains the infuriating popularity of Fox News.  They’re either lying or lame-brained, but they are surely bold in their “fair and balanced” proclamations.

Report this

By Quest, December 12, 2007 at 8:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Maybe this explains why I can’t get published—a plague of miniaturists (small minds) infests the realms of publishing & media.

Report this

By John Hanks, December 7, 2007 at 5:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think that academia turns us into perfectionistic cowards.  I wish we could have some Emersonian essays on “hatred” or “pandering” or some general theme.

Report this

By sanskritic, December 7, 2007 at 12:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a timely piece—I usually read most of each BAE when it comes out.  Relevant to Nehring’s point is an essay in the 200 edition—about the N-word.  The author spent so much time trying to neutralize her own horror at the racism she herself encountered and described in her essay that I was left wondering what compelled her to apologize (to whom?) so much. 

Nehring makes that quite clear here—the current/need to domesticate any real issue into a cud-chewing, navel-gazing puff piece because it would be intellectual and academic suicide not to do so.  Sacred cows are boring.

Report this

By Erik Bloom, December 5, 2007 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I want to contratulate Ms. Nehring and thank her with all my often dispirited heart. I hope she reads this for that simple reason. Truly strong essays are more than timely, precisely because they penetrate as well as record “what is past, or passing, or to come.” They see through and therefore see more clearly. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine a more timely essay than this one. How much more urgency would we need to press upon us from all sides before being allowed to write with gravity and pointed wit, before we’d stop dressing our poodles while Rome burns - or melts or floods or goes bankrupt. My God, no wonder our pets are anxious and depressed! I used to say thank God for Stewart and Colbert but now the writers are on strike and we’re left in a closing vice between bland inanity and brute vitriol, inarticule ranters and sleepy cud-chewers. So today I’ll write thank God for Ms. Nehring.

Erik Bloom
Baltimore, MD

Report this

By CHAD J ROBERTS, December 4, 2007 at 5:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think I wrote an essay in high school.  God, what happened, I would like to see everyone in America to write an essay on a great American.  Most wouldn’t know where to start, most wouldn’t bother.  Essays are something you get when researching someone or thing, not something most would write.  There is the problem.  I myself was looking for a copy of 1984 and couldn’t find it.  Got scared.

Report this

By Verne Arnold, December 3, 2007 at 5:44 am Link to this comment

#117535 by homovivens on 12/02 at 11:38 am
(8 comments total)
#117480 by Verne Arnold on 12/02 at 3:02 am
Dear Verne Arnold,
Excuse me while I get past the subtle distraction of your having two first names – California’s all about “Arnold” signifying “first.” However, the Governator’s narcissism is of another kind and degree than what Nehring brings to the essayist.

LOL, no problem.  Jules “Verne” and family name Arnold…a last name first name and a first/last name last name.  Humor was not lost on my parents. 

“To admit to knowing something with certitude does not preclude humility – “an attitude of honesty toward all reality” – which will readily further admit to the obvious truth that you and I don’t know a heck of a lot. Knowing some truths doesn’t make truth itself a static concept, as much remains unknown and questionable. And in getting to know the unknown, we may, at times and often but not always, need to reappraise what we have known previously.”

Agreed, for the moment.

“St. Francis of Assisi said, “Go out and preach the gospel to the whole world, and use words if necessary.””

No problem, agreed, even though I’m not Christian, I recognize we must use words for some communication where the non-verbal fails in the nether worlds of spirituality and philosophy.

“These are the fun questions on which turn profoundly practical realities.”

Yes, they are, aren’t they?

You stretch the bounds of my vocabulary, you make me work.  It’s been a long time.  Good on ya!

Report this

By optipessi mist, December 2, 2007 at 7:44 pm Link to this comment

Words are like crystals.  Turn them one way and they mean one thing.  Turn them another and they mean something else completely.  Maybe infinite nuance.

Those who share a language share a means for putting themselves into words.  What Ms. Nehring seems to say is—when an essayist writes she/he is writing from memory.  Memory as we know is a complicated thing.  While it may be a relative to truth it is not its twin.  Such is the human condition.—Go ahead Mr./Ms. essayist give us, “...any generalizable insight into the human condition.”  From the memory of your experience give us, “...an element of truth.”  We as the reader will take the good and leave the rest.

As Ms. Nehring reiterates, throughout her journal/essay or essay on essays, write something that, “...used to be called wisdom.”, and hope that it endures.

Post Script(PS)

They are not long, the days of wine and roses.

