Can I use “I” in my essays? The question, often asked by first-year literature students, isolates the problem succinctly.
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The first I in the sentence means me, the special, singular, irreplaceable self; the second is a devious linguistic particle: a shifty, worn-out pronoun forced on us the moment we enter language. And the perilous thing about book festivals is that they tend to collapse the two. The I who has been flown out to Cape Town and given a lanyard with nametag is now asked to answer for, or “speak to”, the I on the page.
In this case, Geoff Dyer, with whom I sat chatting during the Open Book festival in September this year while we waited for a panel on The Art of the Essay to begin – a bit like television newsreaders used to before or after the bulletin. I told him that he was one of only two people I had ever written a fan letter to (the other was Terry Pratchett, but I was 10 years old then).
I asked whether he enjoyed going to literary festivals, being interviewed, the whole scene. “I can honestly say,” he replied, “that the only reason I write any more is to be invited to literary festivals.” As with much of his conversation, it managed to be entirely sincere and entirely ironic at the same time. He asked whether I dabbled and I said, well, you know, this and that – look out for me in the Financial Times. “The FT! That’s the rag that has someone else called Geoff Dyer writing for them.”
This had, understandably, needled the Geoff next to me. When you are an only child whose entire oeuvre is crafted from an unashamedly finicky, fussily individual experience of the world, when you have spent a whole career building and buffing this semi-fictional “I”, you don’t want any namesakes horning in. “And he has somehow managed to get on to my frequent flyer programme,” Dyer went on. “I’m actually earning air miles for the other Geoff Dyer.”
But it was something of a relief to me, because Dyer 2 had a book coming out on the rise of China. Before I knew that they were different people, I had looked at the notice and thought: not only has he casually made himself an expert on jazz, World War I memorials, DH Lawrence, photography, Burning Man, John Cheever’s journals and tennis, he is also a foreign policy wonk tackling Sino-American relations.
During our discussion I asked such things as: Is the essay a polite form, or an impolite form? Is it a spontaneous and surprising form, able to tack about or change gear as it follows the movements of thought, those “loose sallies of the mind”? Or is it a carefully stage-managed, sometimes overly precious verbal performance? Is it a very English, or at least a Euro-American thing? Or can it speak of and to the rest of the world? What are its politics?
Asking about the “politics” of something really is a boring question, almost a reflex question in South Africa (it normally has the buried implication: my politics are impeccable, much better than yours, and by asking this question I am demonstrating this). So I didn’t say that exactly: but I did wonder about the trajectory of his career, and the possibilities of the essayistic I in an increasingly divided world, or at least a world with more and more awareness of how it is divided.
Dyer’s first book (his self-confessed “boring book”) was about the radical critic and novelist John Berger, who famously gave half his prize money from the Booker to the Black Panthers. This annoyed both left and right, said Dyer in our panel: the right because he gave away half his prize money; the left because he kept the rest. Now Berger lives with peasants in the Alps, trying to escape the stupidities and brutalities of late capitalism.
By contrast, Dyer’s latest book is about spending a rather fun-filled month on an aircraft carrier, the USS George HW Bush. It is part of a series devised by Alain de Botton to create writers’ residencies in unusual places: accountancy firms, the International Monetary Fund, tele-communications headquarters.
I haven’t finished Another Great Day at Sea, but as far as I can tell there is going to be no mention of what the “birds” are doing as they launch off each day. No doubt there were sheaves of nondisclosure forms that came with this particular residency; but still, this is embedded writing if ever there was any.
And then: Berger, Friedrich Nietzsche, WG Sebald, Susan Sontag, Raymond Williams – the fiercely individual writers Dyer confessed his admiration for during the session are extremely serious. None of the above has ever, to my knowledge, cracked a joke in prose. And yet Dyer seems to get resolutely less serious as he goes, the whole world becoming a terrain, it can seem, for the research and development of new jokes. (I was on the receiving end of one as we drove downtown for a post-event curry, but still had to admire the technique: he left off chatting to my friend in the driver’s seat, leaned his tall frame to me in the back and said: “So this must be a big moment for you, Hedley, hanging out with someone you’ve idolised for so long.”)
Does this mean that the writing is “apolitical”? Again, even posing that question is a small defeat for all writerly joy. To avoid asking it, I will suggest that it is more accurate to say that Dyer works in a tradition that deliberately refuses the kinds of language that qualify as political in the vast echo chamber and self-righteousness machine that is the internet. Like De Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, it abandons a rhetoric of deep analysis and denunciation for an attention to the surface of things – thicker descriptions of logistics warehouses, substations, biscuit factories, aircraft carrier walk-in refrigerators. The wager with the reader seems to be that, if we do this, we might get somewhere else, somewhere new.
The world, says Berger at one point, is intolerable. It never used to be intolerable, because nobody knew the half of it. Now we do, and it’s intolerable. The world, says another kind of writer – says the tactically more naive I – is wonderful. It’s incomprehensible, joyful; it’s a miracle. Strong cases can and have been made for both positions; but it is easier to make the first. Just as it is easier to reach for a dark and diminished minor chord on the piano when feeling angst-ridden – the hands fall naturally into that pattern. Trying to express similar things in major keys is a different, more difficult exercise.
Even so, with Another Great Day at Sea I felt that a certain kind of I had reached its limits: as a rhetorical device it was just not up to the interminable and tragic geopolitical saga in which it had embedded itself. It is the only book by Dyer that I haven’t finished – though whether this was for strictly literary reasons or because of meeting the actual I, I can’t tell. In any case, it has sent me back instead toward the other end of the spectrum, toward those who confront the intimate I with more public pressure – to James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, Njabulo Ndebele, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit – all writers who dispel the whimsy or cosiness that can easily infiltrate the essay form, and who show that it is not just for conservatives.
After the festival, I entered long-dormant email caches to find the fan letter I had written, a fulsome missive sent from Hotmail, tapped out on a train to Scotland in my mid-20s while listening to Keith Jarrett. At the time, during the worst moments of the second Iraq War, Dyer had penned a column describing a flash-mob event at Liverpool Street Station in London. Participants were asked to congregate at a certain time with their headphones on, then to press play and dance like they’d never danced before.
He called it a mirror image of a terrorist outrage or (that utter negation of the I) the suicide bomber: “It’s organised with similar precision, the feeling of conspiracy is palpable, and at the allotted time there is a detonation. Of joy.”
I told him that his writing was just that: a detonation of joy in a climate of fear. About a year later I received a polite thank-you from an internet café in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga (and should have left it there).
Hedley Twidle is a writer, teacher and academic based at the University of Cape Town.