essay canon dispatch no. 7 — “An Essay on Virginia” by William Carlos Williams (20’s)

image found here
image found here

[CN: Racism, slavery]

Essays. Fuck ’em, right?

Those insipid puff pieces on banal middle class+ experience, with their naturalist language which reinforce family values and conformity while sapping true imagination. Their cozy and apolitical maundering express the unsolicited thoughts of complacent lily white suburban yups with their delusions of safety and national community. The consensus of the Post WWI culture, when Europe was in shambles yet still spread its toxic old world influence on the US like influenza, seems to be that the essay was so humdrum that it hardly deserved any serious attention, let alone a truly Modernist intervention like what was happening with painting, music, poetry, and the novel (Virginia Woolf’s nonfiction is an exception).

But the CNF essay canon is a ‘murican canon by god, and the selection for the 1920’s is appropriately an avant-garde trip by the USen Modern champion WCW, promising to liberate the essay from its bourgeois prison, re-theorize it, and present in its endless refractions and surfaces some sense of Amerikkka, where it is, where it came from, where it is going. For some reason i had a hard time finding “Essay on Virginia,” which was collected in an album of short prose published through Ezra Pound. And then, almost by accident, i stumbled on a collection called IMAGINATIONS in the library, which was like an album of albums from the 20’s. It holds some wild stuff in case, like me, you thought all WCW did were minimalist poems about red wheelbarrows and stories about a doctor.

The text has a habit of flying under the critical radar, and even once it’s in your hands it drips and oozes past comprehension like a non-Newtonian fluid. But it’s also super super short, which is why i typed it up in its entirety below.

It looks abstract to be sure, but “An Essay on Virginia” is indeed an essay. It is anchored to a personalized self-expression while articulating public experiences. And despite the avant-garde pleasures of misbehaving language, the discourse is still aimed at a broad readership — that’s why the narration apologizes for its “academic precision.” You can fit the piece on five pages double spaced easily, but i spent an hour trudging through the lines, frequently re-reading. On a second pass a few hours later, with the aid of weed, it made 666% more sense. The discourse struck me as what might be going through the writer’s mind as he is composing the essay, so that we’re reading the justifications for choices we do not see. The next day whatever glimmering insights i had were dissipated.

Disclaimer: im not an expert on literary modernism or post-modernism or post-postmodernism (or altermodernism or speculative realism or or or), and whatever pet notions i have about their aesthetic distinctions, from the little reading ive done, are really unsettled. i get that the moderns were bearing witness with their words on a increasingly fragmented inner and social world, yet their techniques seem to strive for a totalizing system that is explicitly not-our-world. And then at a glance there doesn’t seem to be any fundamental difference in pomo’s experimental techniques, except that they serve to efface the boundary between text and world, and instead of a massive crystalline edifice the pomo novels of the 60’s onward might be modeled as, to use Foucault’s imagery, glittering fragments. This is where i am now, writing in the morning on an empty stomach; it’ll be different next week.

So here are some things that i think will help. First, the etymology of the word “essay.”

Verb. “to put to proof, test the mettle of,” late 15c., from Middle French essaier, from essai “trial, attempt” (see essay (n.)). This sense has mostly gone with the divergent spelling assay. Meaning “to attempt” is from 1640s. Related: Essayed; essaying.

Noun. 1590s, “trial, attempt, endeavor,” also “short, discursive literary composition” (first attested in writings of Francis Bacon, probably in imitation of Montaigne), from Middle French essai “trial, attempt, essay” (in Old French from 12c.), from Late Latin exagium “a weighing, a weight,” from Latin exigere “drive out; require, exact; examine, try, test,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + agere (see act (n.)) apparently meaning here “to weigh.” The suggestion is of unpolished writing.

The provenance of the word (assay) is what Dr. Williams might be going after when he starts with “Begin with A to remain intact.” The connections between attempting, trying, weighing, make more sense out of the play with multiple meanings going on in these lines, which on the surface might come off as overly cute equivocations. “To essay is to try but not to attempt,” “this falsehood is true.”

The second thing comes from a talking head in Mark Cousins’s STORY OF FILM documentary from Javed Akhtar, co-writer of the great Bollywood film SHOLAY. Thirty minutes or so into episode 11 he says

You must have seen children playing with a string and a pebble. They tie a string and pebble and they start swinging it over their heads. And slowly, they keep leaving the string, and it makes bigger and bigger circles. Now this pebble is the revolt from tradition, it wants to move away. But the string is the tradition, the continuity. It is holding it. But if you break the string, the pebble will fall. If you remove the pebble, the string cannot go that far. This tension, of tradition and revolt against the tradition, are in a way contradictory. But as a matter of fact, it is a synthesis. You will always find the tradition and the revolt from tradition, together, in any good art.

This image can be mapped on WCW’s concerns, as he addresses the centrifugal and centripetal forces at work in a modern US and in the unfolding of the essay. And like i said, this is an essay on Virginia, but rather than the more typical option, where we can imagine some bourgeois fuck taking delight in Indian arrowheads and Thomas Jefferson the slave rapist who sold his own children, WCW is using his Modernist techniques to test the limits in the essay form of departure from a naturalistic grounding while still articulating an individual subject’s imagination.

Ham, turkeys, dogs, jams, tobacco — these concrete images are cycled through the language yet they are also free-floating. It’s a wild and contradictory state, and unlike a pomo, for whom there is no reality beyond the play of intrinsically inadequate language, WCW to me is trying to re-crystalize (he has a thing for crystals) the material of the world into an attainable model whose entirety we can never fully see from just one orientation — or maybe there are  multiple perspectives viewed from a single location, i dunno, it’s cubism.

