March 20, 2012

The Moth Doesn’t Matter, or, Some Obvious Statements about an Essay

I didn’t want to say or write anything, ever, about this perpetual conversation about John D’Agata, but I’ve decided to write something for this blog this morning and while I’d love to tell you about how much I like the excellent book I’m reading I’m not far enough into it to really say anything about it.

I don’t have much to add to this big conversation being had about John D’Agata, facts, nonfiction, and John D’Agata – a conversation that I’m very worried will only make it harder for certain people, who have written nonfiction book manuscripts with all the attention to detail and facts that their work called for, to publish those books. I would, though, like to write briefly about “The Death of the Moth,” which I think is pertinent to the discussion. D’Agata included it in his essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, but that’s not what makes it relevant. It is, rather, a great example of something some people don’t seem to have made room for in their personal mental genre maps, a thing I’ll call The Essay in Which Facts Don’t Matter Very Much.

As everyone knows, not much happens in “The Death of the Moth.” A moth starts to die, tries not to, but dies anyway. That’s it, essentially. All of the real importance is in Woolf’s depiction of that death, the significance she grants it, the way she makes the narrative into something much more than the tale of a fading insect.

There is, I suppose, a kind of reportage in the essay, as Woolf relays to us the news of a moth’s windowsill death and her sympathy for it. But if news broke that Woolf never actually watched that moth die, never nudged it with her pencil, or didn’t care about the moth the way she claims she did, it would make absolutely no difference at all. The moth is not important. The moth’s death is not important. What is important is everything else happening in the essay, of which there is a lot, all of which is confined to the space between Woolf’s ears where the thinking happened.

Right there.

There are those who would claim that if I am right, and Woolf’s essay is not marinated in facts, if it does not adhere to objective truthfulness that we tend to demand of essays, then it is a work of fiction and we should call it a short story. I don’t see it that way; I think we have to live with The Essay in Which Facts Don’t Matter Very Much because there are many of them and to pretend they’re short stories, or poems, or other things that aren’t essays, is to live in an unnecessary kind of denial.

I know that others still would argue that everything in The Death of the Moth does indeed hinge on the reality of that dying moth, on its having actually died on the windowsill with Woolf watching. I don’t think so.  But they might be right; I am merely one person, one who flutters back and forth between one opinion and another like a moth dying on a windowsill.  I only want to advocate on behalf of a certain kind of essay where facts aren’t especially relevant, where to get upset about the verifiability of its details is to be truly pedantic.  While I am convinced – not having read About a Mountain – that it doesn’t belong in that category, I think this Woolf essay is one of them, and is worth a few minutes of our attention once every couple of years or so.

It is interesting to me that prior to About a Mountain, D’Agata did something like what it sounds like he does in About a Mountain, which is to blend literary journalism, or the appearance of it, with this kind of sheer contemplative writing.  I am thinking of his essay “Round Trip,” in which he describes, among other things, meeting a twelve-year-old on a bus to the Hoover Dam. There’s a memorable point in that essay where D’Agata inserts a monologue on the computer game Civilization, in quotation marks, offset from the rest of the essay’s text. It is given as if it were the kid’s transcribed rambling. When I first read that long paragraph, I was struck by how inaccurate a description it was of Civilization, which I’ve spent more hours of my life playing than I’ll ever admit. Having spent time listening to kids describe computer games, I couldn’t believe that any twelve-year-old would describe Civilization the way D’Agata says this one did. I questioned whether that kid ever said these things at all.  But if you look, he doesn’t really claim that the kid was talking about the game like this; it’s a quotation not attributed to anyone, ostensibly. It’s a description of the game, perhaps based on something this twelve-year-old said, that’s been sent through the meat grinder of whatever D’Agata wanted to do with it.

I don’t doubt that About a Mountain has all of the problems with it that have been identified by the good people I admire who’ve identified problems with it. But although it’s taken me a little while to come around to this, I also think it’s worth pointing out that D’Agata’s whole project is not illegitimate, and that at times it works rather well.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

About robertlongforeman

The Missouri Review's Social Media Editor, Robert Long Foreman's work has appeared in journals that include the Michigan Quarterly Review, the Massachusetts Review, and Pleiades, among others. His essays were listed in the Notable Essays of Best American Essays 2008 and 2010.

6 Responses to The Moth Doesn’t Matter, or, Some Obvious Statements about an Essay

  1. Carlos Cunha says:

    But don’t you have to ask, why call it an essay at all, if you need to qualify calling it that with six or seven additional words? A zebra is a zebra, not a horse-whose-coat-is-always-striped-in-black-and-white. A zebra, in fact, is not a horse at all, even if it does strongly resemble one. Why this insistence on the term “essay” for writing that so obviously exceeds the boundaries of what is conventionally understood to be an essay? Why insist on a misleading, expectations-dashing label? If we must use an existing genre label for this sort of writing, I would suggest “chronicle.” It’s an argument that I’ve been making for a while now at my own blog,

    • I referred to this sort of essay with so many words in an effort to be tongue-in-cheek, actually; what I mean to argue is that the essay is not necessarily a genre where facts are at issue. Look at William Gass’s “On Being Blue” and Richard Rodriguez’s “Brown” – these aren’t “chronicles,” they’re essays, and to get upset about whether they’re factually accurate is to miss the point. That’s all I’m saying, more or less.

