New Directions, 2015
If “Creative Nonfiction” is sticking around as a field (I think “the essay” is fine, though), we can claim one of the greatest cultural theorists of the last century, Walter Benjamin, as one of our own. That post has great examples of his work, but there is a concept from his actual theory that doesn’t get mentioned: the constellation.
The constellation is very much wrapped up with Benjamin’s critiques of linear time as a function of capitalism: We should hold historical moments together in our imaginations and see what flashes of revolutionary insight arise — The activist organization Assata’s Daughters puts this radical form of public history into practice, I think.
The constellation is also an aesthetic, one that breaks “with traditional versions of totality,” writes Terry Eagleton in THE IDEOLOGY OF THE AESTHETIC (330). Constellated art resonates with a lot of post-war work: the 80s feminist avant-garde, the intellectual doorstop fiction in the US, Godard’s and Gorin’s as well as Peter Watkins’s cinema. Basically, if a work seems to be made of disjunct fragments with a lot of conceptual “space” between elements (that is, it seems up to you to put everything together), you may have a constellated text on your hands. Benjamin’s ambitious flaneur project about the arcades of Paris was being composed in this way.
Susan Howe’s essay collection has some of the most formally daring experimental essays I’ve read. Her middle piece “Arisbe” opens with a picture of an idyllic cottage. Underneath, an epigraph from Juliette Pierce: “He loved logic,” the alliterative words semantically smashing pathos and logos together. These meanings are not close to apparent until you’ve read the whole thing.
Next page: a reproduction from a manuscript. There are no captions — the whole idea, once again, is to resist totalizing thought; integrating and consolidation strategies are off the menu.
Next page: Some text arranged in Howe’s characteristic poem format: rather squat, double-spaced blocks of print in the center of the page.
Phenomenology of war in the Illiad
how men appear to each other when
gods change the appearance of things
Send him down unwilling Captain of
the Scorned he is singularly doomed
Mortality is a sign for humanity our
barbarous ancestors my passion-self
Each assertion must maintain its icon
Faith in proof drives him downward (59)
The best I can do with this language poetry, even on re-reading, is to reach for more semantic fields: appearance and reality, faith and evidence. We are also being primed for when the Illiad comes into play later in the essay, along with Alexander Pope. (The essay pops in a couple more poems at the beginning, then go away before a seven page poem closes the piece.)
Next page: Another manuscript picture.
One convention of the constellated essay is apparent from this opening: multi-media material cast in a disparate fashion. Along with photographs and reproductions and poems, Howe will also use quotes, manuscript fragments, clippings from indexes and dictionaries.
This kind of essay writing “revolutionizes relations between part and whole” (Eagleton). By focusing almost wholly on parts, it emphasizes the quality most unique to art in any medium — its sensual rendering of specific aspects of existence.
“Arisbe” is an essay about the New England thinker Charles Sanders Pierce. Howe did some research on his quite interesting life, but she does not present an elegant “reading” of him. This essay is a product of her research but it doesn’t seem to be anything more than an index of that research. Making overt the process of artistic production is another imperative of modernist experimentation that the constellated essay meets.
Howe finally gives us a conventional bit of narration — we could say the “main body” of the text has begun, but such a hierarchy would not be in the spirit of the constellation.
During the summer of 1997 I spent many hours in New Haven in the bowels of Sterling Library because that’s where the microfilm room is, almost underground, next to preservation… No one stays for long in this passage or chamber because it’s freezing and the noise from the air-conditioning generators the university recently installed in a sub-basement immediately underneath resembles roaring or loud sobbing. (61)
It’s transparent exposition but the language is still a bit odd. “Because that’s where the microfilm room is” is a semi-obtuse explanation for where she is. Notice she has rhetorically constructed an audience who would be savvy that Sterling Library is sufficient to let us know she’s at Yale (I’m only half-joking when I think that in her own textual transformation of New England and its history, Howe is odd company with Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft).
A microphotograph is a type of photograph nearly as old as photography itself, in which an original document is reproduced in a size too small to be read by the naked eye so here the human mind can understand far from it. Film in the form of a strip of 16 or 35 millimeters wide bearing a photographic record on a reduced scale of a printed or other graphic matter for storage or transmission in a small space is enlarged to be read on a reading machine combining a light source and screen together in a compact cabinet. The original remains perfect by being perfectly what it is because you can’t touch it. (62)
The paragraph develops microfilm into a symbol for the issues of representation and all that, but it is also an example of constellations practice of always pursuing particularities, even when it halts up the essay’s “flow.” Rather than a fully developed insight, the way most essays work, the reader experiences here a series of resistances within the text and between herself and the text. A constellated essay is a constipated once.
Specificity is the idea. In the constellation model, “concepts must cling to the contours of the theme itself rather than spring from the subject’s arbitrary will” (Eagleton 332).
Indeed, Howe soon fills the essay almost entirely with found material; the speaker actually shuts herself out of her own text in her desire to resist subduing the essay’s components into a total vision.
A kind of paradox arises: In resisting totality, the constellation actually pines for some kind of Edenic state when meaning and materiality are one. Constellating a whole bunch of factual data can be mere positivistic prattle with a radical posture. Whether Howe’s amazing avant-garde work falls into this sort of ideological project needs closer reading than what I’ve sketched here.
Like the pile of hat making stuff in MRS DALLOWAY, these essays trade in piles of discursive shit, from physics to philsophy (constellation essays can revel in fusing empirical science with the humanities), to modern history and Homer. I close with an amusing metaphor on the essay’s construction in this aphoristic quote on Pope:
THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINS: Look to the physical aspect of your manuscript, and prepare your page so neatly that it shall allure instead of repelling. Use good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it. Do not emulate “paper-sparing Pope,” whose chaotic manuscript of the “Illiad,” written chiefly on the backs of letters, still remains in the British Museum. If your document be slovenly, the presumption is that its literary execution is the same, Pope to the contrary, notwithstanding. [“Advice to a young Contributor,” Atlantic Monthly, April 1862.] (78)