This time I’ve broken off the quotation not because the funniest part was yet to come in a long sentence, but because this is all I wrote down (and all I needed to write).
This is a poignant image. I can see, in a time-lapse film of a volcanic eruption or the development of an embryo or the beginning of the world, an inchoate being struggling to achieve form and substance. I can see an egg rocking in the nest as the chick inside hammers with its egg tooth against the shell, struggling to be born. I can even see cream in a bowl, a point trying to be made as the cook lifts the beater slowly from the surface (if insufficiently whipped, the point cannot be made and subsides resignedly into the mass of cream; perhaps to avoid further beating, though, it really tries to be made…). I can see a rough beast slouching off to Bethlehem, perhaps. The struggle to become.
It’s not an image that one readily associates with the thesis of an essay, though: that it somehow potentially exists, and tries, as words fall onto the page, to come into being—and that this effort is made by the thesis, not by the writer. In the hands of a sufficiently otherly-determined writer, the struggle might become virtually epic, the point trying to be made and the writer trying to thwart it. I have read a number of essays over the years where exactly this agon seems to be taking place. Sometimes the point wins; sometimes, alas, the writer does.
We talk a lot in department meetings about agency, about giving the student agency, about students’ discovery of agency, about the locus of agency in the reading experience—repeat the word often enough, or even just four times as I have here, and it becomes a creature with a mind of its own (an agency of its own!), no longer a vehicle of meaning…. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. We talk a lot about giving students agency. But in a lot of student writing, agency seems to be up for grabs, and that seems to be okay with the writer. Clearly in the essay quoted above, agency has been handed over to the point; the student sits by and observes its efforts.
Elements or characters in the essays also cede or unexpectedly acquire agency or, in many cases, needs. In fact, needs reside in stranger sentences than efforts. I have read about fires that need to be put out, points that need to be made, criminals who need to be executed, cases that need to be studied, houses that need to be built in certain locations. Of course I know what the writers mean; in fact, such expressions are fairly colloquial. Still, I would rather the humans involved acknowledge that the needs are theirs: they need to study a case in order to discover something; they need to build a house in a certain place for a certain reason; they feel that executing a particular criminal is necessary; they need to put out the fires, for heaven’s sake! A lawn that “needs to be mowed” just sits there; somebody needs to mow it. Who’s in charge here, anyway?
Is all of this, ultimately, just another example of a writer’s inability to picture what she’s trying to say? (…umm, what is trying to be written?) What is the actual action, and from what or whom does that action proceed? What is the true obligation, and what or who is obliged? Do things merely happen (or try to happen), or are we somehow involved? Are we genuinely as helpless as the above sentences imply, or are we intentionally just looking on as life occurs, or are we simply not sure who’s who and what’s what?
They say that Michelangelo claimed that sculpture was the removal of all the marble that wasn’t the statue, but I think if he really did say that he was being metaphysical rather than denying any real agency in his creations.
I hope a point has managed to be made here. I believe it was trying.