IN SPRING of 2013, Eric LeMay posted on the blog Essay Daily: “Eric LeMay (Sort of) on Montaigne, Metaphor, and the Thatness of the Essay.” The piece is not included in his new collection, In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments, but it gives us a sense of what LeMay has in mind as he thinks about experimentation with the form. In the Essay Daily post, an arrangement of pictures, quotations, and text, LeMay spurs the reader’s thinking on the nature of metaphor and the essay itself. He cites a passage from Montaigne: “What are these Essays if not monstrosities and grotesques botched together from a variety of limbs having no defined shape, with an order, sequence, and proportion which are purely fortuitous.”
Indeed, the essay is capacious. Collage, verse, narrative, sound, picture, video — all can be put in service to the inquiry and meaning-making essential to the genre. Creative nonfiction, as a field, has become fertile ground for experimentation with form, and In Praise of Nothing, which exists in several formats,romps about a full range of essayistic shapes. Some can be played online, as video games. Others can be watched and clicked through in an interactive back and forth of image and sound. Those printed in the book version contain their own textual and imagistic experiments. They are reflective, playful, elegiac, and often funny. This is the essay in the digital age, or whatever it is we are living through right now, and LeMay has put to use every instrument of expression he can to reach our senses.
The book opens with the title essay, which is set with visual interpolations — small frames from a webcam trained on a patch of gravel. Or is it the space, the nothing, so to speak, that outlines the horizon of rocks meeting the shrubs in the distance? The question is turned on the reader. Nothing, explained philosopher Martin Heidegger, is not simply negation; it has a presence that makes it possible for us to see something. Nothing allows us to better attend to the thing itself. “My ideal webcam, which I haven’t found,” writes LeMay,
would show people only indirectly, by them not being in, but still being signaled by, nothing. I imagine a crumpled beer can, discarded in a brick alley, where weeds have worked up between the bricks and gone raggedy, and every so often the shadow of a car or garbage truck sweeps by, and the can rusts gradually or gets coated with snow, so I can’t read the label.
LeMay’s refusal to assert a meaning or narrative forces the reader into a reflective space. The frames, set three at a time, like ellipses, invoke a digital presence but refuse the chatter. This essay doesn’t declare or beg our attention with flashing images. It muses.
In several pieces throughout the print collection, LeMay uses visual and textual interpolations to interrupt, augment, illustrate, reimagine, rearrange. “A Biography of the Nameless” punctuates meditations on unidentified persons with newspaper headlines, amplifying the remoteness implicit in the very idea of a Jane Doe or John Doe.
In “Gaetan Dugas: A Personal History,” he sets his own reflections and boyhood confusion about AIDS against chunks of text taken from a 60 Minutes story that aired in 1987. The essay creates a dueling voiceover effect, as LeMay both invokes and pushes back at the cultural noise that distorted his adolescent understanding of sex, sexuality, and coming of age.
In “Hamlet, a Failure,” he considers another mediated experience — 9/11 — through a lousy production of Hamlet performed at Ground Zero, shifting from sentences into verse-like lines in an attempt to fathom terror and loss.
In the formal experimentation in “Viral-ize,” LeMay combines text art, a photograph, and a running list of words in the margin to invite us to consider how we use language. Or does it use us? The implicit suggestion is that perhaps we could ask the same about technology.
And in one of the most interesting pieces in the collection, “The Lost Garden of Herman Haerlin,” LeMay superimposes old and new photographs of the long-abandoned Athens Lunatic Asylum in Ohio, suggesting a powerful and irrepressible presence of the past.
There is a lot to appreciate in LeMay’s work. His search is in earnest, as is his respect for the genealogy of ideas and history. Most important, though, is his willingness to experiment. In an interview with Jill Talbot on the website New Books in Literature, he spoke with an almost gleeful openness to failure, as a true experimentalist must. How else to jostle ourselves loose of the complacency of habit? Experiment is integral to making and thinking. But the other half of the equation, of course, is determining if and when an experiment actually explores new territory. What does it mean for an essay to succeed?
In “Resistible, a Comic Memoir about Comedy,” LeMay suggests, indirectly, that one way we might evaluate an essay is to weigh how well it articulates and responds to the problems of its own time and place. “Heidegger describes our ‘thrownness’ into the world,” writes LeMay. “We can’t be, in the most basic sense, apart from the world’s givens — the specific place and time into which we’re thrown at birth.” He continues:
I’m struck by how our being enmeshed in the world resembles a gag. […] The gag goes off, the audience guffaws, and the straight man hops, unawares, toward the next trap. […] Eventually, we wise up. Unlike the straight man, we don’t remain naive. The traps go off, one after another, and we learn to suspect, to doubt and probe and cringe against the unknown and unforeseeable. The world is where we brace for a joke that’s about to be played on us.