  2. Carlos Cunha says:

    I was actually aware that you were being tongue-in-cheek. My own point is that labeling a piece as an essay sets up certain conventional expectations — including the expectation that what facts there are in it will indeed be facts, especially when it is about something beyond a personal anecdote, which seems to be the case with D’Agata’s book. The bagginess, creative license and sundry literary values that we would lend the essay is really more typical of what has, in Europe, long been known as the cronica or the feulleiton. The English-speaking world has never come up with its own term for it, so I would simply call it the chronicle. I would agree that Gass’s piece is indeed, like Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” an essay; but Rodriguez’s “Brown” immediately struck me as more of a chronicle.

  3. I so wholeheartedly agree with your observations about the essay. I have not read John D’Agata’s book. Nor am I familiar with the blog discussions about his book. I take it the buzz concerns whether or not an essayist should adhere to facts in accepted prose essay writing. I take it, by your reference to the Woolf essay (which I have read), the confusion lies in the conflation with cold-hard facts with reality. It seems to me the discussion becomes bogged down with an erroneous assumption that if my reportage is marinated in facts then I somehow have gotten it right. Facts alone do not make up reality. If that were the case then me describing the moth based on all the properties of “moth” and describing it in painstaking scientific detail would be enough. But obviously no one sees the moth first as an object with certain objective properties. We see the moth first phenomenologically as a moth in the world. So of course to write about the moth, it does not matter much if the moth did in FACT die or did in fact do X; To see the moth is to see it in all of its possibilities. The essay can say something about reality without strict adherence to brute facts. An essay that only adhered to brute facts would be something more akin to a lab report. Essay writing, I think, is phenomenological. It attends to the phenomenon at hand. D’Agata’s prose about the twelve year old on the bus is real. Why? It’s not about this one twelve year old and his particular “talk” about a video game, but is rather a composite story about boys and video games and how that relates to a world (in all of its possible possibilities). Your blog reminds me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a non-fiction novel, which I think is another example of what mean by the essay “getting” reality. The essay is written according to how we see the world, as both facts and a set of possibilities, but not reduced to either one. If we were to get upset that In Cold Blood is rubbish would be to be upset “about the verifiability of its details,” which I agree is “pedantic.” The solution is not to call the essay by another name. Or to call it short fiction. The fiction writer tells us upfront “it’s a fiction.” The essayist tells us, “this is how it appeared to me” and in this telling is the way it was. If he gets a particular fact wrong, it is not because he is attempting to deceive us, but it is just “evidence” that the essay is like us — we see the world in a certain way — not because we have a distorted way of viewing the world — but because we perceive the world in a way that cannot be reduced to subject and object, as if the object is somehow this totally objective thing. No. To report on an object is to realize that the truth in the telling lies somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity.

    • Patrick Lane says:

      “To report on an object is to realize that the truth in the telling lies somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity.” What troubles me is that this conception of truth seems to say that what truth is, at a remove from objectivity, is belief. To “speak the truth” becomes”to express (or proselytize) one’s beliefs.” And that seems to me to essentially become a justification for propaganda. One is allowed to deviate from one’s actual observations — whether the moth actually died, whether one actually heard a kid conceptualize the game Civilization in a particular way, whether one actually spoke with Chinese workers injured making Apple products — so long as those deviations help to shore up the palatability of the beliefs/ideology you want to convey to your audience.

      I certainly don’t intend to be rude with this next remark — it’s not meant as a personal attack or anything of the kind — but when I read your sentence about writing the possibilities, in my head what I hear is any one of our “truthiness”-addled political pundits saying: “So of course to write about Saddam Hussein, it does not matter much if he did in FACT possess WMDs; to see him possessing them is to see him in all of his possibilities.” The brutal fact that there were none doesn’t really matter; what matters is that the impression that he would have them is true to our beliefs about his character and his intentions and the threat he poses. This kind of argument about truth seems positively medieval — that is, “truth” is really verisimiltude in the original sense, meaning it is what we expect to be true. A “true” story is only true to the degree that it confirms the principles that order the world (i.e., our beliefs), and the medieval critic would argue that it’s bad writing — indeed, untrue writing — to let the mere accidents of the world (i.e., brute facts) get in the way of demonstrating a saint or king’s true goodness and nobility, or a heretic or tyrant’s true depravity. “Truth” actually becomes subordinate to belief, and I see that notion doing to much real damage in the world to feel good about it, even in relatively innocuous applications like meditative essays.

  4. Patrick, I enjoyed your comment. Thanks for replying. My remark about writing possibilities is not meant to endorse propaganda. My remarks are meant to endorse something special about what essays do. I simply thought what Robert wrote above reminds me of phenomenology, attending to the manifold ways objects appear in the world. To say the essay lies somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity is not to say that attending to possibilities all of a sudden leads me down a slippery path of dangerous belief and propaganda. The slippery slope argument doesn’t work here. To make a comment about the essay and truth is not to also claim that this could lead to dangerous propaganda. Yes, I agree. It’s bad judgment to declare war based on misconstrued intelligence. It’s doesn’t mean the essayist who dabbles in phenomenology is a propagandist and a proselytizer. I think what I suggested is far removed from your concerns.