"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Art of the Essay: An Ode to the Greatest Cat

I had to come up with a new category for this: an essay by someone I came across that I thought was noteworthy.  Since this is the first of the category, I ought to define what an essay is.  Its etymology derives from the French “assay,” a word with multiple meanings. But of the ones relevant to this topic, consider “to examine or analyze” and perhaps more importantly, “to attempt.”  It is interesting that the French cognate is a verb while the English is a noun, though its use as a verb is in the dictionary, but I can’t say I have ever come across it personally.  When I do think of an essay, I do think of the original French use of an attempt.  It is an attempt to communicate.  I think of it as a reaching out to a reader, an attempt to bridge the gap between writer and whoever wishes to read.

 But an attempt to communicate what?  It’s no coincidence that when we think of essay we think of a school writing assignment.  The primary English definition of the noun is “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.”  Most of people’s contact with the essay is in high school English composition class.  We are taught to formulate a thesis, provide supporting argument, and finally a coalescing conclusion.  Wikipedia provides a fuller definition:  

Essays are generally scholarly pieces of writing written from an author's personal point of view, but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of an article, a pamphlet and a short story.

Essays can consist of a number of elements, including: literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g. Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population are counterexamples. In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.

Through the use of literary criticism and learned arguments (i.e., term papers) is where most students perfect their skills of writing.  By the latter part of my graduate school, I started incorporating creative elements into my literary essays.  The essay has an incredible flexibility to it, as long as one keeps focused on the thesis argument, and in my latter essays in Grad School I let go of scholarly inhibition and heightened my papers with all sorts of rhetorical twists.  One of my favorite writers, the one whose work I ultimately wrote my Master’s Thesis, D. H. Lawrence, was a brilliant essayist, and at my best writing I felt I was channeling his creative flares. 

Now if the scholarly essay is what we normally encounter in school, what we enjoy to read when out of school is a subset of the essay, known as the personal essay.  In the personal essay we encounter life, as experienced by the author by means of drawing the reader into the experience, much in the way of fiction author, but with the criteria that this experience actually happened.  In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (a must have book for lovers of literature, by the way), editor Phillip Lopate attempts to reach a definition:  

The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy.  The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom.  Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.
                        (p. xxiii, Anchor Books/Doubleday, New York, 1994)

Now that I have introduced you to what a personal essay is, here is a wonderful example I just came across that makes for a touching read: “An Ode to Sophie,the World’s Greatest Tabster,” by Lee Cheeks from The Imaginative Conservative.  I’ll just provide the central paragraph:

Guided by the inspiration of Grandpa Cheek and Russell Amos Kirk, even though closed to the prospect of having a feline in our house, some openness emerged after making a professional transition to Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, an exemplary liberal arts college. My wife, Kathy, convinced me that we needed a cat. I was adamantly opposed to the prospect initially, but my life experiences allowed me to consider the possibility. In August of 2000, I walked gently into a pet store on Keith Street in Cleveland, Tennessee, and a beautiful tab cat kitten with white paws ran up to me without provocation; her paws glistened in the bright lights of the store, suggesting she had chosen me as her new factotum. Little did I know that this kitten would change my life. In a day or so we brought Sophie to our Georgia Bell Circle home. Sophie was an adorable kitten, not in the typical sense that all kittens are adorable; she seemed to be able to discern your attitude and you intentions, and responded in due course. At the beginning of her first night with us, we placed her in the kitchen, and between the kitchen and the dining room we placed an inflatable bed (vertically) so as to block exit from the kitchen. Sophie cried and obviously wanted to spend the evening with us, but she eventually settled down and we went to sleep. Much to our surprise and excitement, in middle of the night, she was able to make her way into our bedroom, overcoming the “great wall” we had placed in her way! We quickly discerned that Sophie was unstoppable and unflappable, even in the midst of difficult situations. As she overcame her inflatable bed as barricade, she would overcome many challenges during her twelve years on this earth.

All pet lovers will instantly connect, and though I’m a dog person, I have to say this made me want to go out and bring home a cat.  The essay strikes me as a classical example of the personal essay form: an introduction that provides the context and initial conflict, a personal narrative that draws the reader into the experience, a climatic conclusion, and an epilogue that frames the experience into some sort of insight.  Like all personal essays done well, it was a joy to read.

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