And this desire for a totalitarian sublime is more ambivalent with the concurrent rise of fascism that we can see in hindsight. At the same time, the modern consolidation of white supremacy in the US after the Great War, which saw violent repression against the indigenous and migrant workers, meant that WCW had a lot to diagnose. His prescription for a radical opening of the essay form, to give it room to transition between states of matter, and ultimately destabilize its own parameters in order to articulate different possibilities from modern society’s uniformity and xenophobia, remain appealing.

So take a crack at it:


“An Essay on Virginia” by William Carlos Williams

Begin with A to remain intact, redundant not even to the amount of a reflective title. Especially today is it necessary to be academic, the apology for academic precision — which is always essential in realistic ages — being that this has no relation to facts. To essay is to try but not to attempt. It is to establish trial. The essay is the most human literary form in that it is always sure, it remains from first to last fixed. Nothing affects it. It may stop, but i fit stops that is surely the end and so it remains perfect, just as with an infant which fails to continue. It suffers disclosures, up and down, but nothing can affect it. It is as a man: a lunatic or not; no matter. Whatever passes through it, it is never that thing. It remains itself and continues so, pure motion.

Perhaps one should say that it is only an essay when it is wholly uncolored by that which passes through it. Every essay should be, to be human, exactly like another. But the perfect essay should have every word numbered, say as the bones in a body and the thoughts in the mind are fixed, permanent and never vary. Then there could be no confusion, no deception and the pleasure of reading would be increased.

Naturally, that which is sure to remain intact is the only thing to which experience is sufferable. So it is said “to essay” to stand firm, that is, during penetration by a fluid.

“The only thing that changes is man” it is said. This falsehood is true. Its vitality is the same as that of fashions: changelessness. Without one there is not the other. Periods and places by their variety function as do the fashions, to establish man who essays. Geography and history deal wholly with fashion. But the rigidity of the essay is in itself human.

After this description of Virginia it would be impossible to go on where it not for vanity which, the essence of science, enforces accuracy and thoroughness. Not only is it necessary to prove the crystal but the crystal must prove permanent by fracture. This is an essay: the true grace of fashion. The essay must stand while passion and interest pass through. The thing must move to be an engine; this in any essay means the parts are infinitely related to each other — not to “unity” however. It is the crossing of the forces that generates interest. The dead centers are incidental. But the sheer centrifugal detail of the essay, its erudition, the scope of its trial, its vanity or love, its force for clarity through change is not understood except as a force that is in its essence centripetal. The motion is from change to the variety of changelessness.

Each essay rings the changes of its range, the breadth, the penetration moving inward about the fashionable brick of all styles, unity. Unity is the shallowest, the cheapest deception of all composition. In nothing is the banality of the intelligence more clearly manifested. There is no less significant matter for the attention. Every piece of writing, it matters not what it is, has unity. Inexpert or bad writing most terribly so. But ability in an essay is multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of opposed centres of stillness. So the history of Virginia has gone, even more so than in most of the states.

The varied intellectual and moral phases of Virginia are disclosed in a seacoast, a plain and a great valley, taken from east to west. It is covered by holly and wild turkeys. At least there are a few turkeys. You get a turkey dog. He flushes the covey. You then build a blind of brushwood and hide in it, the dog too, since his work is done. Take out the turkey-call and blow it skillfully. The birds will then come creeping in to be killed. here and there on the old estates there are even a few great holly trees they brought from Carolina. All these things come originally from England. The women are charming. But the men still carry firearms generally and keep the bull in the pasture behind the hill, preferring witticisms with quail or the fox to the sexual breakdown.

The opalescent, sluggish rivers wander indeterminately about the plain. Africans, corn, tobacco, bull-bats, buzzards, rabbits, figs, persimmons are the common accompaniments of these waters. There are no lakes. Oaks and yellow pine are the usual trees. These are essentially the component moments of all essays, hams, anecdotes of battles, broken buildings — the materia are the same. It is their feudal allocation in Virginia that is important. But the essay is essentially modern.

Of Virginia, especially, among the other states, one may say, the older it is the newer it has become. Oaks and women full of mistletoe and men. Hollow trunks for possums and the future. It clings and slips inside. Hunt for it with hounds and lanterns under the “dying moon” crying rebel yells back and forth along the black face of the ridge — from sunset to 1 A.M.: the yelp of the hounds, the shouts, now a horse neighing, now a muffled gunshot. The black women often have the faces of statesmen and curiously perfect breasts — no doubt from the natural lives they lead.

Often there will appear some heirloom like the cut-glass jelly stand that Jefferson brought from Paris for his daughter, a branching tree of crystal hung with glass baskets that would be filled with jelly — on occasion. This is the essence of all essays. Or there will be the incident of John Paul, a Scotch gardener’s son whom Governor Jones, who owned the most of North Carolina, built into his name. Or there will be an Indian war club; a cylindrical rod of stone encrusted with natural garnets. Or a bronze ax of Spanish make which they found in the hole they dug in removing the old pear tree from the garden. Or, by Willis mountain, a converted Negro cabin: the man who owned the ground on which a great part of Richmond stands — lives here alone a millionaire — on whom the rest draw inexhaustibly. An essay in himself.

In Virginia there is the richest gold mine known to the country before the rush of ’49. In the cornfields almost anywhere you’ll pick up Indian arrowheads of quartz.

The country is still largely agricultural.

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