As a writing tutor, I repeat myself a lot: “Your thesis needs to be a statement, not a question,” I say. “In your paper you are going to answer the question proposed in the paper prompt, not “explore” it, not “consider” it, not hopefully possibly maybe show that such-and-such could be the case,” I continue. “Make a statement. Answer the question.”
When I am not hammering this thesis mantra into students’ heads, I am debating the appropriateness of the use of the first-person “I” in academic writing. The goal of supposed objectivity, as well as residue from high school english composition courses, leave most of the students I work with convinced that they are to remain invisible in their papers. Instead of “I,” they write, “This essay will argue,” and I cringe. Worse still, they turn to the passive voice, and write “It will be shown.” It will, will it? By whom? By zombies?
Though I primarily teach academic writing, I have some concerns about how it is practiced. I tell students to write in a way that I secretly think is unhelpful at this stage in their education. Rather, I think that they need to wonder before they prove. They need to understand and acknowledge themselves as interpreters, and to develop a voice that converses with the texts that they study.
With regard to Kierkegaard, I have two main concerns in relation to the situations I’ve narrated: first, to consider the tension between exploration and argument in the essay, and second, to discuss the possibility of the nonfiction writer becoming a character in his or her own work, and the rhetorical possibilities thereof. Given this, I will first provide some background on the essay as a literary form, before embarking on a dialogue between Søren Kierkegaard’s The Point of View for my Work as an Author, and contemporary nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.
I am primarily interested here in Kierkegaard’s use of what he calls “godly satire” and its ability to “deceive into the truth.” By discussing the essay as a literary form, my intent is to show how one can appropriate the fluidity of genre Kierkegaard employs in his philosophical writings to both creative writing and writing pedagogy more generally. The difference between the essay as it is taught in creative writing courses -- what we would now call a “personal” or in some cases the “familiar” essay -- and the thesis driven thing now normative in undergraduate composition courses is unfortunate, if not pedagogically disastrous. At the very least, it results in a lot of boring papers. I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard’s approach to philosophical and theological writing provides a way to bring these two kinds of essay writing into conversation, with broad implications for how young scholars learn to think and write.
So. What do I mean when I say “essay”? The word itself means an attempt or trial, and as such the essay is an adventurous form. It is a process -- a becoming. Beginning with Montaigne, who is often cited as the exemplary model and one of the earliest practitioners of the form, Phillip Lopate explains that the essay is generally not concerned with providing logical proof. It does not read like a legal brief, nor does it even have to have the singular goal of persuading the reader of something -- though it might also do so. There is a fearlessness to it, in that the essayist need not fear refute, for the point is not getting it right so much as thinking it through, issuing and accepting an invitation to surprise. An essay may be as full of ideas as narrative; it is philosophy plus personality. It shows and tells. An essayist of this sort does not sit down with an outline containing an intro, three points, and a conclusion. She may have a sense of where she wants to go, but she invites her reader into her process of discovery. She creates a dialogue along the lines of that which Montaigne’s essay “Of the inconstancy of our actions” describes when he writes:
If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion.
What Montaigne gets at here, and what the essay form specializes in, is the process of thought, the variance, the way we can change our minds as we sift through ideas. The essay also captures the delight in doing so.
Reflecting further on this, Lopate notes that, nonetheless, his own essays,
...always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade (or at least seduce, entertain, distract the reader into amusement, which are other means of persuasion, ones that Montaigne himself was happy to use). Even when I set out with no end in sight, I still am aware as I am writing when an argument is building underneath, and I nudge the prose along in ways that accentuate the architecture. (Lopate 108)
Considering the essay as a process of discovery in this way has pedagogical implications, insofar as it is perhaps somewhat backward to berate students about the need to settle on a thesis when they do not yet know what they think. Why do we put such “unreasonable pressure on students...before they have explored their thoughts on the page,” Lopate asks (108). Furthermore, here we begin to see the Kierkegaardian connection emerge: Whether he is genuinely sifting through ideas and altering his opinion, or purposefully crafting a persona, on the page this is often what Kierkegaard looks like: that is, like the essayist who appears to be changing her mind. She sets herself up as wondering, yet underneath that she works intentionally -- or does she? You can never quite be sure. In any case, the process is as important as the end point.
