Monday, November 13, 2006

Why "Attempts"?

No one's ever asked why I decided to call this blog "Attempts".* But then, no one ever asked me to blog, either. So I thought that, unbidden -- as a celebration of my 200th post (which this is) -- I would tell you.

Blogs are, of course, a medium more than a form: oh, there are blogospheric traditions and customs, to be sure. But basically blogs are a vessel with which one can do what one wishes; as Fred Clark once suggested, talking about blogs in the abstract is as silly as talking about paper in the abstract: "I know all the buzz about paper suggests its about politics and journalism, but many people only use it for personal diaries and as an outlet for expression." So blogs can be -- and are -- about anything, and for anything.

But for me, the best of the blogophsere approaches the literary form of the essay.

I'm far from the first to think this, of course. Christopher Lydon suggested that the "god" for bloggers should be Emerson: that preeminent American essayist, who "taught one doctrine, the infinitude of the private man".** And Holly says in the margins of her blog that "If Montaigne, father of the essay, were alive today, he'd keep a blog." (Which quote will give away my punchline to some of you!) So yes, the idea of the blogosphere as, at its best, the new home of the essay -- that strange and wonderful form, literary but spilling every boundary into the political and the philosophical and all sorts of other non-literary (or, as Samuel R. Delany would say, the paraliterary) forms -- is an old one.

Well, when I sat down to start a blog, I used the title that I had, for many years, thought I would use if I were ever fortunate enough to publish a book of essays: why save the title for a hypothetical volume when I was about to put real worlds in a genuine (if virtual) public place?

So I called it "Attempts".

Why Attempts?

Because Montaigne -- the first, and some claim still the greatest, essayist -- called his works essais: a French word meaning "attempts" or "tries".*** (We still have this verbal meaning for the word "essay" -- one can 'essay' something -- but I think it strikes most people as a little archaic.) His essays were meditations on diverse topics; they were deeply personal; but they were, above all, preliminary. Essays in a direction, not the final word on subjects.

Well, these are my essays: meditations on diverse topics, deeply personal -- and, above all, preliminary. But, since I speak 21st century English not 16th century French, I call them by a translation of Montaigne's name for them, in hopes to better recover the spirit with which he bestowed the name.

This is not to say that all my blog posts are up to this standard; I know they're not.**** This is, well, my blog, so I often use it the way that others use their blogs. So of course a lot of what I post are simply link collections or quotes or memes or whatever. Of course they are.

But I think the best of what I write are essays -- that is, at any rate, what I consider to be my goal here. To make forays into odd patches of personal, intellectual terrain. Those are the ones which I put up in the sidebar as "favorites". Those are the ones I hope that people will really read. Those are the ones I take to be, not typical, but proto-typical: what I want to do here.

To essay.

To attempt.

* Well, okay, my Aunt did; but no one else.

** Emerson also, as Lydon quotes, said "I hate quotations"; indeed, in "Self-Reliance" Emerson wrote that "Man... dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage": quoting, as Stanley Cavell has pointed out, Descartes. -- Yes, he was: just the Meditations, not the Discourse (which is where the more famous version, with 'therefore' ("ergo"), comes from.)

*** Yeah, that Wikipedia entry gives "attempts" as a translation of Montaigne's "essais". I thought of it independently, years before I ever saw it. But it was on seeing that that it occurred to me that I'd never explained why I called this blog "Attempts" -- and thus sparked this post. (Coming across Holly's invocation of Montaigne was another impetus behind it.)

**** That is, the standard of being "essays" in the literary sense; I know that none of my essays are up to the standards of Montaigne. I just hope, at my best, to be playing the same game, even if not in the same league.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Nice thoughts, Stephen--or should I say, nice "attempts"? Anyway, your reasoning is sound. When I first got into blogging, way back in the spring of 2003, I had a much clearer sense of what my blogging identity was going to be, how it would relate to my professional and intellectual identities, and so forth; I was going to be a unified creature of opinion, and the blog was my means of achieving that unity. I gave up on that back in 2004, and I realized that the more I attempted to make my blog descriptive of myself, the more I felt as though the blog failed, because of course there's always so much more of a person than what a post can contain. So I ended up thinking about the blog as me in the midst of other things; just reactions and thoughts to the happenstance and vicissitudes of life. I like it a lot better than way.

Though you make me wish I'd thought of "Attempts" first though! If nothing else, it would mean I wouldn't have to deal with people trying to correct my Latin all the time.

Congrats on the 200th post; here's to many more!

Stephen said...

Thanks, Russell!

I have to say, though, you have one of my favorites of all the blog titles out there. (If anyone hasn't read it, check out In Medias Res -- a very thoughtful & interesting blog.) And as I said a long time ago on a blog far, far away when it came up there: Thanks to Wikipedia, we find that the phrase "in medias res" comes lines 147-148 of Horace's Ars Poetica, which Wikipedia translates as: "Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the double egg/but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things." As the article also notes, it became a standard phrase. Wikipedia also gives us a link to the Latin text, which, indeed, reads "semper ad euentum festinat et in medias res" for line 148. And certainly we can assume that Horace knew his Latin grammar, I think we can take it as correct.

So don't let anyone bother you about grammar. Send 'em over to fight with Horace.