July 20, 2021

"Jack and Ben both love to look at and talk about and think about—and, yes, gratuitously touch—what they refer to as their 'dicks.'"

"Here, American navel-gazing has slipped a few inches and landed at the crotch. Both men toss out humor and insight just before jumping gleefully off one or another high moral cliff. Other writer-actor types have played the upper-middle-class intellectual as a kind of sheepish hero, all the while hiding, or prettifying, or justifying the dark interiors that often accompany that seemingly benign performance. Shawn turns this kind of character inside out and shows the demon within, then offers a tour of the kind of hell he can create."

I'm reading The New Yorker: "The Class Distinctions of Wallace Shawn/In new podcast versions of his plays 'The Designated Mourner' and 'Grasses of a Thousand Colors,' Shawn turns the upper-middle-class intellectual hero inside out to show the demon within," by Vinson Cunningham. Cunningham is a young black man, by the way. He was a staff assistant in the Obama White House. He teaches in the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.

I was interested in his prose, specifically, and I'm interested to see that he teaches essay writing. One course is titled, "Nonfiction Craft: Emersonians and Montaignians: Two Approaches to the Essay." I'd sign up for that, and, without reading more, I'm sure I'm a Montaignian!

When you say that you’d like to start working on an “essay,” you’re probably referring to one of two related but distinct forms, each with its own history. There’s the argumentative essay that, here in America, is descended from the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson—developed out loud, in sermons and speeches, for the purpose of persuading (and, just as importantly, entertaining) an audience. Then there’s the more ruminative essayistic tradition that stretches back to Michel de Montaigne and the French Renaissance. In this course, we’ll explore both traditions and play with what we find. We’ll start with classic early American sermons by John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, as well as Montaigne’s first attempts to map his restless consciousness onto the page, in prose. Then we’ll wind through time, visiting Emerson and Douglass, Didion and Sontag, Dr. King and Zadie Smith. We’ll make work informed by their tendencies and strategies on either side of the essay’s enduring line.

1 comment:

Ann Althouse said...

Chris writes:

You certainly are Montaignian rather than Emersonian.

My favorite Montaigne quote:
"To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately."

To live appropriately is my daily goal.

I read somewhere that once an earlier edition of the Essays was published, then Montaigne would write his additional thoughts in the margins, which would then be incorporated into the next edition of the book. So the Essays grew by marginalia.