Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I was struggling with a short story for a fiction workshop and turned to a close friend who was, and still is, a master of the form (let’s just say his short-story collection won all the big awards). I was hoping, as all apprentices do, that I might get the precise insight that would unlock the story and open the gates to publication. While I do not recall what his overall comments entailed (the story was not good), I do recall one particular comment and it has stuck with me all these years. Next to a line wherein I was hedging my bet on something or another he wrote, “Don’t equivocate!” What he meant, or at least what I think he meant, was that in fiction, you have to know everything about the world you are trying to create. Equivocation destabilizes omniscience and threatens to break the “fictional dream,” as John Gardner would have it. It can also create an unreliable narrator and fracture the univocal narrative vision.
Because I was a nonfiction guy crashing a fiction class that semester, I wasn’t too concerned about a failed short story. Instead, I began thinking about how his admonishment might be applied to the essay as a form. It became a notion that I have slowly nurtured and coaxed along over the years. Of course, the word equivocation is often used in a pejorative context, implying that one who equivocates is deliberately ambiguous so as to deceive or manipulate his or her audience. Etymologically speaking, however, equivocate—a word that first showed up in English in 1599, or seven years after Montaigne died of a quinsy—derives from the Latin aequivocus, which simply means “of equal voice, of equal significance,” and, yes, “ambiguity.” But it is also defined as “Having different significations equally appropriate or plausible; capable of double interpretation.” I don’t see these definitions as inherently negative or manipulative. Rather, I see them reflecting a kind of democratic spirit, a mode of inclusion, and an allowance for complexity, possibility and nuance. All of these traits comprise the very ethos upon which the essay is both morally and aesthetically dependent.
The ability to equivocate artfully in the essay not only reveals an agile mind in motion, but also a kind of global awareness of the heterogeneous nature of one’s subject matter, and even the limitations of the essayist in the act of writing itself. Admitting one’s shortcomings, in other words, is a way of pulling back the curtain and exposing our very humanness as we try to sort out some puzzle, quirk or riddle in the world. No one was more agile, equivocal or aware than Montaigne, the great progenitor of the essay. The opening lines in his essay, “Of Books,” for instance, show a cascade of nimble and equivocal movements. “I have no doubt,” he wrote,
that I often happen to speak of things that are better treated by the masters of the craft, and more truthfully. This is purely the essay of my natural faculties, and not at all of the acquired ones; and whoever shall catch me in ignorance will do nothing against me for I should hardly be answerable for my ideas to others, I who am not answerable for them to myself, or satisfied with them.
We see in these lines a writer who was comfortable admitting his layman status and limitations in engaging his subject (i.e. he was not a trained scholar of literature, per se), but also a man who gave himself permission to write about literature to the best of his abilities. “And if I am a man of some reading,” he conceded, “I am a man of no retentiveness. Thus I guarantee no certainty. . .” More than just merely arming himself against possible criticisms from the learned elite, Montaigne’s equivocal pivoting cuts right to the heart of his great project: to write of himself, truly, deficiencies and all. It is this “everyman” quality in his essays—his egalitarian disposition—that allows for that democratic spirit to thrive on the page.
That he “guarantee[s] no certainty” is significant. The writer who sets out to guarantee certainty in an essay is doomed from the start, whereas the uncertain writer of a short story will likely fail to exact the verisimilitude upon which the short story relies. Essayists court uncertainty and are, in a sense, practitioners of Keats’ negative capability because they possess the faculty “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . .” In his foundational essay, “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald put it another way: “[T]he test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Essayists are, in other words, no strangers to contradiction. Indeed, when you look at the whole of Montaigne’s oeuvre, you see him engaging human contradiction at every turn, and within himself most of all. Scholar Peter Mark once noted that, “[l]ike Shakespeare, Montaigne is especially concerned with contradiction and paradox. Often he insists on the importance of both sides or a contradiction, real or apparent.” That insistence on the relative merit of both sides of a paradox is executed by way of artful equivocation. It is a rhetorical method that allows for “equal voice” and “equal significance.”
Built into the baseline definition of the essay (i.e. to attempt) lies the guiding principle of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the catalyst that moves pen to paper in the first place. It is what urges us at some fundamental level to hoist the sail in the pursuit of discovery, of meaning, of drawing connections between otherwise disparate ideas. And the art of equivocation is the rhetorical rigging that allows the essay to navigate those most human of realms: possibility, paradox, nuance and complexity.
Susan Sontag once wrote that, “many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking.” A good essay is inclusive by design, and its equivocal nature disallows for reductive reasoning, and forestalls exclusivity. Successful essayists reject binary perspectives: this or that, with us or against us, us vs. them. That is why didacticism in an essay is as dangerous as a viper strike. Writing on the essay, Elizabeth Hardwick put it this way: “[I]ll-written, pompously self-righteous, lamely jocular forays offend because an air of immature certainty surrounds them.”
Years ago, when I taught freshman composition, I assigned what was called an “argumentative essay,” a term I now find oxymoronic (a better term might be “argumentative article”). All of the supporting evidence in an argumentative article works in service to its univocal goal: to convince the reader of the writer’s agenda. In this sense, such an article is, by design, manipulative—in the most literal, non-pejorative sense. Even in stylized, highly crafted argumentative articles that utilize rhetorical tools like concession and Rogerian strategies (i.e. finding common ground with one’s opposition), all of the machinery still works to serve one purpose: to make a convincing and unassailable case.
