August 11, 2017KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReading

An Ode to the Essay

In his foundational 1910 work “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” Georg Lukács imagines the act of essay making as “an event of the soul,” “a conceptual reordering of life,” and essays as “intellectual poems.” I have the essay on my mind since I’ve just finished teaching a course on lyrical essays at Barnard and recently come across Brevity’s mini guide to essay forms. One of the forms described there is the braided essay.

Susan Griffin’s braided essay “Red Shoes” always stuns me. Even though I have made a career out of the hubris of claiming to be able to explain things, I cringe at the thought of trapping Griffin’s creative intellectual event in any sort of descriptive language—especially since the essay meditates on just this sort of enclosure.

Suffice it to say it’s a doozy of an essay. I suppose I should give you some sense of what it’s about. Let’s just say it interweaves Griffin’s childhood memories with wolfishly smart insight into both the significance of women’s lives and the life of signification itself.

To give you just a wee taste, she begins the essay like so:

The imprisonment which was at one and the same time understood as the imprisonment of the female mind has a larger boundary, and that is the shape of thought itself within Western civilization.


It is an early memory. Red shoes. Leather straps crisscrossing. The kind any child covets. That color I wanted with the hot desire of a child.

“Red Shoes” explores the memory of these red shoes, of childhood becoming and trauma, and plays all of this against its own ingenious structure. We can see already from the above quote how Griffin reflects the “imprisonment of the female mind” in those “leather straps crisscrossing.” She ultimately transforms her words on the page into something larger that I believe every good essay should be: a slice of living thought that reflects on its own thinking and being—and then zooms out to examine the structure of thinking and being itself.

Since I was already obsessed with essays and films, I subsequently became intrigued by the wily essay film. Celebrated practitioners of this form include such filmmakers as Chris Marker, with his 1983 Sans Soleil or Sunless, for instance, and Agnès Varda, with her 2000 Les glaneurs et la glaneuse or The Gleaners and I, for example.

In his book The Essay Film, Timothy Corrigan imagines this kind of movie as being able to “undo and redo film form, visual perspectives, public geographies, temporal organizations, and notions of truth and judgment within the complexity of experience.” That’s a pretty tall order, but Varda rises to the challenge.

Varda’s The Gleaners and I is an essay film that certainly plays with the reconfiguration of film form and reflects on its own thinking and being. At one point, Varda shows a close-up of her own wrinkled hand and says, “this is my project: to film with one hand my other hand, to enter into the horror of it, I find it extraordinary.”

The film ostensibly seeks to study the act of gleaning or the collection of the refuse others leave behind in street or field. Varda interviews people who are homeless and taking vegetables to eat and also artists who make pieces from salvage materials. But she also treats gleaning as a mental act, an amassing of mental delicacies to be enjoyed later, a record of where she’s been.

In one scene in a car, in reference to that comment about filming one hand with the other, Varda shapes her hands into lenses to“film” a passing truck. In this moment she tries to physically touch the theoretical in the same way she tries to theoretically touch the physical when she studies what these often poor people do for practical reasons. Ultimately, in this film Varda arrives at a most important destination: Lukács’s notion of essay as event of the soul, conceptual reordering of life, and intellectual poem.