An exercise in doubt.

Phillip Lopate ponders the essay as a writing format:

Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.

According to Theodor Adorno, the iron law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions? This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” an ostensible goal of education in a democracy. But since such thinking often rocks the boat, we may find it less than supported in school settings. Typically, the exercise of doubt is something an individual has to cultivate on his or her own, in private, before summoning the courage to air it, say, in an essay.

I’ve treated my entire time in higher education this way. I don’t know if I was actively encouraged to at some point, and have since forgotten the initial source, but something conspired with the fact that it’s simply impossible to offer definitive positions on issues when you’re churning out 2,000 words every three days as an undergraduate here, and it meant that I quickly adopted a philosophy in which the purpose of the essay was primarily to think out loud and stimulate future discussion. And I still do that to this day. Yes, I develop positions and push for a particular viewpoint. But I also openly offer up the doubts I inevitably have in order to provoke my supervisor.

And this all applies equally to the method of blogging, which goes some way to explaining why Montaigne is one of Sullivan’s heroes. And insofar as blogging grants such liberty with regards to length – anything between a hundred and over a thousand words for a post can be justifiable – it is arguably superior to the essay. You can entertain ideas and reach a global audience immediately for feedback without having to perfect a narrative and drag out the idea, as essays may oblige you to. Sullivan also linked us to Alan Massie, who was surely right to speculate that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be blogging. Prolifically.


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