Ernest Dowson

Congratulations to you Ms. Nehring on your new book “A Vindication of Love:  Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century”

Report this

By TC, December 2, 2007 at 3:43 pm Link to this comment

“epistemology that embraces knowing gives one spine” - a point that is irrelevant if, as the publishing industry (etc) generally enforces, one’s focus is constrained to areas of knowledge that don’t rock the gunboat too much.

Report this

By homovivens, December 2, 2007 at 12:38 pm Link to this comment

#117480 by Verne Arnold on 12/02 at 3:02 am

Dear Verne Arnold,

Excuse me while I get past the subtle distraction of your having two first names – California’s all about “Arnold” signifying “first.” However, the Governator’s narcissism is of another kind and degree than what Nehring brings to the essayist.

Seriously, Cristina Nehring’s point is that an epistemology that embraces knowing gives one spine. The etiology of the essayists’ “cowardice and lack of passion” derives from an invertebrate epistemological point of view. To admit to knowing something with certitude does not preclude humility – “an attitude of honesty toward all reality” – which will readily further admit to the obvious truth that you and I don’t know a heck of a lot. Knowing some truths doesn’t make truth itself a static concept, as much remains unknown and questionable. And in getting to know the unknown, we may, at times and often but not always, need to reappraise what we have known previously.

When I say “epistemic nihilism,” I’m referring to Nietzsche who realized that to discard moral absolutes – moral knowing – was to embrace nihilism. And he did. “God is dead” gave birth to the Übermensch. The torch was passed to another kind of god – at least psychologically.

The great questions hang – like an upside-down question mark – on how we think about epistemology, the problem of good and evil, and the problem of the one and the many. Your reference to Eastern thought brings to mind how often the perceived differences between East and West are caricatured. You site an old Buddhist saying, “Those who speak don’t know and those who know don’t speak.” St. Francis of Assisi said, “Go out and preach the gospel to the whole world, and use words if necessary.”

These are the fun questions on which turn profoundly practical realities. Nehring points to one of the biggies – epistemology – and one of the places – essays – where how one wrestles with it shows itself in a body-slam to the soul.

Report this

By John Borowski, December 2, 2007 at 12:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I pledge allegiance to the Flag and to the FREEDOM DEMOCRACY for which it stands. What is the difference between a Republic and a Freedom Democracy? In a Freedom Democracy the indigenous people vote for the rulers of the country. In a republic, the super rich both from within and from without the country have the right to vote for the rulers of a country using the Electoral College as their front. (This is a group of sycophants representing the super rich) They will allow the Republicans (Aka Conservatives right wingers) their loyal supporters and the Democrats (Providing they swear on the bible that they will be no more than twenty five percent for the average American) to be elected. Any other political party has less chance of getting elected than the Communist Party. Can you see why I say voting is futile? Most of the super rich in this country represent the super rich from Great Britain and Europe.  The super rich in Great Britain and Europe are richer than the super rich in this country.  This is because they have a lead of filling up their piggy banks with ill-gotten gains for centuries. The super rich of this country have at most only two hundred years to do their thing.

Report this

By TC, December 2, 2007 at 11:27 am Link to this comment

There is no “our” as in “our…critics”. Who would be “their”? Who presumes to speak for whom?

The key problem with the typical dominant media essay is the key problem with all dominant media lit and art: ideology, and its accompanying forms of constraint and censorship, both conscious and unconscious. A status quo culture is not going to readily produce and highlight much progressive let alone revolutionary lit and other art, since it would be dysfuntional, to the status quo.

A vastly improved (far more progressive, let alone revolutionary) focus on the public realm in addition to that of the private is needed. The situation in works of fiction is far worse than it is in works of nonfiction (though whether or not this is borne out in “The Best of” series franchise is more or less beside the point). Progressives have developed better works (and sites, publications, and publishing houses) of nonfiction prose thus far than they have of fiction, by far.

Report this
Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, December 2, 2007 at 9:16 am Link to this comment

Why care, when we all have Plato’s Cave in our houses?

Report this

By Vasili, December 2, 2007 at 9:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Tough, bold and provocative strokes that clear away the brush.  Good-bye to the natterers!  Bravo Ms Nehring!

Report this

By John Borowski, December 2, 2007 at 6:24 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

KISS #117002 writes that she prefers non-fiction books over fiction books. When I was younger my preference was also non-fiction books over fiction books. The older I got the more I came to realize that non-fiction books and fiction books are the same. Today, science books by top scientists in this world will write that a mother can be twenty years old and her daughter can be forty years old. That a man can go through a brick wall without damage to the brick wall or to himself. One would think that this is fiction, but it is not. Advanced science will prove this is correct beyond a reasonably doubt, but it could take a hundred years to develop the proof. I now find that much of fiction is taken from an author’s personal experience in life and as a result it is really non-fiction.

