An Argument of Definition: A Definition of Argument; or, The Light Without the Light Within

Have you ever read something and thought, I am not alone – there’s someone else here on the island with me. Someone has been speaking to me, and for me; I just maybe have not been listening in the right places. Personal essays are “arguments”; they are not “creative non-fiction.” On the contrary, the research papers are “non-creative non-fiction.” Yet whenever we write, we create. Creative non-fiction is a misnomer. All the world is an argument. Who wants to read an impersonal essay? What is an impersonal essay? One written by a machine? A bureaucratic procedure bulletin? There is no such thing as objectivity; everything we say and do, our every utterance, the clothes we wear, our music, how we cut our hair, betrays our beliefs, assumptions, values.

The time is 8 in the morning. Let’s qualify that claim; it’s 8 in the morning somewhere. But I’m writing in the Web, the country where it’s always light out, or light in. In any case, the sun rose in the east quite early this morning, though I’ve no proof of that, not even empirical proof, since we’ve cloud cover again, and anyway I was asleep at the time, whatever time it was. I was awakened by my neighbor who is lately up at does, as e. e. cummings said, pounding away on the deck of the ark he’s building. I should qualify too that since we are north of the 45th parallel, it’s not quite accurate to say that the sun rose in the east. We’re almost to the summer solstice, when the sun here rises in the northeastern sky. Of course, if we were standing on the moon looking down, this idea of the rising sun would be a curious notion indeed.

All non-fiction is a fiction of a particular community arguing to explain itself to itself in an inexplicable world. You’ve only to listen to any conversation for five minutes, Beckett said, to note inherent chaos. Beckett wrote fiction, primarily, and his fiction was also an argument aimed at explaining the inexplicable. And he did a pretty good job of it, too. Here he is, at the beginning of his novel Molloy (1951) , explaining what it means to be a writer (or a student, perhaps):

“There’s this man who comes every week…He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money…When he comes for the fresh pages he brings back the previous week’s. They are marked with signs I don’t understand. Anyway I don’t read them. When I’ve done nothing he gives me nothing, he scolds me. Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know.”

Things are falling apart in the Humanities. But the Humanities have been in crisis ever since the 1970’s, and for a century before, as evidenced by Ihab Hassan’s anthology Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution (1971). Everyone is starting to wear their pants rolled. No one is certain which person to use anymore. No matter what we may be doing, at any given moment, Basho said, it has a bearing on our everlasting life. In his preface to Liberations, Hassan said, “For more than a century now, the Humanities have suffered from a certain piety which even Revolution does not escape. True liberations engage some deeper energy, quiddity, or humor of life.” What should we be doing at any given moment? This is a question only the Humanities can answer. Then again, it’s a question only the Humanities could ask.

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