Surely one good measure of an essay’s strength is its staying power. In reading “Listening for Silence” in Mark Slouka’s collection “Essays from the Nick of Time” I was struck not only by its soundness and truth but its familiarity. It was unfolding almost as inevitably as if I had produced it myself.
Then I realized I had in fact read it before, in Harper’s in 1999, and now had to face up to the possibility that not only had I agreed with Slouka then but actually may have internalized his own argument. Now that’s power: By God, he reminded me of me.
The point of the essay is that quiet time and leisure—as opposed to “recreation”—are rare in the modern world yet are critical to the judgment and reason that allow us to ponder not just life but the way society, economics and politics attempt to shape us. Escapism is easy; thinking is hard. No wonder we try to flee it.
This is why essays are such a hard sell. We rightly resist the common offended, “there-oughta-be-a-law” variety. But the best essays should not be approached passively; if they are to be beneficial in any sense, they must not only be read but actively contemplated. If they’re good, and these are, they make us think. But we don’t want them to shake us up too much; heavens, they might impel us to change our mind.
Slouka confesses his essays are about “the intersection of memory and history and fiction.” But they are also a contemplative reaction to human events in real time, and as such some of the developments have already become dated. To Slouka’s great credit, his process of pondering has not; nor has his dry humor.
While thoroughly American, he also brings to the table his Czechoslovakian youth and his family’s Eastern European sensibility. His initial essay marries his father’s terror during Nazi occupation with his own confrontation of it in college in the form of an older woman who reveals to him a small, bloody artifact from Hitler’s bunker, the setting of the Fuhrer’s suicide.
Such concreteness underlines the great importance of achieving the will and wherewithal to reason and contemplate—the highest function of a free person. Slouka makes the case in his final essay for a truly humane higher education for citizens, countering the seemingly irresistible stampede toward “educating” (read: “training”) uncritical workers. By then we fully appreciate the ultimate stakes could not be higher. (Martin Northway)
“Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations”
By Mark Slouka
Graywolf Press, 200 pages, $16