Wager as Essay

By Retallack, Joan | Chicago Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Wager as Essay


Retallack, Joan, Chicago Review


The word Versuch, attempt or essay...thought's utopian vision of hitting the bullseye is united with consciousness of its own fallibility and provisional character.

--Theodor Adorno, "The Essay as Form"

"I'm looking for The Great Utopia. Do you still have it in stock?" "No, but we have The Rape of Utopia in stock."

--conversation overheard at Guggenheim Museum Shop

1. The poet Tina Darragh has written some of the shortest, best essays I know. Piet Mondrian could write one in a title: "The Arts and the Beauty of our Tangible Surroundings," "Down with Traditional Harmony!," "The Evolution of Humanity is the Evolution of Art." (1) The prose that follows is almost superfluous. On their own, the titles exert aphoristic power. An aphorism is a sudden essay. Darragh's book of what one could call poetic essays, a gain)(2)st the odds, contains formal experiments with a new kind of narrative poetry and ends with "three manifestos": "The Best of Intentions," "Error Message," "Don't Face Off the Fractals (Revisited)." I don't wish to be contentious, but they are not manifestos. They are riddled with interrogatives of the sort the manifesto can't tolerate. Each is three or four pages long and, like John Cage's essays, articulated in part by its spacing on the page. "The Best of Intentions" has this:

While following this line of questioning, I am consoled by the existence of the random function as an ordering principle. We think of "random" as "helter-skelter' but as a programming concept it is used to define parameters within which the direction of diversity is productive.

...

It's a matter of becoming accustomed to this new mode of organization.

...

If poetry can be thought of as having a role to play in our culture, one aspect of the job would be to make this random function--as a process, as an organizing agent--visible, tactile, part of our sense of the world. We know we can do it. (2)

The random function exercised by the writer's I reader's mind is the operating principle of the essay as form. One might ask how to understand forms whose pleasure it is to violate or exceed generic expectations. Perhaps the point is not understanding at all, at least not in the sense of grasping. Essays, like poems and philosophical meditations, should elude our grasp just because their business is to approach the liminal spectrum of near-unintelligibility--immediate experience complicating what we thought we knew. In this case, "to write" means to engage in a probative, speculative projection of the often surprising vectors of words as they graze the circumstances of ongoing life. "To read" means to live with the text over the real time of everyday life so it can enter into conversation with other life-projects. Forms that move the imagination out of bounds toward pungent transgressions, piquant unintelligibilities intrude into our tangible surroundings. They maintain an irritating presence, pleasurable or not, as radically unfinished thought. They give the reader real work to do. If the essay is a worthwhile wager it is about startling the mind into action when much is at stake and intelligibility is poor.

Which is to say, the best essay is a puzzle. What's a reader to think when in the course of reading Montaigne's "Of the Power of Imagination" ("A strong imagination creates the event," etc.) she comes upon a section on sexual impotence?

People are right to notice the unruly liberty of this member, obtruding so importunately when we have no use for it, and failing so importunately when we have the most use for it, and struggling for mastery so imperiously with our will, refusing with so much pride and obstinacy our solicitations, both mental and manual. (3)

Is Montaigne conflating penis and pen? For such flagrant erratics the term belles lettres is much too prim.

The history of opinion on the essay is as full of disgust as admiration. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Wager as Essay
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.