The Essayist in the Wilderness
email no. 4
Before we get into it, a quick note: between the last mailout and this one, I changed the name of this Substack from How to Know Nothing to Wander Lines. It's a play on “desire lines,” those well-trodden paths in parks between the paved ones the designers wanted you to take, just a little more aimless. It feels like a better name for the gentle meanderings that this “publication” seems to be moving towards.
Suggested soundtrack to this month’s entry:
Early in the pandemic, a friend started organizing a reading group based around weird fiction short stories. We’ve mostly focused on Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s compendium The Weird (a massive collection that is pound-for-pound the best survey of the genre you could ask for) but the story that’s stuck with me the most in recent months comes from Paula Guran’s New Cthulu: The Recent Weird: “The Essayist in the Wilderness”, by William Browning Spencer.
(spoilers ahead—skip to “misc. recommendations” if you’d rather not know anything about the story)
It follows an English professor who moves to a rural cabin after winning the lottery, in the hopes of finally pursuing the literary career that has always eluded him. After ruling out memoir (his life is too boring) and striking out at fiction and poetry, he lands on nature essays, despite a lack of interest in or any knowledge of nature, and sets off exploring his property for inspiration. Which quickly comes in the form of the crayfish in his local pond and their fascinating behaviour, which seems almost alien to a city slicker like him.
The joke is that, as a reader, you’re well aware that these aren’t crayfish. Crayfish don’t sing sad songs to each other, for one thing. And they definitely don’t take off their armour to merge together into bizarre mega-crayfish that dissect nearby wildlife. But the essayist is too wrapped up in the potential for folksy storytelling and Thoreau-inspired pontificating to realize something’s gone horribly wrong.
I think there are two main reasons the story has been sticking with me. The first is that it’s genuinely funny. Weird fiction as a genre isn’t known for its sense of humour—the closest thing to a running gag tends to be the grand cosmic joke of human insignificance, which doesn’t make for belly laughs. But Spencer’s story tweaks the genre’s cliches in just the right way to be unsettling and hilarious at the same time. It’s nice to stumble across a genre story that can thread that needle.
The second is a little more uncomfortable, but I may as well cop to it: it’s hard not to see a bit of myself in the essayist, especially when doing something like putting together a Substack and asking people to subscribe for rambling thoughts and random recommendations. The main source of tension and humour in Spencer’s story is the disconnect between the essayist’s inflated opinion of what he’s writing, and his lack of any actual understanding of the world around him. He doesn’t know enough to know that he should be terrified. I think every writer fears that sort of unselfawareness to at least some degree.
Sharing any writing involves a certain amount of self-importance. At the very least, you need to believe your insights and opinions are adding something to the broader conversation. That seemed a lot more natural to me when I was writing about music and film in my early 20s; maybe because I was less conscious of just how many voices were already out there, or maybe I was just more opinionated. It’s easier to carry that kind of confidence before you’ve learned just how much you don’t know. These days, I find myself making much more modest claims—“you’ll probably like this album,” not “this is the best album of the year” for music, and for more serious topics, I hear myself hedging more, and trying to be upfront about my own uncertainty.
Honestly, I’ve found myself increasingly amazed that anyone has the confidence to go out and state their opinions as if they’re 100% certain of what they’re saying. The existence of opinion columnists is an especially bizarre thing when I stop to think about it—people whose entire cultural role is to have a new take on a new topic, day after day, week after week, as though the quantity of opinions overall was as valuable as depth of experience on a given topic.I recognize that there’s a neat trick happening in the process, that confidence is what sells credibility, while the opinion label is an easy out when things go wrong, but that straightforward, declarative, utterly-sure-of-itself writing style is increasingly alien to me. So, naturally, I'm terrified of falling into that mode.
That’s probably why “The Essayist in the Wilderness” struck such a chord with me. On top of being a fine work of weird fiction, it’s a cautionary tale about the overconfidence of an uninformed intellectual, the kind of person who wades into a conversation strong on conviction and weak on context, assured that their insight carries more weight than any real-world details. Fortunately, most instances of minor self-importance don’t lead to falling prey to cosmic horrors, but, well—you don’t know what you don’t know.
I’m just dipping my toes into Phoebe Tickell’s ambitious Moral Imaginations project, but this essay on “New Deep Narratives” struck a chord: “We’re in a chasm between stories that used to function and new stories which haven’t yet gathered enough coherence to function effectively. We can respect the stories of the past, but we also realise that they often aren’t actually helping us to navigate the reality we are living in anymore.”
