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Within, Without

Travis Allen

"it is a sign of delusion to force the structure of art onto life"

I felt suddenly betrayed by all I had grown accustomed to in writing while listening to the strange and bewildered comments of a small group who stared rather dumbfounded, shocked, after reading a short essay of mine. Of course, if this sentence is any proof for their dismay I would certainly agree: writing has been so much about clarity, conciseness, purposefulness, that such lines as these appear frightfully convoluted and likewise offensive. But I believed myself to be right in the way I had approached my subject and, by extension, writing as a whole. So I decided to put into words the conclusions I gathered from that essay—in its style, its intentions and merit—and try to convince you of a different, but nonetheless valid form of the essay.

To begin with the introduction. As I have been told over and over, I must lay out the focus of my essay, the progression of my thoughts, the path and the form in the introduction— so they may be right, all those talking heads polluted by literalism. They think that stating what is in the essay will entice the reader to stay, to dwell on it and learn. The problem as I see it is that the essay has no need of a map, and that the focus of the essay is to be unfocused, speaking broadly on the fundamental points of our true existence as human beings, as bodies, as souls, as born and dead, in our past and present and future selves revealed at once and to perfection. I want to write essays that attack the problem of the meaning of our lives, what significance such and such work of fiction or art or philosophy or psychology or chemistry or medicine has for the lives of men and women, no less for myself, and why we should fear ignorance and love truth. To begin with such didacticisms as “the purpose of writing such and such is to show how this here happens to relate to that there,” and then lay out boldly for all to see the systematic progression of proofs and fallacies, is foolishness, and belittles both the reader, the writer, the essay, and the dignity of human beings forced to structure their lives around points on a line. For I believe that the way we write, the way we expect things to be written, is if nothing else an indication of how we expect our lives to be structured. And if we expect an essay to be structured in a certain way, to have, as it were, a beginning, middle and end, is tantamount to expecting our lives to follow such a trajectory. But for better or worse, life is not a fairy tale, and it is a sign of delusion to force the structure of art onto life. If we want to express life as it is lived, and not as we would like it to be, we must do something different.

What is needed is a way of writing that invites the workings of the mind, that carries the reader’s thoughts beyond where he thought himself before, that lifts his heart and that makes his spirit dance. Anything less than a complete engagement with the human spirit at all possible moments in an essay, just as in a work of art or a life well spent, amounts to nothing or even less than nothing. It is a shallow imitation of the original thought, made fruitless and unbecoming, swaddling clothes for aborted fetuses. For thought, like life, is not only form and order, but simultaneously formlessness, chaos, and writing that says otherwise is a golden calf. In order to address the complexities of life, I propose a new way of crafting arguments and essays, one which allows for the careful and unforeseeable twists of the mind’s grasping at meaning and non-meaning, its struggle and triumph at separating them, and the good work it is.

I am not suggesting an abandonment of reason, nor of careful thinking and close engagement with the topic at hand— not at all. I am not suggesting we abandon our time-honed craft of essay writing for something untried and untested, (though I would suggest there have been others to see the essay along the same lines as myself). I am not suggesting a dismissal of the critical mind or the sharp wit, or the passion that makes us get back off the mat, futile though it seems. I am, however, suggesting we take a step back from our critical mind and attempt to see how it functions, both internally and especially externally, as it appears on paper. I am suggesting a distance from our thoughts and our foci and subjects and objects and claims and proofs and reasonings in order that we be free to wander the paths our hearts wish to tread. For that is where the problems that need solving dwell, and that is a place that cannot be reached directly. In other words, if I want to solve a difficult problem, I will never succeed if I remain in the mode of thought I exist in under the problem, for the problem is a result of my way of thinking. I must instead branch out my thoughts to take in different, even unexpected paths, lest I never reach any further into the heart than the spine. Only once I reach a state of openmindedness may I once grasp the core of the problem and see the steps needed to solve it. For rules cannot be formulated from within; rather, they show themselves: one must step outside to give rules. If I assume my conclusion from the beginning, there is nothing to do but confirm my assumptions. If, on the other hand, I allow the conclusion to grow out of the thought process of writing, it becomes a new thought and therefore valuable.