Sadly, what the students I work with are expected to write are not essays in this traditional sense. We operate with a split between composition and the personal essay that is only as recent as the 70s and 80s, according to Lopate, and most courses expect students to stay on the composition side of the fence. Even among practitioners of the essay, in fact, there is some conversation about what constitutes an essay, and the subsets thereof. Essayist Anne Fadiman reflects on the state of affairs in the preface to her collection, At Large and At Small, where she writes, “Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal -- very personal -- essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).” Fadiman’s take on the personal essay understands it over and against the familiar essay, which strikes me as a bit off. Much of what is labeled “personal essay” these days, in the way Fadiman references -- more heart that brain -- is actually more like short-memoir, which is not the same thing as an essay in the vein of Montaigne, and is not what I am talking about here. Rather, Lopate considers the personal essay to be close kin of the familiar essay. He lays out a distinction first between the formal essay and the informal essay, with the personal essay as subset of informal, and the familiar as subset of personal. If there is a difference between these last two, he says, it is that “The familiar essay values lightness of touch above all else; the personal essay, which need not be light, tends to put the writer’s ‘I’ or idiosyncratic angle more at center stage” (xxiv, The Art of the Personal Essay). I bring this up not as mere tangential digression, nor to split hairs about genre, but because this marriage of what Fadiman calls “heart” and “brain” is what I am trying to get at here, and where Kierkegaard fits into this conversation: in short, I think that there is room for more “heart” in my students’ essays.
Still, the informal or personal essay may be perceived as a quaint, curious thing, easily dismissed by intellectual heavyweights. Lopate writes, “I once shared my introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay with a learned English department colleague who pronounced it ‘charming,’ which I took to mean insufficiently theorized and dilettantish” (To Show and To Tell, 110). The tension between the formal and informal forms can result in what feel like a nice pats on the head to the traditional essayist -- as if one cannot be charming and also intellectually astute. As if it would not be a worthy goal for my students to learn to be interesting.
Delving further into what makes the essay, despite its lack of a thesis or pointedly driven argument, an intellectual as well as artistic exercise, Lopate speaks of purposefully “planting knots” in in the body of an essay which he can then untie along the way in order to move the essay forward. He notes, finally, how one of his colleagues refers to Plato’s Dialogues as, other than Montaigne, “the writings of [one of] the greatest essayists” (111). How could a dialogue be an essay, Lopate wonders, only to conclude that “all good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation” (111). The essayist never lacks for a conversation partner, because she specializes in self-interrogation. She can argue with herself.
I hope that I am beginning to sound Kierkegaardian at this point, though one might wonder what there is to say in comparing a writer as long winded as our dear Kierkegaard with any writer who works in a form as compact as the essay. Length aside, I would venture -- indeed, I might even argue, hesitant as my essayist impulse may be to do such a thing -- that Kierkegaard thinks like an essayist. Furthermore, thinking of him as such has implications for how we teach his work, and how we require students to write about him.
Kierkegaard writes of his work that, “The movement of the authorship is: from ‘the poet,’ from the esthetic -- from ‘the philosopher,’ from the speculative -- to the indication of the most inward qualification of the essentially Christian” (POV 5). His work, he asserts, articulates a path, a movement -- specifically, “the Christian movement” (POV 7). He sets out in The Point of View to explain his process, what precisely he’s been up to with his varied and contradictory authorial voices. He claims that now, here, he will explain his “author character” (POV 26). Insofar as we determine that we can take him at his word here -- for there are few things of which I am more certain than that Kierkegaard is nearly always messing with our heads -- he presents his own work as an attempt at communication as reflection. His goal is “to deceive,” albeit with the intent that such deception is ultimately revelatory (POV 7). If one is to reach the goal, though, this deception cannot go on indefinitely. It is merely a means of uncovering the truth. Sooner or later one must take a more direct approach, but this directness, this simplicity, is the better for having followed this process of, “in working also to work against oneself” (POV 9). Is he in earnest here? Is he making claims about his work’s intentionality that cannot be substantiated? Possibly. As any essayist could tell you, “intention” is rarely that simple.
