Jon Baskin on “Finding the Point”

Tour of Houghton for cover story on how literary papers are processed

(Journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Houghton Library)

“Essay Daily” recently published a lovely essay by friend and fellow Social Thought student, Jon Baskin, on–what else?–the essay. Baskin begins:

We were motivated to start The Point in part by our sense that the essay—historically a rich format for philosophical reflection—was being ghettoized on the one hand into ineffectual personal memoirs, and on the other into jargon-heavy, impersonal academic journals. In the first case, the raw experience was everything—and often shock, trauma or the communication of extreme emotion became substitutes for thought. In the second, the argument was the only thing—to evaluate whether it was successful was simply a matter of traveling smoothly from premises to conclusions. There remained a space, we suspected, for thought unspooled in the midst of experience, where the writer could in describing her own path compel the reader to re-examine her own.

Our best essays therefore combine argument and narrative in something like the manner that we believe life combines them. We act out of convictions we barely knew we had, and then sometimes we criticize ourselves, reaching for other people’s words to justify or to condemn ourselves. To us, this goes to the heart of what an “essay” ideally is—that is, an attempt (as the French has it) to understand something that has affected you in your life. Often our essays are long (my mom says they are all too long), but this is less because the essayist wants to say something complicated or even original as it is because whatever she has seen is inseparable from the narrative she wants to tell about how she came to see it . . .

Baskin goes on to cite Cavell’s notion of an author who would “prevent understanding which is unaccompanied by inner change.” Click [here] to read the essay in full.

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