Freshman comp students are also often tasked to write something known as the “exploratory essay,” a label that strikes me as not so much oxymoronic as redundant. Good essays are inherently exploratory (can you think of a non-exploratory essay?). An essay is the literary equivalent of a ruminative walk, a sojourn into geographies both familiar and unknown, and while a compass is not required, one must possess an agile mind, an equivocal disposition, and a liberal curiosity.
A good essay is not unlike a good dinner guest. It is polite, not antagonistic. It is well-mannered, not gossipy. It ought to be intelligent, but not arrogant. It is open to diverse points of view. It is self-aware. It is more suggestion than argumentation. It is as intimate as it is welcoming and revelatory. Part of its attractiveness, I think, has to do with its makeup of conversational charm, modesty and expressive style.
Again, Elizabeth Hardwick: “Expressiveness is an addition to statement, and hidden in its clauses is an intelligence uncomfortable with dogmatism, wanting to make allowances for the otherwise case, the emendation.” Allowing for the “otherwise case,” the correction, the admitted mistake, are the precise traits of artful equivocation.
It occurs to me that the equivocal nature of the essay and the ways in which it fosters a democratic spirit have been prevalent in the form through time. Annie Dillard once suggested how one “could reason that American literature derives from the essay and hinges on the essay, if only because American literature springs from Emerson and Emerson was an essayist.” Emerson was like Montaigne in that he championed the universality of human experience, and, in particular that of the “everyman.” “There is one mind common to all individual men,” he wrote. “Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate.” In The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America, Christopher Newfield noted how Emerson “had been summoned as the sponsor of the liberating revisability of a democratic culture.” And while Newfield does point out all of the progressive causes to which Emerson was attached, Emerson’s essays, he notes, were more nuanced and less one-note. “But it is also the case,” he writes, “that Emerson holds a number of conservative-liberal views that lend his overall record the equivocal complexity that has engaged generations of scholars.”
It may be that Emerson is America’s Montaigne, and if not Emerson, then perhaps Whitman—if only ideologically. Whitman certainly embraced Emerson’s democratic zeal, but he also echoed Montaigne’s philosophy of self-exploration. “I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Like Montaigne, Whitman was unafraid of discussing sexuality and the human body with eyebrow-raising frankness (Emerson urged him to pull back; he refused), and like Montaigne, Whitman was drawn to paradox and contradiction. He was large, after all. He contained multitudes. In other words, Whitman embraced—even celebrated—equivocation and wrote with a kind of inclusive, democratic gusto that was as much poetic as it was philosophical.
If American literature derived from the essay, as Dillard suggested, then it should also be noted that the essay derives not from literature, but from philosophy. Some of the earliest essays (though they did not bear that distinction)—those to which Montaigne so hungrily turned—came from the minds of philosophers like Seneca and Plutarch.
In Seneca, for instance, we see a democratic spirit (relative to his time, of course) in his piece, “Slaves”: “Remember,” he wrote, “that the man you call slave sprang from the same seed, enjoys the same daylight, breathes like you, lives like you, dies like you. You can as easily conceive him a free man as he can conceive you a slave.” Here are words, written centuries ago, that call attention to the universality of the human experience. In Seneca, too, there is that agile mind working on the page that also embraces equivocation through a particular rhetorical strategy of point and counter-point. Because Seneca wrote in an epistolary form, equivocation came almost naturally. “Whenever the thought of your wide power over your slave strikes you,” he noted, “be struck, too, by the thought of your master’s equal wide power over you.” He creates the point, and then allows for the counter-point: “‘But I have no master!’ you object. All in good time; you may have one. Remember how old Hecuba was when she became a slave . . .” Seneca engages his likely recipient (Lucilius) but also all of us, and nimbly anticipates what our objections, questions or quarrels might be and then opens up a conversational space. But Seneca is also urging his readers to think outside of conventional binary modes of thought (master/slave), by disallowing for Sontag’s “closed, systematic ways of thinking.” He flips the model on its head.
In many ways it was Seneca who Montaigne most admired, in part because of his equitable style and in part because of his stoic philosophy. Montaigne admired Seneca, too, because he saw degrees of paradox and contradiction both in the man and the writer. A noted stoic, Seneca can be found guilty of griping or complaining about his asthmatic condition, for instance. Or he can be found grumbling about all of the racket in his head late at night. “[H]e acted, in short,” Philip Lopate once remarked, “like a human being instead of a paragon of virtue.”
Because of the essay’s philosophical nature, it is at odds with that hackneyed dictum often lobbed at would-be writers: “Write what you know.” Even a good personal essay will—and should—surprise both writer and reader at some point in its reach toward meaning. Some unexpected connection or turn into the unknown are often the most satisfying and salient moments of an essay. My habit as a practicing essayist is to write what I don’t know. It’s a big and beautiful and haunting world out there, and writing an essay with an agile mind, a democratic spirit, a liberal curiosity, and an equivocal flexibility is, finally, when it comes right down to it, an act of good citizenry. It is an act of inclusion, of respect, of recognizing commonality among us. It is an act of being human, contradictions, limitations and all.
Brandon R. Schrand is the author of The Enders Hotel: A Memoir, a 2008 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem & Misbehavior. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Dallas Morning News, The Utne Reader, Tin House, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Ecotone and other journals and anthologies. His nonfiction has won the Pushcart Prize, Shenandoah’s Carter Prize for the Essay, and he has had Notable Essays in The Best American Essays 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2013. His work has also earned a Yaddo residency. He lives in Moscow, Idaho, with his wife and two children.