Lie back, relax your gaze, take in the edges. Now that you’re well outside the city, turn off your torch, your phone. Move away from the campfire. Have patience while your eyes adjust. All that light inhibits your rod cells, the photoreceptors of the dark. Exposure to bright light bleaches their rhodopsin, the light-sensitive pigment that is most important for low-light vision. Rhodopsin takes time to recover, to reactivate. And the rods work slower, collecting light over a longer period than their counterparts, the cone cells. It could take an hour or more before your eyes are working at full capacity.
See that faint star in the corner of your eye? No? You looked at it, tried to focus it in the centre of your vision. The fovea – that small area towards the middle of the retina that delineates and responds to colour – is all cone and no rod. Cones are virtually dormant in low light. If the light from a very distant star shines straight at the fovea, that light sinks back into the overwhelming blackness around it. Angled just so, it glimmers to the fore. The night sky viewed in this way further divides itself, becomes more varied – a better indication of what’s there, if only you could see it.
One of my favourite places to go for a weekend trip is called Brooyar. It is a state forest to the west of Gympie, about three hours’ drive north of Brisbane, where I live. It isn’t the most beautiful place this far from the city, but it has some very nice rock climbing and a campsite through which a languorous creek flows. Platypuses drift by in the early mornings, if you wait for them.
A friend and I occasionally go to Brooyar during the week, when there are very few people there, if any. On one such trip, on a particularly clear and temperate evening, we placed our sleeping mats on the open grass and lay elbow to elbow, watching the sky come alive. At first we saw satellites, planes, the occasional meteor. After an hour or so, as the stars really set ablaze, an incredibly bright light appeared. It flared, much brighter than anything else we’d seen in the night sky, then faded. A few seconds later it flared again, slightly further along the backdrop of the stars, and again faded. My friend excitedly asked me what I thought we were seeing, but I was as astounded as she was. We thought about it for a while; most likely, we reasoned, it was a reflection from the surface of some satellite, probably the International Space Station. The sun, angled just so, appearing by proxy. A flash of day in the night.
For my birthday, a friend gave me a book called Essayism by the Irish author Brian Dillon. On the title page she wrote: ‘Your friendship is something that I cherish in the manner of stumbled-across fossils or wee gold nuggets.’ It is a friendship that came out of an unlikely place (Tinder), and whose arc has been somewhat unusual (we’ve never met).
‘I want obliquity,’ Dillon writes, ‘essays that approach their targets, for there must be targets, slantwise, or with a hail of conflicted attitudes.’ Essayism is an exercise in this approach, a diffusion of literary criticism, memoir, and stylistic experimentation. It is an exegesis on a type of literature that is difficult to describe, that does a peculiar thing – non-fiction writing that ‘assays’, that tests its reader, as John D’Agata puts it. It is also a work of memoir (perhaps self-analysis is more accurate) about mental illness. In the opening chapter, Dillon establishes polemics, political essaying and critical opinion as the anathema to slantwise writing. These he finds too ‘forcefully themselves’ – and given the world is so evidently more than they can attest to, he has trouble putting faith in them. He dreams of ‘impossible examples’ of essays that ‘perform a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be’.
And, increasingly, to me as well. After reading Essayism I sat down to write about the experience, and noted that the book ‘felt like a conversation I’ve been wanting to have for a while’ – a conversation about aesthetics, about holding things at a distance or in parallel, seeing how they correspond. About how, in the vast written output of the world, a predilection for style, for slantwise approaches to non-fiction, seems increasingly peripheral.
Perhaps media saturation is making me impatient, irrational – turning an unknown object into a widespread conspiracy. There is always literary non-fiction, literary journalism. Whatever the case, I have less time for commentary, for the assertion of opinion and the confirming of priors, for attempts to circumscribe socio-cultural and political realities. Less time for my own knee-jerk tendencies towards these. At times it all feels so close, so heavy, when there is so much space to look around.
In one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino extols the virtues of lightness. We ‘know the weight of things so well’, he says, and because of this fact – because we know the importance of giving things their due weight – lightness in writing becomes all the more striking. He compares two very similar lines by two different authors, the Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti and his closest friend, Dante Alighieri:
e bianca neve scender senza venti
and white snow falling without wind (Cavalcanti)
Come di neve in alpe sanza vento
As snow falls in the mountains without wind (Dante).
‘In Dante the line is dominated by the specification of the place (“in alpe”) which gives us a mountainous landscape,’ Calvino says, ‘whereas in Cavalcanti the adjective “bianca” … together with the verb “fall” … dissolve the landscape into an atmosphere of suspended abstraction.’ While Calvino’s refined reading of Cavalcanti’s line intensifies its effect, the line is beautiful on its own terms. Even in translation, his phrasing pulls the reader through with a deftness that is absent in Dante, that can be felt but is hard to specify. The effect of this is key: this lightness of touch affords us a clear presence in the image without feeling its ‘precisely established’ weight.
This is what it means to combine exactitude and evasion, what writing does when it directs the reader but leaves things open for them. I am not sure what I want of what I write, but it has something to do with this. I know it after I have written it, not in advance. I know it better in the work of others – and I think here of Maria Tumarkin, of her book Axiomatic. A book grounded in the weightiest of themes – suicide, disadvantage, institutional failure, Holocaust survival – but which holds its reader in suspended abstraction, leaving them with an impression and an understanding but stopping short of an explanation, something specific to latch on to. ‘Stars rain from the sky like shards of glass… Creation is always a catastrophe, a shattering.’ It is a book that divides and considers – that ‘challenges readers to connect a lot of dots’, as one reviewer says. Though this might be a misrepresentation: connecting the many dots of Axiomatic doesn’t leave you with a clear picture, even if you know what the picture is (‘the human condition’, as that reviewer points out). Tumarkin knows it is impossible to establish precisely the complexity of being in the world, no matter how many lines you might draw, or shards of star-glass you might collect.
‘Every piece of writing, it matters not what, has unity…’ William Carlos Williams writes in ‘An Essay on Virginia’ (1925). ‘But ability in an essay is multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of opposed centres of stillness.’
This quote – which I first encountered in Essayism – was one of the things that first inspired this essay. But ‘An Essay on Virginia’ is an exercise in disjunction; that isn’t what I want to get at – not exactly. It leaves a great deal unsaid; at face value it might seem to justify fracture for its own sake rather than in service of something. Yet I can’t get past Williams’ image of ‘the essence of all essays’:
Often there will appear some heirloom like the cut-glass jelly stand that Jefferson brought from Paris for his daughter, a branching tree of crystal hung with glass baskets that would be filled with jelly – on occasion.
This object is all angles, all light. That is has a purpose is clear, but to get to it you might have to wait.
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Vintage, 1996)
Brian Dillon, Essayism (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)
Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (Brow Books, 2018)
William Carlos Williams, Imaginations (New Directions, 1971)