Report this

By John Borowski, December 2, 2007 at 5:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

#117395 and # 117399 homovivens: I would like to argue about your dissertation. However, I’m not sure whether I agree with you or not.

Report this

By Verne Arnold, December 2, 2007 at 4:02 am Link to this comment

#117395 by homovivens on 12/01 at 2:43 pm
(Unregistered commenter)

Hmmm, I understood Ms. Nehring to be saying the modern essayist is cowardly and lacks passion. 
There is an old Buddhist saying, “Those who speak don’t know and those who know don’t speak.”  Certainly we must conduct our day to day lives “knowing” what we are about; it would be absurd to do otherwise.  However, philosophically, if we “believe” we know; then we doom ourselves to never looking further than what we think we know.  Truth is not a fixed point in anything.  … [”the cultural credo: “You can’t know anything for sure.”], is not epistemic nihilism; it is a call to question….everything.  If one is truly living; there is no place to lie down and rest, so to speak.
Your response to the Ms. Nehring’s “essay” brought a smile to my face as I wondered if you had your tongue somewhere in your cheek.

Report this

By homovivens, December 1, 2007 at 10:50 pm Link to this comment

Sorry for the accidental re-post. I add:

Cristina Nehring nimbley assays the essayists’ metal finding a deficiency of epistemological ingredient. Epistemic shrapnel and fragmentation betray earlier and ongoing mind-numbing philosophical battles yet to be won. She points us to the problem and awakened in me the genius of knowing and knowability.

Report this

By homovivens, December 1, 2007 at 3:57 pm Link to this comment

So many words. Nothing to say. And we keep on saying it. Our tongues hung in the middle and wagging at both ends (Saul Bellows)—the fitful spluttering of an idea that’s run out of gas by running on too much gas. And just as the globe was warming to its whirled pitch. An epistemic pandemic.

As a student of philosophy, I never bought into the cultural credo: “You can’t know anything for sure.” Aside from the fact that the idea is a self-referential inconsistency, something else about it was personally offensive, disturbing and repugnant. This epistemic nihilism precludes the aphorism, “know thyself”—attributed to no less than six Greek thinkers, given its putative significance—and thusly obliterates not only the possibility of my knowing myself but the very concept of self-confidence (L “fidere,” to trust or believe). This explains our naval fixations and the consequent array of cultural narcissisms. It is precisely self-knowledge that places one not only in a self, but outside oneself, in a world in proper relation to everything else—what I would call humility, “an attitude of honesty toward all reality.” (Basil Pennington)

It’s almost as if Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics shook not only the foundations of physics, but the psychology of metaphysics—intractable subatomic behavior matched by the perpetual emotion of an intransigent adolescence. What’s most miraculous, given quantum mechanics, is that solid objects are reliable at all—that despite subatomic upheaval, I can confidently sit on a chair and safely navigate my way up and down a ladder or around the block. That’s “totally awesome.” Pragmatically, the same should apply to thinking. We constantly act as though we know something about everything, and our knowing gets us around, quite efficiently. Our “thinking we know” works in our universe. Why toss it out? What’s the greater assumption, that we know or that we don’t know? Our behavior contradicts our claiming not to know. And our knowing that we don’t know contradicts the logic of our words.

Report this

By Wryan, December 1, 2007 at 3:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Here here!  I can see Norman Mailer shadowboxing in Heaven…

Report this

By homovivens, December 1, 2007 at 3:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So many words. Nothing to say. And we keep on saying it. Our tongues hung in the middle and wagging at both ends (Saul Bellows)—the fitful spluttering of an idea that’s run out of gas by running on too much gas. And just as the globe was warming to its whirled pitch. An epistemic pandemic.

As a student of philosophy, I never bought into the cultural credo: “You can’t know anything for sure.” Aside from the fact that the idea is a self-referential inconsistency, something else about it was personally offensive, disturbing and repugnant. This epistemic nihilism precludes the aphorism, “know thyself”—attributed to no less than six Greek thinkers, given its putative significance—and thusly obliterates not only the possibility of my knowing myself but the very concept of self-confidence (L “fidere,” to trust or believe). This explains our naval fixations and the consequent array of cultural narcissisms. It is precisely self-knowledge that places one not only in a self, but outside oneself, in a world in proper relation to everything else—what I would call humility, “an attitude of honesty toward all reality.” (Basil Pennington)

It’s almost as if Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics shook not only the foundations of physics, but of the psychology of metaphysics—intractable subatomic behavior matched by the perpetual emotion of an intransigent adolescence. What’s most miraculous, given quantum mechanics, is that solid objects are reliable at all—that despite subatomic upheaval, I can confidently sit on a chair and safely navigate my way up and down a ladder or around the block. That’s “totally awesome.” Pragmatically, the same should apply to thinking. We constantly act as though we know something about everything, and our knowing gets us around, quite efficiently. Our “thinking we know” works in our universe. Why toss it out? What’s the greater assumption, that we know or that we don’t know? Our behavior contradicts our claiming not to know. And our knowing that we don’t know contradicts the logic of our words.

