The essay feasts on doubt, self-doubt, contradiction and paradox. Nowhere is this more striking than in essays written in opposition to a seemingly unchallengeable good. Examples of the tradition include Joyce Carol Oates’ “Against Nature,” Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” Witold Gombrowicz’s “AgainstPoets,” Laura Kipnis’ “Against Love” and (dare I include) my own “Against Joie de Vivre.” Now, why would a writer want to take such a perverse position, which flies in the face of all accepted wisdom? What is to be gained by such contrarianism?
Let me enumerate the advantages.The first is surprise, freshness, the lure of the unexpected.To write a panegyric to love, peace or brotherhood would be to invite yawns of agreement. For an essayist to strike a mischievous pose, sometimes all that is necessary is to question skeptically a received truth. If this were done only for provocation’s sake, it might aggravate or pall, but in the process of analyzing his or her resistance, the writer might uncover some grains of truth that could complicate our understanding of the good in useful ways and bring solace to readers who might otherwise feel alone in their wayward, antisocial thoughts. (I maintain we all have them, though perhaps I am overstating the case.) And if, in the end, the writer’s attack on an ostensibly positive value fails to convince us, then our attachment to that particular good will be all the more strengthened, having withstood the trial of devil’s advocacy. In testing the validity of certain pieties, the contrarian essay performs a valuable function, like the null hypothesis in experimental science.
A second advantage is that the contrarian gambit introduces tension and suspense into the essay: How will the writer justify this absurd (or so it seems) contention? The “against” strategy is a gauntlet thrown down not only to the reader but to the writer, as well, who must now come up with convincing arguments—or, at least, entertaining rants.
A third advantage is that a curmudgeonly pose helps to build the I-character rapidly into a specific, idiosyncratic individual. To say you like to take walks in nature hardly distinguishes you from several billion others. To assert, however, as Max Beerbohm does in his funny personal essay, “Going Out for a Walk,” that one resists such practices at all costs, makes his character spring vividly to mind. “It is a fact that not once in all my life have I gone out for a walk,” he writes. “I have been taken out for walks; but that is another matter. Even while I trotted prattling by my nurse’s side I regretted the good old days when I had, and wasn’t, a perambulator.” The wordplay on “perambulator” suggests another advantage of the contrarian essay: It is an invitation to wittiness. Earnest piety has been abandoned in the title alone, so one may as well play the sardonic, disenchanted wag. Just as wit often relies on unexpected inversion, such as Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that no one could read of the death of Little Nell without bursting into peals of laughter, so the contrarian essay is an entire exercise in inside-out thinking.
Does it not also have a potential downside, inviting aggressiveness, bullying and hostility toward the reader, who, as society’s surrogate, foolishly believes in
the conventional wisdom under attack? Yes, perhaps. The trick for the contrarian essayist is to provoke without insulting—to alternate between cheekiness and bonding with the reader. This requires not only supreme control of the ironic tone but also an ability to be self-mocking while tweaking others’ assumptions. It may also be necessary to anticipate readers’ objections. So Gombrowicz does in the first paragraph of his diatribe against poetry:
It would be more subtle of me if I did not disrupt one of the rare ceremonies which we have left. Even though we have come to doubt practically everything, we still venerate the cult of Poetry and Poets and this is the only deity which we are not ashamed to worship with great pomp, deep bows, and inflated voice. … Ah, ah, Shelley! Ah, ah, Slowacki! Ah, the word of the Poet, the mission of the Poet, and the soul of the Poet! Nevertheless, I have to attack these prayers and spoil this ritual as much as I can simply in the name of elementary anger, which all errors of style, all distortions, all flights from reality arouse in us. Because I am setting out to do battle with an area especially elevated, almost celestial, I have to watch so that I don’t float off like a balloon and lose the ground beneath my feet.
He then goes on to puncture the self- satisfied aura surrounding the genre in astute ways, convincing even for those who, like me, love poetry.
The more difficult trick may be to navigate the line between telling the truth and being so caught up in contention as to seem disingenuous. Some exaggeration for comic effect, as well as the suppression of one’s more conventional tendencies
for the sake of argument, is, of course, permissible. When I wrote “Against Joie de Vivre,” for instance, I was perfectly aware that another side of me is much more life-affirming, that I enjoy the random picnic or dinner party as well as the next man, just as Beerbohm, for all we know, may have liked taking an occasional walk in nature. But there is something to be said for following an impulse as far as it will take you and seeing where it will lead. Justifying her quixotic stances against metaphorical and interpretative thinking, Susan Sontag put it this way: “Of course, one cannot think without metaphors. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some metaphors we might as well abstain from. As, of course, all thinking is interpretation. But that does not mean it isn’t sometimes correct to be ‘against’ interpretation.”
Sontag elsewhere defined a literary truth as something whose opposite might also be true. ’Tis a comforting thought, especially for those who might be inclined to worry over-much about the distinction between truth and lies in nonfiction.
I like the way Joyce Carol Oates begins her essay “Against Nature”:
The writer’s resistance to Nature. It has no sense of humor: In its beauty, as in its ugliness, or its neutrality, there is no laughter.
It lacks a moral purpose.
It lacks a satiric dimension, registers no irony. Its pleasures lack resonance, being accidental; its horrors, even when premeditated, are equally perfunctory,“red in tooth and claw,” et cetera.
It lacks a symbolic subtext—excepting that provided by man.
It has no (verbal) language.
It has no interest in ours.
It inspires a painfully limited sense of responses in ‘nature-writers’—REVERENCE, AWE, PIETY, MYSTICAL ONENESS.
It eludes us even as it prepares to swallow us up, books and all.
The tone is tentative, speculative, suggestive, open-ended, like note-taking. It leaves an “out” for the lover of nature to disagree without feeling humiliated.
At its best, the contrarian essay engages the reader in a friendly, bracing polemic. In the words of Laura Kipnis, “Polemics exist to poke holes in cultural pieties and turn received wisdom on its head, even about sacrosanct subjects like love.
A polemic is designed to be the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z-Boy lounger. It won’t injure you (well not severely); it’s just supposed to shake things up and rattle a few convictions.”