Contentment and the Personal Essay

I normally do not relish talking about the genres of any art form. I am fond of saying that the only real question is whether a work of art is good. Thinking in genres only clouds the answer to that question with bias. Sometimes we have to speak of categories, though, do we not?

I want to discuss the personal essay as a form because I believe it is closer to poetry than to prose in one respect. I write from the point of view of an avid reader, not from the point of view of someone who considers himself adept at writing personal essays. Let alone a Writer, the subject of much discussion hereabouts recently.

Let us set aside the political essays published in OS, a genre known as argumentative writing. There is of course poetry published here. There is satire published here. Short fiction is published here. A great deal of what is published here is personal essays. I happen to be a great fan of personal essays. This is the reason that I enjoy participating in Open Salon, reading the personal essays of others.

It is no accident, I think, that the subject of many of the personal essays in OS range from passing instances of personal sadness, dissatisfaction, and irritation on up to some truly harrowing renditions of personal tragedy and even victimization. In other words, conflict of one sort or another, many times “the human heart in conflict with itself,” in Faulkner’s words. These have a good shot at being interesting to others whether or not the writing is. Strangely enough, in my own case, the titles of these hook me in faster than the titles of others.

I am going to cite Tolstoy’s statement that has been quoted more times than “Mustang Sally” has been played by garage bands, generally translated in this way:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Tolstoy was addressing the subject of families because he was about to embark on a tale about some unhappy ones, particularly that of Anna Karenina. He wanted to let his readers know that interesting stuff was on the way because we knew the first time we read that sentence that he was not going to be telling stories of happy families.

This issue came to mind when I read Lauren B. Davis’s offering of September 24 in part about the editing of one of her novels. Regarding her editor Ms. Davis in part had this to say,

In one case, she said there wasn’t enough on the page yet, and perhaps I needed another conflict, something to deepen the work.

Therein lies what novels are all about. Conflict. Some protagonists prevail. Some protagonists do not. But conflict is at the heart of the novel.

Conflict is the only thing that can sustain a novel. (Please do not shout “Proust” at me. Think about that first at least.) The resolution of the conflict one way or another is only the ending. In some post-modern examples the conflict is never resolved. To my way of thinking the thing that distinguishes short stories from novels, other than the obvious, is precision. Most short stories are conflict driven.

Personal essays are different. Conflict appears to be the easiest way to inform a a short work, but personal essays actually have the potential for a wider sweep, which is one reason that I like them so much. In this one respect the great ones are more akin to poetry than fiction, something that people often inaccurately say about short stories. Thank goodness people keep writing personal essays in the face of the fact that it is nearly impossible to make money selling them.

Before I attempt to go further on the subject of this wider sweep, I would like to take a liberty with the traditional translation of Tolstoy’s statement above. We might just as well translate it as follows:

Contented families are all alike; every discontented family is discontented in its own way.

I would prefer to translate it that way because of my own personal disillusionment with the whole concept of happiness. Originally, at this point I had written a long section explaining the difference between “happy” and “content” complete with apt citations of Jefferson and Whitman. The Whitman citation then led to a cute remark about Bill Clinton.

It was eloquent and amusing. Take my word for it. All it amounted to, however, was the idea that contentment is a limited, doable thing and long term, consistent happiness is not. Short term happiness that we know as “joy” certainly occurs out there. In view of the human predicament, however, long term, consistent happiness may only exist as a symptom of lunacy.

The personal essay as a form is available to explore contentment. It is not just a weak sister of short fiction, a less imaginative way to portray conflict. Something of the essence of contentment is exactly what I myself am now trying to explore in this blog in my own amateurish way. This is the reason that I am interested in the personal essay because I cannot do what I want to do with poetry.

Those ideas concerning happiness and contentment about which I have written above arose from my reading of a respectable number of personal essays over a lifetime. I even took a course in personal essays once. I am not as well versed in the English and Continental essayists, such as Montesquieu, as I should be. I have to pick a norteamericano personal essayist as an example in order to pursue this discussion further. My own favorite is E.B. White.

That is enough for today. More about E.B. White next time, assuming that I can find a copy of his collected essays in the library. (I had to leave myself that out.) I shall now select the dullest title that I can come up with for this in order to avoid attracting any readers, other than friends, who actually know what they are talking about with regard to the subjects at hand.

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