Monday, June 15, 2009

`Following the Brush'

To essay is to try something, to make an attempt, without regard for a specific end. Before the French came the Latin exigere, “test,” which suggests an experiment, weighing a hypothesis. To write an essay is to pursue a thought open-endedly, to allow the journey to disclose its own itinerary. In the wrong hands – inattentive, plodding, literal-minded, thesis-driven -- this spells self-indulgent chaos or a sermon. It can also mean a literary form with a bottomless capacity for nuances, linkages and surprise. The closest musical cognate is jazz, which half a century ago Whitney Balliett called “the sound of surprise.”

I’ve just read A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007), a monograph by Donald Richie, the American-born scholar of Japanese culture. He notes that Japanese writers often prize “a quality of indecision in the structure of their work. And something too logical, too symmetrical is successfully avoided when writers ignore the suppositions of the questions asked of them.” This gets a little murky and Zen-like for this Westerner, but the idea, tempered with discipline and learning, is deeply attractive. Richie goes on:

Zuihitsu, the Japanese word we might translate as `essay,’ implies just that – following the brush, allowing it to lead. The structure is the multiplicity of strokes that make up the aesthetic quality, one which they imply and which we infer.”

Richie says this notion – I won’t call it a method, more a proclivity – gives his monograph its form. In his glossary, he defines zuihitsu like this:

“…an essay that ranges somewhat formlessly; hitsu means `brush,’ and zui indicates `following’ or `pursuing,’ thus, literally, `following the brush.’”

I like “somewhat formlessly.” In practice, for this essayer, that means organization by association. A word, thought or image leads naturally and artfully to others, like firings among the neurons of the brain. Each “neuron” brings with it an aura or charge overlapping with others. A well-stocked, metaphor-minded brain evolves its own forms. The title of Guy Davenport’s second essay collection, adapted from a saying by Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, comes to mind: Every Force Evolves a Form (1987).

The title story in Thomas Disch’s posthumously published collection The Wall of America (2008) posits a wall built along the U.S.-Canada border on which painters hang their work. One of them, Lester, is visited by a young American, Gulliver, who drives along the wall, looking at the art works but not understanding why people devote their lives to it. Here’s a slice of their beer-lubricated conversation, starting with Gulliver:

“`It just doesn’t make sense to me.’

“`That may be the point, partly. You seem to find it interesting. Or you wouldn’t be following the Wall.’

“`I suppose.’

`Let me ask you: do you iron your own shirts?’

“Gulliver squinted down on the logo on his tanktop. `Why would I iron this?’

“`Well, do you have any flannel shirts? Plaids?’

“Gulliver nodded and then slowly a smile began to form. He was one of those people who are only good-looking when they smile, and he didn’t smile that often. `You mean the way it changes color when the iron goes across it?’

“`Yes. Is that a pleasure for you?’

“`Uh-huh. And painting is like that?’

“`Basically, yes.’”

In light of Disch’s suicide last July 4, this scene from one of his last stories is heartbreaking but it illustrates the way a poet (Disch was a first-rate poet) thinks – in metaphors rooted in homely particulars. Has anyone else in human history likened the joys of painting to ironing a flannel shirt, and made it work? It works for us, the readers, but it works also for Gulliver. Neither he nor Lester is aesthetically sophisticated. A more high-falutin’ image would have sounded false.

A good essay is successful and poetic to the degree it moves along by metaphors, the subtler the better. At their best Lamb and Hazlitt worked this way. Even so “classical” an essayist as Samuel Johnson used the technique (a word that sounds too formal, too calculating), as did Davenport and, often Cynthia Ozick. If the world is web of metaphor, of covert and explicit linkages, an essay can begin and end anywhere, without a map. The idea is not peculiar to literature and religion. In The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (1998), his biography of the great Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, Paul Hoff man writes:

“Mathematics is about finding connections, between specific problems and general results, and between one concept and another seemingly unrelated concept that really is related. No mathematical concept worth its salt stands in isolation.”

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

Zuihitsu is one of my own favorite forms; it suits my own style of essay-writing naturally; and I also practice calligraphy. "Following the brush," indeed, or "the formless form." The classic Japanese example of the form is Kenko's Tsurezuregusa, often translated as "Essays in Idleness."

There actually is a bit of a tradition of it in English language essay. PL Travers, a brilliant essayist as well as the inventor of Mary Poppins, called her essay style "thinking is linking." Her largest collection of essays was titled "What the Bee Knows," and the title essay is a long exercise in zuihitsu form.

One thinks also of Norman O. Brown and some of John Cage's essays. I have read a couple of short novels that were written in zuihitsu style.