LeMay’s thrownness recalls an adolescent alienation — he’s the butt of a joke, until he learns better. But his jovial experimentation, in this and other essays, circles loosely around a more serious matter: the nature of subjectivity when so much of our experience of the world is mediated. The proliferation of image and quotation dominates in his essays. (One is simply an extended quote.) Which, it’s true, reflects our time and place. (Think of the open tabs, the stream of updates in what we unwittingly call feeds, or the reflexive glance at the periphery of the screen for the glow of the unopened message … does someone have something to say to me?) But if In Praise of Nothing is an experimental solution to living amid a surfeit of things, does it actually work? LeMay walks a fine line between reflection and, for lack of a better word, data — what David Foster Wallace called “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise.” Except LeMay is not overwhelmed by Total Noise. He plays in it.
Riffing on Francis Bacon’s love of aphorism, LeMay tries out another textual arrangement in his essay “Of Studies.” He sets sections of Bacon’s essay by the same name at the center of the page, in its original typeface, and runs a strain of his own text on either side. The marginalia recalls the scholarly gloss, commentary meant to interpret the centered text. There are several voices at work in the piece, old and new, which leads us to a crucial question: how is experiment, and in this case, the experimental essay, connected to the past we’ve inherited and the future we make?
Bacon’s aphorisms and Montaigne’s prolific quotations (as well as modern collage) descend from the humanist commonplace book. The practice of keeping a commonplace book was a way of reading — a culling of quotations, verse, recipes, proverbs, and so on acquired from authoritative texts. One of the most famous examples, Erasmus’s Adages, was an accumulation of Greek and Roman sayings that Erasmus collected and dedicated to his friend Lord Mountjoy. For Erasmus, the book was emblematic of a shared tradition. It is not insignificant that he dedicated it to his friend.
The commonplace book itself is a distant cousin to the ancient practice of proof texting — the act of pulling a quote for your own particular purposes. In ancient Greece, Homeric lines or stories would be invoked to shed light on a particular problem or lend authority to an action or view. The practice of quotation was a way of drawing from a shared tradition or text and applying or interpreting it anew, but always in deference to the authority of the original. One didn’t voice one’s own thinking.
Which is to say that the world Montaigne and Bacon were thrown into was one in which understanding of any kind was externalized — science, geometry, philosophy, even self-knowledge. Bacon responded by developing a new method of experimentation. (His greatest contribution to philosophy and science was the Novum Organum, a method that rejected science’s staid reliance on Aristotle.) Montaigne’s strategy was to bring his own thinking to the center of his inquiry. The essayistic innovation Montaigne and Bacon offer is a reliance on their own intellectual authority at a time and place when authority — that is, the stuff of authorship — was not to be found in the self, but rather in the textual tradition held in common.
Modern collage can bring together dissimilar elements to evoke new and surprising resonances, but it can also degenerate into a refusal of authorship, a refusal of responsibility, really, in deference to the expressions of others. And if and when this is so, wouldn’t that be an amplification of what writer/editor John Bresland has called the problem of being alive right now? Isn’t this how our screens work, pulling us deeper into our own narrowing subjectivities? Though each visual and textual element is carefully arranged in LeMay’s collection, I often lost track of the writerly guidance that shapes understanding. I didn’t always know what, exactly, he wanted me to see.
Many contemporary writers celebrate Montaigne’s inwardness, but he was not simply writing for (or about) himself. He was writing to friends. Though he lost his dearest friend and interlocutor, Etienne de la Boëtie, before he began writing, his essays are infused with a spirit of epistolary intimacy, as if he were invoking Boëtie’s presence. Their relationship combined love and thought.
In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together. […] If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: “Because it was him: because it was me.”
This passage comes from “De l’amitié,” Montaigne’s essay on friendship, the same essay LeMay draws from in his own reflections on monstrosity and metaphor in the essay form.
Montaigne raises the idea of monstrosity more than once — not just to describe his essays, but to describe himself.
I have not seen anywhere in the world a [monstre] more expressly miraculous than I am. […] The more I haunt myself and know myself the more my misshapenness amazes me and the less I understand myself.
Montaigne dedicates his essays to his friends and kinsmen so their knowledge of him will remain full and alive after he is gone. And so he presents himself without artifice, without striving. In short, Montaigne is writing a letter to the dead and to the living. His monstrosity is not something he seeks to confess: it is the uncharted territory of the self. With whom can we explore our own monstrous, miraculous selves? With true friends. In letters, we cannot evade authorship.
In Praise of Nothing is bookended by essays that invite the reader into a place where one can daydream, imagine, play, recover from the barrage of data that is a fact of living now. And yet throughout the collection, I sensed a reticence — a willingness to celebrate the metaphorical charge of monstrosity but a reluctance to investigate it. Though LeMay’s experimentation is fresh, it ultimately hedges responsibility of authorship. Collage can be provocative, but it also risks the deference to external authority that predates the essay. LeMay writes with an acute awareness of the essay tradition. Yet I wanted to press him, as one might press a friend, to have the courage to make a claim, knowing it could turn out to be wrong or incomplete or conditional. While LeMay goes after the problem of loss, the alienation of coming of age, the isolating subjectivity of living in Total Noise, his essayistic disposition, in the collection as a whole, is light. My intuitions have not been disturbed; I am no different for having witnessed the experiment. What hard-won insight can LeMay show me that no one else can? In our time and place, perhaps the most radical thing we can do is assert, in an epistolary spirit of friendship, and wait to see if anyone is reading.