Links: 23 Feb: Doubt, etc.

1. Phillip Lopate makes a point about the value of doubt to essays:

Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.

According to Theodor Adorno, the iron law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions? This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” an ostensible goal of education in a democracy. But since such thinking often rocks the boat, we may find it less than supported in school settings. Typically, the exercise of doubt is something an individual has to cultivate on his or her own, in private, before summoning the courage to air it, say, in an essay.

… [writing teachers should] encourage a more polyphonic, playful approach. That may be why a classic essay technique is to stage an inner debate by thinking against oneself. Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with “yes, buts,” “so whats?” and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples. Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect.

2. Scrapbooking through history.

3. On David Sedaris as a Platonic ideal of fabricated nonfiction and how Sloane Crosley and Davy Rothbart fall short of the ideal and how Sheila Heti strikes off on her own and a short quotation from John Jeremiah Sullivan: I liked this definition:

the essay is one of the purest ways for a writer’s mind to record its own motions, which are the basis of prose style.

I agree that there’s something off about making a career by exaggerating oneself as a comic character as Sedaris has done (though I enjoy his writings as entertainments, they’ve not been something I aspired to emulate) and as Crosley has done (though she does more explicitly what Sedaris does obliquely — say terrible things about people who could easily identify themselves in her writing).

3. Unreadable published prose.

4. One person’s story of realizing she wasn’t a novelist.

5. Andrew Sullivan describes

the forces that free market capitalism unleashes are precisely the forces that undermine traditional forms of community and family that once served as a traditional safety net, free from government control.

6. From the AVClub, Oscar nominees in TV cameos.

7. An argument for an actual political debate, and not just dueling speeches.

8. The value of skepticism as a way of approaching reality (and avoiding pure abstraction).

9. Two pieces on the value of memorizing poems: Auden, Holt.

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