Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Bowel of Minerva

Tim Kreider:

I have no pretensions to any special knowledge, let alone anything like wisdom; I am just some guy, a PERSON IN WORLD looking around and noticing things and saying what I think. If what I say doesn’t reflect your own experience, it’s possible that it isn’t about you. It’s also possible that something that’s not About You might still be of some interest or use. There is even some remote possibility that I am oversimplifying, missing something obvious, or just speaking ex rectum.

I’ve lately been rereading Montaigne, generally considered the first essayist, inspired by Sarah Bakewell’s literary biography “How to Live.” Ms. Bakewell singles out the end of one passage in which Montaigne suggests that being self-aware of your own silliness and vanity at least puts you one up on those who aren’t, then shrugs, “But I don’t know.” It’s that implicit I don’t know at the heart of Montaigne’s essays — his frankness about being a foolish, flawed and biased human being — that she thinks has endeared him to centuries of readers and exasperated more plodding, systematic philosophers.

My least favorite parts of my own writing, the ones that make me cringe to reread, are the parts where I catch myself trying to smush the unwieldy mess of real life into some neatly-shaped conclusion, the sort of thesis statement you were obliged to tack on to essays in high school or the Joycean epiphanies that are de rigueur in apprentice fiction — whenever, in other words, I try to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

A raised glass to both Kreider and my old pal Montaigne. Too many smart people, especially online, are more concerned with winning arguments than actually saying anything insightful or interesting. Punditry, both professional and amateur, has become intolerably boring for me.