Assay@NFN15: “On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin”

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Lindsay Drager, Kristin Radtke, Sarah Minor (note: Jenny Boully and Sarah Levine, who were scheduled to be on the panel, could not attend)

The central question governing this panel is that, if the essay (as an attempt) is already a failure, how might the failed essay actually succeed?

Lindsay Drager: every essay is inherently unstable, pushing against its boundaries to the point of implosion. The essay is haunted by failure – by what it can’t say, by what it says wrong – and in fact is distrustful of what’s too smoothly or too easily said. Drager used the example of an essay she is trying to write about her experience of losing a sister as her sibling transitioned to a male, and how the instability of the pronouns (should she revise all pronouns from their childhood from “she” to “he”? or only from after the point of transition?) mirror the instability of the essay form itself. The essay is a curated recollection of memories, of debris. Its failure allows us to escape expectation of orderly norms and conventions, and calls attention to how hard it is to language experience [sic: she used “language” as a verb], and yet how important it is to relate these experiences. She quotes Umberto Eco: those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate. She then revises: those things about which we cannot narrate, we must essay.

Kristin Radtke: How do we regard non-wartime Western ruins, and how do we fetishize them? In particular, she looks at ruin porn and tourism (e.g. Detroit), and how art exploits this, especially when the artists are white and/or privileged. Can such ruins be regarded without exploitation, especially when it’s our thoughts about a place that isn’t really ours?

What do we find so appealing about ruins? She suggests it’s evidence of time without its effect on our bodies or memories – we can dip into it without any real anxiety. This appeal first shows up in the Middle Ages – ruins as a memento mori – and continues with the Romantics – ruins as evidence of the persistence of art. There’s less taste for wartime ruins, yet a contemporary fascination for industrial ruin – the decay of the Rust Belt, of capitalism – the voyeurism of ruin porn, which seems more perverse because it mirrors a place we still recognize.

Sarah Minor: The essay is a ruin of several other genres – the decay/failure of narrative, criticism, poetry, etc. Ruin creates absences that invite the reader into liminal spaces, thereby offering a different reading experience. Minor engages with Rose Macaulay’s The Pleasure of Ruins, a text to which photos were added and published after her death, like an ekphrasis in reverse. Macaulay claims that the pleasure we take in ruins include 1. the aesthetic pleasure in the structures that remain; 2. the pleasure of historical or literary association; and 3. the morbid pleasure of decay/ the righteous pleasure of retribution/ the mystical pleasure of destruction of human things contrasted with the eternity of God (#3 she says are parallels to the body and its own decay). Minor asserts that the essay form is more truthful and honest in that it leaves spaces for subjectivity and acknowledges its inability to be complete or comprehensive, by which the reader can enter the text. The pleasure for the reader is akin to what Macaulay lists as the pleasure taken in the looting of fragments, of making a hermitage within the ruins, of being portrayed against a ruinous background [selfies!], of inscribing one’s name on a ruin (graffiti), or of the memento mori.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

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