Report this

By John Borowski, December 1, 2007 at 3:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How in god’s name can this world live in peace, when we commentators can’t do it? We should at least have our wars in peace.

Report this

By Shalom Freedman, December 1, 2007 at 10:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This essay is a hatchet- job. 
There are many outstanding essay- writers working today.
Allan Lightman writes about complex scientific subjects in a brilliant and tremendously interesting way. He is the rare kind of writer who really can communicate in both of C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’.
Another victim of Nehring’s unfairness is Joseph Epstein. Epstein has written insightful work on subjects such as ‘Friendship’ and ‘Envy’-not exactly itsy - bitsy teeny- weeny subjects.
Another great essay writer working today, one who combines biography with biology and brings us extraordinary insights into the human mind and character is Oliver Sacks.
There are many many more.
Sour grapes and collective accusation are a good recipe for attention- getting. Nehring is one - step up on having the world look at her coming book.

Report this

By Doug Seibold, December 1, 2007 at 9:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think this is an outstanding piece—the kind that should change the way all of us who participate in our literary culture look at this subject. Christina Nehring has done us exactly the kind of service we should all be looking for from the essay.

Report this

By Verne Arnold, December 1, 2007 at 5:11 am Link to this comment

Wow!  Now that’s a damning critique of the modern essay…a breath of fresh air.

Report this

By anti-bildungsroman, November 30, 2007 at 7:16 pm Link to this comment

What a relief! to have somebody say what, by now, has had to be said for SOME time! And with such brilliance and chutzpah! Magnificent essay!

Report this

By Santa Monica Dave, November 30, 2007 at 7:13 pm Link to this comment

Ms. Nehring’s thesis is a clarion call, reminding us of why we have come to Truthdig in the first place, and indeed, of what our work as sentient beings should be: to think for ourselves, to say what we think, and to seek inspiration in this work from the great minds who have gone before us.

Thank you, Truthdig, for publishing this brilliant and inspiring writer’s work.

Report this

By parisblues, November 30, 2007 at 6:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kudos to Cristina Nehring for taking a strong stand on behalf of boldness and big ideas. I now understand exactly why I so deeply despise NPR’s “This American Life.”

Report this

By Trevor, November 30, 2007 at 11:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Is it possible that the essay itself is not in trouble but rather only the traditional outlets for essays.  I’m going to hype blogging for a moment here, even while acknowledging its weaknesses (which includes the worst of navel-gazing).  Is it possible that the strong and brave new essayist have moved to this new medium but are not yet recognized as such because we still link the form with the old media (magazines and bound compilations)?  I don’t dsipute the author’s criticism of what is being labeled as essay, and whatever the truth about the strength or weakness of current writers I agree with what she feels the essay SHOULD do.  But perhaps it is time to simply ignore the dinosaurs and look at what the best blogs are doing and encourage them to follow the path of this tradition.

And if it does not yet exist, perhaps there is room for a blog (whether TDig, Hpost or elsewhere) that would bypass those conservative print editors and find the new Senecas, Montaignes and Emersons.

Report this

By James Charles, November 30, 2007 at 10:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No wonder my essays struggle to find a market.

For one thing, mine tend to be ironic and amusing and have nothing to do with feeding my pets or struggling to stay awake. Doting on my cat and dog, or having a lifelong love affair with baseball, or personally knowing some of the Jewish ancestors in my attic may all be necessary but definitely not sufficient reason in an editor’s mind to nod favourably at my submitted ramblings.

Perhaps I would be a more prominent essayist if, instead of a sardonic tone, my essays ruminated darkly on the ominous shadows that blackened my life from time to time. Or the series of adventures I endured on the couches of countless shrinks who, while not always helping me brighten my outlook, were able to give their children the finest private school educations in the land, thanks to my on-going, selfless generosity. I could do a whole series of essays on one shrink who concluded in 45 minutes that perhaps I would best be helped by checking into a pale blue suite at the Menninger.

