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Preface to Toska, An Essay Collection

The essay has taken multiple forms, historically, and however bruised by academia, it and the accompanying tradition remain intact. The essay has been beaten down, reshaped, and rebirthed by many writers, and the approaches to writing a “personal” essay abound. Stretching back to Montaigne in the late sixteenth century with his Essais (Lopate xlvi) and the Romantic Period’s familiar essay (Lynch 23), the personal essay has lately reestablished itself in popular media as creative nonfiction, but labels aside, the essay has kept its loose form. Indeed, the “individualistic,” “singular voice” that the essay espouses and its presentation of an idea in time appeals to readers who face a constant barrage of hyperbolized media (Brown). The essay features the subjective, the human, and attempts to feed the hunger for individual recognition and appreciation of uniqueness (Zeldin). While some literary critics find the essay to be culturally significant as a challenge to societal norms and academia, the form is simple. The largely enigmatic definition and form of the personal essay qualifies it as a style of prose, but it allows for an open use of subjective voice and lyrical elements.

German philosopher and sociologist, Theodor Adorno, and author, G. Douglas Atkins, have turned the essay into a rather grand form and genre of writing. Atkins proffers interesting commentary on what the essay can do in society while Adorno holds that essays invoke a kind of “intellectual freedom” because its form “shakes off the illusion of a simple and fundamentally logical world” (3, 15). Atkins concurs with Adorno, saying the essay represents “embodied truth” (147) or “what to do and be” (151)—it does not play to the status quo. While Atkins and Adorno present an interesting take on what the essay can do, in my own work, I don’t believe my prose adequately satisfied these grand themes; however, I concur with Dr. Paul Heilker and his belief that the personal essay on the same his ranking of the personal essay on the same level as the academic essay.

Dr. Paul Heilker agrees with this proposed purpose of challenging conventions, especially within academia. Heilker depicts the essay as a “personal, skeptical, anti-scholastic, and chronologic” entity (11) capable of standing on the same foot as an academic, thesis-driven essay (183). Ultimately, the essay retains a space within society as something of an enigma: in the words of essayist Richard Rodriguez, “Everything is admissible in the essay form” (Brown), which suggests any style of writing, indeed, any mode of written communication, can stretch to fit in the confines of the essay’s “formless form.” Though I recognize the value of these writers’ theories, the essays in this collection do not aim at anything quite as grand; they merely aim to showcase my own singular voice as an essayist and novice poet.

As a genre, the essay marks a “trial” or “attempt” to communicate a personal meditation (Moore 5). Indeed, Stephen Greenblatt cites it as an “informal philosophical meditation, usually in prose and sometimes in verse” (A15), but any attempts at definitively defining the genre prove inadequate. A rally for a re-interpretation of the essay exists, and proponents point to its history and how the form has been seemingly estranged from it by academia. Atkins characterizes the essay as “a creature of poise” balancing between “fiction and philosophy/theology and experience and meaning” (151). This in-betweenness creates difficulty in characterizing the essay, but it has engendered many interpretations of the form. Adorno considers essays as bridging the two cultures of organized science and experience dominated art (15) while others characterize the form as a critical show and tell (Depp) or reaffirm its Romantic (Enright), periodical (Gigante), or parabolic (Mortimer) history. The great majority of literary scholars now, though, see part of the solution to defining the essay and its form as resting in its quest for balance. They see the essay balancing familiarity with critical analysis, fact with fiction, brevity with looseness, subjectivity with objectivity, or universality with personability, but the priority rests in maintaining an even distance between two given extremes.

Poetry, then, can easily be interwoven into the essay—it gives primacy to an individual speaker and her shifting through the abstract middle (life). In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth “inverted the traditional hierarchy of poetic genres, subjects, and styles” and elevated “humble life” and “plain style” (Lynch 17), but importantly alluded to a sisterhood of art forms. Because prose and poetry resemble one another as of the same family, Wordsworth posits that “the language of prose may yet be well adapted to poetry” (142). Artful selection of words defines lyrical writing; lyrical essayists simply glorify the poetic form, taking full advantage of the loose medium by adding bits of poetry, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth 138). Lyrical essays, then, bridge poetry with traditional essay writing to get at the core of humanity—this realization brought me to fully embrace essayists of this caliber from Richard Rodriguez (see “Late Victorians”) to Wole Soyinka (see “Why do I Fast?”).

The essays in this collection all unfolded organically without some preconceived structure, but they all share in a characteristic lyricism. Foregrounding the lyrical somewhat disguises the essays’ personal elements by adding in a type of aesthetic noise. Lyrical overtones do not dominate the essays (hopefully), revealing glimmers of who I am as a writer. This verge towards the intimate is vital—teetering between extremes appeals to me, and I wish to capture it in the structure of my essays to fully explore a form that relishes in its definition as a balancing act. Additionally, not oversaturating the essays with poetry yields universality since most readers find its musical phraseology tantalizing to the eye and ear, but only to a certain degree.

Each of my essays reflects a kind of existential dread that currently hovers in my consciousness; hence, the title of the collection, Toska. Vladimir Nabokov best-described toska as a “sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause” and as a “vague restlessness” or “yearning” which perfectly describes my mental state. Additionally, I liked the Russian roots of the word and how it entered the Western American mind as foreign, like depression or negative thoughts. The underlying meaning of toska, then makes it pertinent to the essays at hand. The environment and time surrounding the composition of these essays, distinctly characterized them, priming my pessimistic mentality and certain examples, authors, and references over others.

