What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, January 20, 2017

January 16, 2017, Issue

Adam Gopnik, in his absorbing “Mixed Up,” a review of Philippe Desan’s Montaigne: A Life, in this week’s issue, overgeneralizes when he says that an essay “is always addressed to an intimate unknown” (Gopnik’s emphasis). Some of the best essays – Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism,” Pauline Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” to name three of my favorites – aren’t so much addressed, as launched. They’re not letters; they’re grenades aimed at specific targets. To be fair, Gopnik tempers his statement a few lines later when he writes, “The illusion of confiding in the reader alone is what essayists play on. You’re my best friend, Montaigne, like every subsequent essayist of his type, implies to his readers.” Note that “of his type.” Gopnik is talking about essayists like Montaigne, essayists who write digressive, letter-like essays with “the tone of a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back,” pieces “without the mucilage of extended argument.”   

I admire Montaigne for his bone-deep subjectivity. His “I” is the measure of all things. “We must espouse nothing but ourselves,” he says, in his great “Of Solitude.” Virginia Woolf, in her essay “Montaigne” (The Common Reader – 1), writes,

We can never doubt for an instant that his book was himself. He refused to teach; he refused to preach; he kept on saying that he was just like other people. All his effort was to write himself down, to communicate, to tell the truth, and that is a “rugged road, more than it seems.”

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