Now you might say that all I’m saying is we ought to spend less time proving things and more time understanding them—and, to a certain extent, you would be right. But proof and understanding are interconnected: it seems we cannot have one without the other. There is, however, something deeper than proof, beyond understanding, after all our best efforts at logic and precision are spent. For I believe that proof itself is doubtful. To say we have proven something, what is required? Is it beyond doubt, as our legal system would posit? But isn’t there a gap between something being doubtful and something being true? Evidence can be forced to “prove” an innocent man guilty, which is why the expression “to be framed” exists: that the truth of things can be manipulated and hidden in order to create a falsehood that becomes “truth.” On the other hand, there are at least two groups of people capable of claiming proof, and they are the geometers and logicians. But even so, they have created the rules by which they arrive at their proof. This kind of proof is purely formal, and only expresses proof on a systematic level. As writers of criticism, however, we lack such a system of rules with which to demonstrate proof, for our concerns cannot be abstracted into shapes and variables. In this vacuum, the widespread and unexamined belief is that if I present a fact and tell you what it means, then I have done all that is required. But is this all that proof means? If that is the case, I hesitate to say that we need this system of rules, because I think rather we can and ought to do something different than to demonstrate proof. For what words will ever get at truth? This one? That one? It is enough to toss about a few words whose meaning is already ambiguous: swallow, back, ring, vice, in order to present some of the difficulty when we begin to deal with whole pages of them, as well as to say that language depends on context, on the difference between words and their placement around each other. What kind of truth are we finding, then, dealing with words? A proven one? I think not. Rather we are experiencing a net of relations that develops significance from the connections that are brought forth.

If we have done well to this point, it is because we have started to see eye to eye, and not because I have proven things to you. This is the method of writing an essay that I want to follow, to encourage the frame of mind in the reader that the author has experienced himself, and thereby to lead the reader along the same associations, connections, formulations and decisions. Through this process the problem of communication ceases, or rather, it is firmly addressed and understood, and worked through, in order that the words lose significance as words and instead the essay takes on the quality of shared thought, shared expression: I perform the steps that you will follow, thus I create an environment in which our commonality can develop.

But we cannot stop here, or we would only arrive at a different way of expressing the old adage of clarity. The way this synchronicity of expression and thought will be achieved is not through clarity at all, or at least not only through clarity; for a thought is not always clear, and may be quite vague, dwelling on obscurities, contradictions, paradoxes, parables all requiring a poetic expression and not a logical one. This of course opens the question of whether an ambiguous expression does not itself lead to an ambiguous interpretation on the part of the reader. The point is well taken, but not damning. The reason I believe a poetic expression will succeed where a literal one will fail is because the poetic is unbounded and wants to deal with paradoxes. The point of such expression is not literal understanding but experience of the contradiction and its emotive force. Thus it becomes a part of the string of associations that leads ever onward toward the conclusion.

The conclusion takes on a rather different significance than one is used to, for it is not devoted to summary or “wrapping things up.” It would be better to think of the conclusion instead as where the thought process terminates, where the sensation of enlightenment arises. For, as interesting as the thoughts in the body of the essay may appear, they are ghosts who feed on dreams. They float and spin until the world is blurred and out of focus. But in the conclusion, such ghosts must be given bodies to inhabit and the obscene weight of the world must be felt. By becoming corporeal, thought shocks the mind into awareness. We shout, we dance, we rejoice in sudden rupturing truth, that what we have read means something to our lives. Much as I argue for a new essay, the proof of it is in the conclusion, on whether such a feeling of satori is possible and how it may be achieved. This is its test, and whether it can succeed relies on how well the writer can create a new thought out of the ramblings of his spirit, and convey that new thought to another. But that is a high task full of clouds and angry gods, forever shifting, forever commanding. Nevertheless, if we are to develop the force of our powers of expression, we must teach gods humility and give form to clouds. And we must have courage.