Low-Tech Magazine wrote about the mostly forgotten but promising practice of treating sewage with urban fish ponds. The ick factor is a major barrier, but the author does a good job of breaking that down. Bonus points for being hosted on a solar-powered website.
Aeon Magazine’s essays are always worth a read, and this four-year-old piece on plant intelligence is a perfect reminder of how little we know about the inner workings of so many living things—and how that might help us think about our own mental processes.
Even if you aren’t interested in hip-hop production, Tracklib’s Sample Breakdown series is a masterclass in efficient visual communication.
A Mind Sang is one of those shorts where I can’t even start to wrap my head around the creative process. Nearly every image is an optical illusion that can be read in two complementary ways.
The 2020 short Empty Places was made before the pandemic, but felt entirely of-the-moment at last year’s Annecy festival. “An ode to the melancholy of machines.”
I’m going to have to write more about Another Screen’s Another Gaze online screening series at some point. It’s a thoroughly researched, brilliantly designed site that’s building a distinctive approach to online film presentation, and showcasing some incredible filmmakers in the process.
I’ve been falling back in love with Peel Dream Magazine’s 2020 album, Agitprop Alterna. Perfect for Stereolab fans craving a fuzzy dose of krautrock-inspired guitar pop.
Menneskekollektivet by Lost Girls, the latest project from unclassifiable Norwegian art-pop songwriter Jenny Hval, is strange, poetic, sprawling, contemplative, and all-around marvelous.
The Reverberation Radio Soundcloud station is a constant source of musical discovery for me. 400 episodes in and still unearthing an endlessly eclectic stream of forgotten gems.
This past week was the annual AM Affirmations episode, dedicated to songs of uplift, positivity and rejuvenation. The tradition started off a bit tongue-in-cheek, but over the years it’s become more and more sincere, and it’s one of my absolute favourite episodes to put together.
My thanks go out to the artists who contributed spoken word clips for this episode: Joseph Shabason, The Analog Girl, Hermitess, Badge Epoque Ensemble, Thanya Iyer, Bernice, Peter Broderick, and Zoon. If you’re looking for artists to support on tomorrow’s Bandcamp Friday sale (where Bandcamp gives up their cut of the profits and all proceeds go directly to the artists), you can’t go wrong with any of them.
I also had the pleasure of talking to the directors of Alien on Stage - The Documentary, a behind-the-scenes look at an amateur theatre recreation of Alien, put together by a group of bus drivers in Dorset. It’s an incredibly charming film that was one of the highlights of this year’s Calgary Underground Film Festival, and a must see for fans of hand-made props and DIY special effects, and believers in everyday art.
Older episodes of The A.M. are available at https://theam.ca or https://cjsw.com/the-a-m, and are uploaded weekly. Most of them are considerably lighter on the guided meditations and new-age-of-new-age vibes.
Monday Shorts is a blog series I write and curate for the Quickdraw Animation Society, sharing independent animated shorts that deserve a wider audience. There are 150+ entries over on the QAS site, but here are a few of the more recent shorts we’ve shared.
Brief as it is, Charlotte Arene’s La mer à boire shows just how a skilled animator can create vivid settings just through well-observed movement.
The storytelling in Yon Hui Lee’s Dodoba is impeccable, especially for a student film. I’d love to see more of this world, but I guess that’s always the danger with these kinds of stories.
Céline Devaux’s 2015 short Le Repas Dominical is a brilliant portrait of an awkward family dinner, with equally brilliant narration by the gravel-voiced Vincent Macaigne.
It also reminds me of a distinction that Daniel Drezner described in his 2017 book The Ideas Industry, on the difference between public intellectuals and thought leaders. In his framing, public intellectuals tended to see their role as poking holes in established theories, raising questions, and encouraging skepticism. Thought leaders, on the other hand, don’t offer questions, they promote answers, often in the form of one big idea that has the potential to change everything. Public intellectuals had a prominent place in long-form culture, their ability to tease out nuance being well-suited to extended magazine essays and hour-long interviews. Thought leaders are adapted to modern media, offering sound-bytes and easily digested, highly shareable ideas—but instead of skepticism, they breed a certain kind of unquestioning confidence that lends itself to to partisanship and false dichotomies.