For Lopate, as discussed, the use of contrariety is at the heart of the essay. “Let us begin with the assumption that the essay feasts on doubt,” he writes, “on self-doubt, ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox” (Lopate 64). This is a characteristic he calls “Thinking against oneself” -- a process that sounds much like the Kierkegaardian idea cited above, namely, to work against oneself. The essayist is mischievous in this way -- messing with your head by exploring the nooks and crannies of her own. For Kierkegaard, this thinking against oneself takes place via pseudonyms, full-fledged characters he creates for himself. Here, again, Lopate’s description of the essayist is illuminating. He argues that characterization, perhaps often assumed to be the domain of fiction writers, is a key component of the essay. One must turn oneself into a character on the page. “The art of characterization,” he writes, “comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system” (To Show and To Tell, 18). Doing so is a way of creating some distance from oneself, “to see yourself from the ceiling”(18). The essayist must create a memorable/compelling narrator, must dramatize herself, must highlight her own ambivalence and internal contradictions. “The reader must find you amusing,” he writes, “amusing enough to follow you, no matter what topic you propose” (22). There is a strategy in Kierkegaard’s work of “esthetic incognito” -- a sense in which he understands himself as “a kind of secret agent in the highest service” (JP 1858-1855, 6192) -- and uses the esthetic to his advantage. He assures his readers that we needn’t be concerned by his use of deception, however, for one can “deceive a person into what is true” (POV 53). He is not lying; he is making a point. And it is through this seeming lie that the truth can be revealed. He goes all in, not merely considering conflicting points of view, but becoming them. As Lopate instructs the essayist, “You must get in the habit of inviting, not censoring, the most far-fetched, mischievous notions, because even if they prove cockeyed, they might point to an element of truth that would otherwise be inaccessible” (Lopate 24). This last line seems to me to speak to the heart of the confusing pseudonymous dance Kierkegaard enacts, for what is writing in the way that he does if not wild? Brilliant, but strange? Lopate would likely say to embrace such an impulse.
It is all well and good to note such similarities between Kierkegaard and Lopate’s description of the essay, but why should this matter to us? Why is this thing Kierkegaard calls “a godly satire” good, or perhaps even necessary? (POV 17) Why ought one attempt to “deceive into the truth”? (POV 7) For that matter, what if we do sum all this up as the author simply changing his mind? (POV 29) Does it matter whether he really changed his mind, or was merely acting? Here looking at Kierkegaard’s work from the angle of creative nonfiction becomes particularly fruitful. Like the essayist, who crafts a given piece to take the reader through a tangle of ideas, to lead her to a specific thought or feeling, a certain revelation or sense of delight, each move is purposeful. In creative writing we call this craft. It’s not something philosophers speak of -- or at least not in my experience. But it is at play in Kierkegaard’s authorship, from word choice to imagery to characterization.
This matter of craft is central, as is the role of human personality in analysis. When considering a thinker often characterized as the “father of existentialism,” it stands to reason that the human subject, in all her malleability, would be visible. Lopate writes:
Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If ‘we must remove the mask,’ it is only to substitute another mask. The hope is that in the end, when an essayists lifework has been accumulated, all these personae will add up to a genuine unmasking. (The Art of the Personal Essay, xxviii)
There is a sense in which it is only by embracing our own varied masks that we can reach the place vulnerability in which such genuine unmasking can take place. Kierkegaard wholeheartedly embraces this contrariety which is so characteristic of the essayist -- so much so that he doesn’t merely play the curmudgeon for a paragraph or two, but creates entire personas with authorships of their own which he can variously interact with, contradict, or affirm. Ultimately to read one of these characters without consideration of the others may even leave one with an incomplete understanding of the point of the given persona. The dialogue, the conversation, is only half-finished if you don’t consider one voice in comparison with others. Which voice is really Kierkegaard’s voice?
All of them -- even those we might argue are speaking words he doesn’t believe. The essayist will play devil’s advocate to herself if need be, whether she has really changed her mind or not.
The question arises, then, as to what it means to be an author in this way. As Kierkegaard asks, is it “to be an x, an impersonal something that, by means of printing, addresses itself abstractly to thousands upon thousands but itself is unseen, unknown, living as secretly, as anonymously, as impersonally as possible, presumably so that the contrast between the enormous means of communication and being an individual human being does not become obvious or glaring”? (57). I think not. In all of this, I hope we might see an invitation, quite simply, to squash this business about being invisible in our work. Not only is it an act of self-deception to think the individual is not present anyway, despite our efforts, but we also destroy the possibility that our collective intellectual work might actually be strengthened by the well-defined and clearly articulated voices of individuals. Revisiting the essay itself as a form, along with a kind of Kierkegaardian posture of authorship, creates potential to infuse life and accessibility into academic writing in way that moves it out of the academy and into public discourse and communal imagination.