The Philosophy of Recomposition: David Shields

We saw Emerson argue for a philosophy of “recomposition” in his essay “Quotation and Originality.” David Shields takes up the charge in Reality Hunger. In what ways is Shields’s project Emersonian? In what ways does his book work like an essay–at least in the senses of essay (as verb, as experiment) that we have been exploring? What is Shields’s philosophy of the essay?

Here are some clues to what Shields has in mind, and some links for further reading.

An interview with Colbert.

An interview where he name drops Emerson.

Here is an interview with Shields on Reality Hunger. In the interview, he discusses his interest in the ways nonfiction, in contrast to fiction, focuses on ideas and contemplation:

I love ideas and contemplation. The energy of the word as the writer wrestles with some personal or cultural cataclysm. Take Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a very short book composed of nothing but discreet paragraphs, ostensibly about her breaking up with this guy. Lots of memoirs and novels would just trace the relationship…but what she does in a series of beautifully far-ranging paragraphs is explore why the human animal is so melancholy…why are we so blue? And she explores…she flies all over, and for me that is a far richer meditation…whereas the traditional approach would be unending chapters about how this couple broke up. So many novels are hamstrung by the formulaic execution of scene, setting, dialogue, character development, back story, narrative, momentum, epiphany, closure…there are exceptions, but the books I love tend to be anti-novels. They foreground contemplation.

Shields’s website.

Shields’s essay is highly paratactic–a vivid and perhaps extreme example of parataxis, this way of structuring thought (and specifically, a sentence or a group of sentences) that has long been associated with the essay. Recall that Jeff Porter identifies parataxis as a key element of the poetics of the essay. For more on parataxis (and its contrast with hypotaxis), read here.


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