All of the essays in this collection begin with moments of lyrical abstraction to slowly draw readers into a particular scene or mood. Simply by studying the opening sentences of each essay illustrates my initial obscure and poetic impulses for writing. With “Whisper No,” I begin, “Here you lie restlessly awake between the flailing skies and siren wails” because I wished to emphasize place. “Are You Looking After Yourself,” similarly begins with, “Wrinkles twinkled about the edges of her eyes while she stoically sat, knitting in her airplane seat” to formulate an image and temporary place. “Of Mongolian Throat Singing” kept the poetic element, but aimed to create disconnect between the title and the first paragraph in the spirit of Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating”: I interweave scientific fact with selective poetry, stating, “In the innermost part of the stars above our heads, a nuclear fission reaction continually churns out various elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.” Such poetic or lyrical moments allow for singular reflection and my own individual interpretation to bleed through the prose.

The first essay of the collection, “Whisper No,” aimed to challenge conventions and present an alternative speaker and viewpoint. As Phillip Lopate deftly remarked of essays, “[they] intentionally go against the grain of popular opinion” (xxx), and this essay satisfies that claim. A pessimistic stream of consciousness does not often get free reign in the spotlight—extroverted positivity and the optimism bias (Sharot) tends to snuff it out. This essay proffered a different opinion to life and criticized everything it could in the space of a few pages, courtesy of the thinly disguised rage I allowed to ferment through it as Hazlitt did in his “On the Pleasure of Hating.” Examining a single paragraph decidedly kills the mood: “We, the human race, persist for some undetermined reason. We can’t seem to reason anything better to do than to molest the Earth, killing everything in our path: this is our will to power. We are all monsters” (3). I sought to render this essay raw without any filter by playing with pronouns (accusing readers with “you”) and freely drawing on Montaigne’s elegant use of quotes from decidedly nihilistic philosophers and literary figures: O’Connor, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Camus, respectively. Alan Moore’s Watchmen factored into the essay’s composition too; the title (adapted from Rorschach’s journal) and the brief allusion to Dr. Manhattan (superhero) have their roots in the graphic novel. I also drew on Montaigne’s prolific self-reflection by adopting a voice other than my own. The voice of the authors in the quotes I used mixed in with the voice of this essay as a whole, and I merged it with my own to create a new but nonetheless personal speaker.

Jonathan Culler’s interesting commentary on the pronoun, “I,” and various identities that get attached to it directly impacted into how I used personal pronouns in this essay because the voice in the essay is, again, not my own. I did weave in my own opinions into the prose and several of the nihilistic ideas contained in the piece connect with my own, but I meant to challenge the traditional voice pervasive in so many essays.

I titled the second essay in the collection, “Are You Looking After Yourself,” as an interrogative in the disguise of a fragment to make it seem like a command, an earnest consideration, that did not need a question mark to signal a question—this came from the complicated subject that the essay explores and to which I have no answer. In writing this essay, I joined fellow essayists in that I “frequently [ran] up against, and [admitted] to, [my] own vain hopes, inadequacies, and failure[s]” (Atkins 16). If this essay was anything special, then it was a meditation on myself and who I am, but I also attempted to converse with my reader because I “already [have] dialogues and disputes with [myself]” as a writer and partially functioning human being (Lopate xxiv). For instance, I referenced Shakespeare’s Hamlet, specifically Hamlet’s famous act three soliloquy to illustrate my own existential dread, “to be or not to be” moment by saying, “I don’t have spare time, but that’s my own fault. Yes, there’s the rub. Time—the destroyer of everything, the common denominator of all life, and what does my family constantly berate me about—how I use or misuse it.”

The final essay in the collection, “Of Mongolian Throat Singing,” featured a subjective analysis of my brother but I balanced it with lyrical breaks. The essay borrowed its mosaic structure from Richard Rodriguez’s “Late Victorians” and featured the subtle humor of M.F.K. Fisher’s “Once a Tramp, Always.” The subject of my brother and throat singing seemed to demand the essay be humorous, but I tried to write somewhere in-between Rodriguez and Fisher while including my characteristically lyrical style. Rodriguez, in his essay, moves from place, San Francisco, to gay culture to the AIDS epidemic seamlessly via spacing, and I imitated that in my essay by adopting the spaces and adding in italics. With this example in mind, I explain throat singing as a type of singing that “intermixes with the howling winds of the steppes, chimes of streaming water, and the staccato interludes of various wildlife.” But, I follow this lyrical explanation with, “Take that out of context, reproduce it on a CD, and what comes out of plastic speakers by your feet in a coming out of midnight blue Nissan Altima is rather ridiculous,” which is a rather humorous statement. Again, the humor merely added a layer to the largely lyrical style of the prose.

Each of the essays in my collection revolves around toska, as defined above, and I present my own subjective voice on the matter with a flourish of lyricism. The essay possesses only so much power as the essayist puts into it—and I see the work I put into them as being inadequate for the bold subjects I approached, especially “Whisper No” and “Are You Looking After Yourself.” The time allotted for composing these essays limited my ability to fully execute these essays to their full potential, and I failed to imbue them with a kind of power I see them capable of assuming. The essay is simple in its ability to capture individual voice, poetry, and its power rests in this facet. Thus, by noting all the form can do, I still need to do much to perfect my own interpretation of the art.

Works Cited

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