24 July 2008

Essayists, dare to be opinionated!

In the July-August 08 issue of Utne magazine, Cristina Nehring gives a rousing call to shake-up the essay from its self-absorbed pusillanimity in her article 'Why Essays Are So Damned Boring.' She thunders, "If the genre is neglected in our day, it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists - and their editors, their anthologists, and the tastemakers on whom they depend - have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way." Well put. Though I have no significant experience with the sort of "quiet... Slow moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied" essays that Nehring lambasts, I can testify to the pleasure derived from reading the strident, polemical, passionate observations of writers like A.C. Grayling, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and, a more lyrical example, Alain de Botton.

The Western tradition of essay-writing stretches back to classical antiquity. Though the 16th century French nobleman-cum-philosopher Michel de Montaigne is credited as the father of the autobiographical essay (and bestowed the very word to posterity - 'essay' comes from the Old French 'essai', meaning 'to attempt'), he drew inspiration from Roman proto-essayists like Seneca and Cicero. Unlike these esteemed writers, thinkers and statesmen, who assayed ideas and values that are timeless in their relevance, Nehring charges today's essayists with showing "no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else... no effort to extract from it any generalisable insight into the human condition." This failing is, Nehring expands, compounded by the prevalent cynicism in contemporary culture, which has grown "weary of larger truths" and has entrenched the relativism of values.

Nehring's arguments support my belief that an opinionated society whose members aren't afraid to express a position on any issue is an intellectually healthy one. Essayists, as part of the larger culture-creating community, have a moral responsibility to contribute towards the improvement of people's lives. Ideas, even (or perhaps especially) controversial ones, should be given voice and exposed for public rumination. Timidity masquerading as modesty only leaves the battlefield of ideas to those who dare to participate, even if their ideas are flawed or dangerous. On many issues there are clear distinctions between truth and lies, right and wrong. Writers who through various factors have found themselves in possession of valuable knowledge and, dare we say, wisdom are in a position to fight the good fight. With memes being a means of information transfer that doesn't distinguish between beneficial and harmful messages, the abstinence of beneficent thinkers from the meme-making process only beggars those whose lives could have changed for the better had they been exposed to a gutsy, bold argument that challenges and expands the mind. This enhancing effect occurs regardless of whether the reader is convinced by the writer's contention or creatively disagrees - that is, he is able to articulate why he disagrees and also has alternative ideas on the matter.

Nehring opines, "Today's essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace - as their predecessors did - big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements." Like the weaponsmaster Garet Jax in Terry Brooks's fantasy novel The Wishsong of Shannara, who sought worthy opponents to test his martial skills against in order to prove the veracity of his abilities, so too should essayists pit their ideas, their beliefs, their values against all comers in order to test the veracity of their convictions through the trial-by-intellectual-combat of public assessment, criticism and feedback.


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