The message in Christina Nehring’s article – I hate calling it an essay ‘lest she end up on the wrong side of the Literary Gods – is crystal clear. Despite American essays being in trouble, troubled and troubling, the solution may be in widening the circle of acceptable topics, tomes and tone that has inexplicably narrowed over the last few decades. There was a time in American (and, for that matter, world) literary circles when the essayist was revered, a counterpunch to long, turgid novels because they were able to shed light, make a point, possibly amuse and almost always enlighten readers.

If Dorothy Parker were alive today, she’d be dead from what has happened to an art form she practiced to perfection.

Report this

By George Wrisley, November 30, 2007 at 9:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

That was very refreshing.  For those who might be interested, Paul Boghossian’s short book Fear of Knowledge

http://www.amazon.com/Fear-Knowledge-Against-Relativism-Constructivism/dp/0199230412/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1196441370&sr=1-1

consists of a sustained critique of the idea that knowledge is socially/culturally constructed and that there are no TRUTHS.

Report this

By Roy Murtishaw, November 30, 2007 at 9:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It seems to me, pontification is the main broth that spoils the stew of most essays. Only on occassion did Molly Ivins wander into that territory and a few current essayist largely avoid the dreaded turf: Keillor, Morford,Gallagher.  However, Moyers is such an exceptional treasure I believe he can tread wherever he pleases.

Report this

By tomack, November 30, 2007 at 9:04 am Link to this comment

Nice essay.

Report this

By John Borowski, November 30, 2007 at 7:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is nothing in the Constitution that allows the Federal Reserve to operate legally. The Federal Reserve Act was unconstitutional, felonious, and treasonous from the first day of its existence. For every one hundred dollars deposited in the bank, they can legally turn it into one thousand dollars out of thin air. If you would put a hundred dollar bill in one end of a magical machine and a thousand dollar bill came out the other end you would be accomplishing the same thing that the banks do. However, their way of doing it is legal even though the Constitution says it is illegal. Your magical machine would be illegal and so too your thousand dollar bill even though it would be a perfect replica of a Federal Reserve thousand dollar bill. The Supreme Court would protect the banks way of doing it even though the Constitution says it is illegal and your way would put you in jail. Do you see why right-wing Bush says the Constitution is just a god-damn piece of paper? The way the banks do it seems like a nice way of doing it. For them it is, but for you it means the dollar in your pocket that was worth a dollar is now only has the spend ability of seventeen cents. Yes, Republican right wingers it not only the poor that is taking money out of your greedy pocket.

Report this

By bildungsroman, November 30, 2007 at 7:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Perhaps the BAE, a publication that imagines itself the authority on modern essays, is the wrong place to look for today’s Senecas and Montaignes. So far, the only publication I’ve found that consistently publishes essays with teeth and nails (and wit) is The Believer - there must be other publications out there besides the ageing BAE that are publishing quality essays. But as with anything of quality these days, it is only known to the few, never to the masses.

Report this

By BoDo, November 30, 2007 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Brava!  And the author’s comments can be applied to so many other aspects of our “culture” as well. It is heartening to see people finally standing up and speaking out against the self-centered nonsense of our current world. “How dare she ask these questions? Well, how dare she not!” It is our duty to ask those big questions, as thinking beings. Only the non-thinking can get away with the minuscule ones.

Report this

By KISS, November 30, 2007 at 6:42 am Link to this comment

How unique, as I have stopped reading laborious books and have taken up essays, up pops this essay. Essays should be one topic and that topic should be explored to the fullest. I prefer Non-fiction and I choose essays on the Internet with vigor, candid and verity. This isn’t always easy.
I chose this form of reading in that I have not the time to read the many books on the market nor the exorbitant prices of such. The Internet offers me the essays that I need and Truthdig has given me Scott Ridder, and Robert Scheer to name two fine essayists. And you, Cristina Nehring, have given me a great essay on essays. If only the Op-ED columns in newspapers would disengage in that drivel and return, instead, to essays, would we not all be better off? Like a good woman, good essays are hard to find.

Report this

By troublesum, November 30, 2007 at 6:41 am Link to this comment

Take Philip Lopate for another example.  The lead essay in one of his collections was on the subject of his penis (he gave a detailed description).  Talk about narcissism.  Evething you said could also be said about American poetry.

Report this
 
Right 1, Site wide - BlogAds Premium
 
Right 2, Site wide - Blogads
 
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
 
 
 
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
 
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
 

A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion   Publisher, Zuade Kaufman   Editor, Robert Scheer
© 2014 Truthdig, LLC. All rights reserved.