“Of all the forms of literature, however, the essay is the one which least calls for the use of long words.”
-Virginia Woolf, taken out of context
Although I have spent a hefty part of the past decade thinking about what an essay is, I admit that I usually have no satisfactory definition at hand. I am not alone here. People spend a lot of time wringing their hands about essays. They worry, if something is factually untrue, is it an essay? They ask, if something has line breaks, can it still be an essay? They wonder, can we call a song an essay? There are quite a few books about this, most of which are very good, and you might have read them.
Rather than talk about The Essay Question too academically, however, I thought it might be fun to do a recurring series where I name something essayistic and ask a series of writers, “But is it an essay?” A series, to paraphrase essayist Elena Passarello, like a “Who Wore It Best?” of the essay world.
So to start, I’ve asked some writers the following question:
Marina Abramović staring you in the face for five minutes while she doesn’t move at all… But is it an essay?
For some quick context, Abramović sat immobile in a chair at MoMA in 2010, inviting spectators to sit in front of her. She titled the piece The Artist is Present. Further strengthening the case for Abramović-as-essayist, the artist once made the following claim, relating to a piece in which she stabbed herself with knives:
“When you perform it is a knife and your blood, when you act it is a false knife and ketchup.”
So there you have it: Marina Abramović staring you in the face for five minutes while she doesn’t move at all… But is it an essay?
More than once I’ve been called terrible names on the bus because of my staring, even though I wasn’t actually staring at my name-callers, I was thinking. But when I think, my face turns off. I stop being aware of what my face is doing or that I’m even looking out of it, and so I stare without really meaning to. It’s not comfortable to be stared at—that’s why I was called those names—because staring is looking at something without looking away in an effort to know it better and to see into it, as much as that is possible. That kind of scrutiny is disturbing, especially among bus passengers. But in that sense, staring is essayistic, or anyway, an essay invites a writer to stare at a subject for as long as it takes to try to know it better. “The Artist is Present” gives us staring. The artist stares at a viewer and the viewer stares back for as long as she can stand it. But once the viewer stands and staggers away, the staring has ended, and there’s nothing left. No evidence of what was understood by artist or viewer, no proof of what the staring attempted to see into. In order for something to be an essay, for me, it must somehow leave behind its findings in some form. Not just try, but also to document the trying. So is it an essay? Not quite.
I am more and more drawn to thinking about writing as bodies in space, as figures wrestling with each other or in some sort of mute opposition. The stare is definitely the gaze of the essay—thinking of Sontag’s “Aesthetics of Silence.” Something meditative, watchful, wondering. There was that Tumblr that collected people bursting into tears while seated across from Marina A. at the MOMA – that I am sure is definitely the essay.
Here we have an essayist for sure, but I find other Abramović joints more essayistic than this one. This piece interferes with my gut instinct to associate essaying with motion. An essay moves, transfers, shifts, or progresses. My essaying pal April Freely calls it shake. I think the core of The Artist is Present underlines a different, un-essayistic (though quite compelling) aspect of performance: the drama of the static. The lateral exchange between Abramović and her table-mate revels in that unnerving simplicity of presence, as the title suggests. Perhaps presence, while certainly enough to communicate or make art, does not an essay make.
Then again, I suppose the entire piece—the narrative of Abramović’s changing presence before many watchers, many responders— does have that shake. So maybe that’s where the essay is?
The author wants you to look at her fancy dress, just like any essayist.
An essay has a place the writer fills up that the reader can’t see—the way that, under the table, we find the train of her dress.
Yes, because only her head is uncovered, as an essayist shows the reader only what she wants us to see.
Look at that keyhole detail at the back of her dress.
The difference in an essay from beginning to end may only be that of accretion: populating a space with ever-weightier bodies—or their absence.
Yes, as the entire museum is an essay.
Yes, as the artist is present.
Because the “room” of the essay is cordoned off here, sometimes the writer can be found alone in such a room, waiting for the next visitor to arrive.
Yes, the table between the artist and the participant is space for thinking.
An essay is an event in which, for the duration, the writer never averts her gaze.
An essay, because of the way you stare at the page when you read.
In the video of this event, there are no words, though there is a kind of noise.
Yes, an essay takes place in time as an event where the clock always runs out.
The artist, letting her own body be seen, takes a risk recognizable as an essayistic experiment. A confession. Doubts! Is it her being, or her performance, that is “the artist”?
Because the artist closes her eyes between each participant, yes.
If we remain captivated by her captivation of us, then this is the best demonstration of an essay that I know–but I did not physically witness “The Artist is Present,” so I may not be qualified to talk about essays I haven’t read.
I’m not sure this essay may be replicated, like the rest. All we have are the rumors or the ruins of an essay to go on, though such fragments are, often enough, later recognized as essays, after all.
Is this an essay? Yes. Because what is an essay more than staring? Seeing?
Abramovic says performance is the tool that brings her to the moment, a moment undefined. Because what is an essay more than witness. Because the real world goes beyond every sense of anything I think I understand about anything ever.
Staring as bringing “I” to “eye:” an essay as nothing short of always beginning, here and here, again, again. Dickinson’s tell it slant. The slant as burn on the body, eyes an imprint of air, a space and then absence, such cruelty and danger in the moment. What it feels like to get high for the first time. Or the last time.
What wings blink, on back, an illusion of a different insect or animal. Staring as witness as bringing to the moment, I/eye see you, you can’t hide. A dangerous illusion, wrapped in testimony, the first person plural of living. “We” as always present alongside the “I.” How to witness the “we,” at this moment.
A documentary witness, an archive of I to eye to we to I and back to eye.
What historicity, what historiography. The post or page-rage of the post-page, rapid eye movement, no dreaming, no baby to swaddle, but then.
Essays want you to go away. They want to win. They want to embarrass you. They want to bore you. But what the essay wants most of all is for you to be weird. You cannot be weird by walking or standing. Maybe running. But mostly, you have to sit on your butt to be weird. You have to be eye-level which is why you shouldn’t use big words, as Virginia Woolf says, but you should use words weirdly. David Foster Wallace in his essay A Ticket to the Fair writes, “I don’t mean to asperse but I think Ronald McDonald is under the influence of something more than fresh country air.” Asperse looks you right in the eye. It takes you out of nominations. Essays don’t cast aspersions. Essays like nouns but they love verbs. Verbs are weird. People doing stuff is as abnormal as people get. Even sitting down at a table in a museum with a long red dress is weird. Essays bump, disrupt, capitulate, throw down, bug, foment, infuriate, collapse, tidy, weave, bed, flock, and sublimate. They asperse. They weird.