Sonya Huber is the author of five books, most recently The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton from Squint Books. Her forthcoming project, Pain Women Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, will be published by UNP in 2017. She directs the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University.
I am ambivalent about almost everything in this election. As I sat watching Hillary Clinton’s speech during the last night of the Democratic National Convention, I found myself keeping a kind of score card in my head, good points versus things I didn’t agree with or that caused some kind of hitch in my heart or mind. I was glad about her attention to jobs and the economy, but I wished she’d said more about climate change. I didn’t need all the mom-and-daughter stuff or the flag-waving, but these images resonated with many voters. It was back and forth like a tennis match in my mind.
I am ambivalent, and these days only the essay tells me that ambivalence is a far, far cry from hate.
When I began compiling sources and thoughts for the short overview that would become The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Squint Books, June 1, 2016), my opinions were murky and my feelings strong but conflicting and inchoate. I dove in with one life raft: the tool of the essay, the perfect technology for grappling with complexity.
The essay comes in many flavors, and the personal essay allows a certain exploratory open-endedness and the freedom to change and mutate before the reader’s eyes. It contains multiple arguments and the space for anti-argument. It captures the act of mulling and indecision.
As I sidled into Clinton, the framework of the literary essay allowed me to experience the full range of my ambivalence. The essay allowed me to hold two opposing viewpoints, to understand her as a woman, a lefty undergraduate who became an adult espousing the tenets of neoliberalism. The essay is the space of negative capability where contradictions can be held in order to be examined.
I learned that the relentless grinding sexism that hung around her like a cloud was the same that affected, shaped, and cut into me. I learned more about my own place in the culture through her as a cultural figure. This didn’t give Hillary Clinton a free pass, but it helped me see the tinge of rage that colored every debate about her. The essay let me see those colors; the essay is a three- or four-dimensional instead of a two-dimensional form.
The essay was once too wishy-washy for my tastes. I didn’t want to hear some old man talk about pulling on wet swimming trunks (as in E.B. White’s classic “Once More to the Lake.”) I wanted the torches lit; I wanted no war and freedom and healthcare and education and rights for all. I wanted clear positions and the freedom to be angry.
I still want all those things. And in the years since I learned about the essay, the positions I read about in tiny magazines and political bulletins have become the stuff of Facebook posts, and that is glorious. With anger comes certainty, and that is also fine.
But today, there is no figure that glorifies despotic certainty more than Donald Trump. The mechanism of his appeal is the gut-check; his brand is the no-reason in-the-moment animal instinct. In this climate, with our education system impoverished by design, the skill of withholding judgment is a lost art, ceded as argumentation means sharpening one’s strong opinions like knives before the glare of Fox News.
We need the essay as a place for the culture to heal and as a template for complex thought and interpersonal dialogue. We need to essay in order to offer the superpower of strong feeling with self-awareness and self-criticism, the art of looking twice. We need to both argue our positions and accede the opponent’s concerns, if not their conclusions. We need negative capability in order to listen and thread our way through rage to multiple solutions.
In our novels and films, we glorify the epiphany. It comes once in a plot, and change is a ray of light. This is sad, because we should and can be changing every day. I don’t know what the outcome of the election will be, or what effects the tenor of this debate will have on politics in the United States. In this era of screaming into microphones, the essay is marked by intelligent mutability. It allows us to engage with ideas without having to fall on a bandwagon. As such, it offers hope for thinking our way with flexibility out of the mire.