A Voice for All Seasons: Carl Klaus and The Made-up Self
November 17, 2011 § 8 Comments
The Made-up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010. 160 pages. $18.18, paper.
Of all the matters that have eclipsed the minds of essayists, one remains unyieldingly prevalent: the matter of self. It is, after all, the personal essay. One cannot write a personal essay without confronting the self—that elusive entity with blurry lines and ever-changing denotations. I confront the impossibility of defining myself when I write, and typically fail to provide something I am half-satisfied with. Maybe that’s why I essay, to define and explore myself through words.
The problem of pinning down the self is exactly where Carl Klaus starts in his exploration The Made-up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. In the prologue, Klaus writes that
The person in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts—the sound of its voice a by-product of carefully chosen words, its recollection of experience, its run of thought and feeling, much tidier than the mess of memories, thoughts, and feelings arising in one’s consciousness.
Though the cover of the book describes it as literary criticism/reference/writing, Klaus doesn’t give the reader what might be expected by these classifications—a solely informative look at the personal essay form. Instead, he says that “given my addiction to the personal essay, I could not resist the temptation to write about it in the freewheeling form of essays, nor could I resist the enticing roles an essayist can play.” As Klaus sets out to accomplish the feat of a book-length discussion on the essayistic personae, the character, voice, and recollection of classic and contemporary essayists inform the text with a delightfully broad look at the many selves that have given life to the essay. But despite the in-depth look at the work of others, Klaus’ voice weaves itself in and out of Montaigne and Woolf, around bends of Lamb and White, and over the rivers of Dillard and Didion, showing readers that no matter where the essay goes, the essayist is ever at the helm.
Klaus’ book is broken up into four parts: “Evocations of Consciousness,” “Evocations of Personality,” “Personae and Culture,” and “Personae and Personal Experience”; each part is broken into chapters like “Elia: Pseudonymous Self Extraordinaire,” “The Mine and the Mind’s Idiosyncrasy: Ideas of Consciousness in the Personal Essay,” and “Montaigne on ‘Montaigne’: Towards a Poetics of Self,” which is the opening chapter. Of course, who better to begin with than Montaigne, the father of the personal essay to whom we give thanks for shaping the essay’s form? Klaus reflects on Montaigne’s constant digressions into his own mind, and notes that despite whatever subject matter was at hand, Montaigne’s self was under examination as much as anything else. By opening his book with Montaigne, Klaus shows Montaigne’s undeniable stamp of introspection and exploration of the self on the essay that has stayed with the genre for more than four hundred years.
Throughout the book, Klaus’ voice and tone is as changeable as the chapter headings, at times mimicking the subject of each chapter—jumping playfully from topic to topic in his chapter “Discontinuous: Form of Consciousness,” or reflecting on his own battle with health in “Illness and ‘I’: Malady in the Personal Essay.” In the final chapter, Klaus explores the idea of his changing self, and concludes his meditations by saying:
Change, after all, is in the air—it touches us, touches our words, touches our personae, as it touches all things. So, a voice for all seasons could only exist in a world without change, a life without death. The “I” is mutable, whether we will it or not.
A guest blog/book review: Natalie Johansen is currently a Creative Writing MFA student at Brigham Young University. She is first and foremost an essayist, and hopes to soon become a citizen in the world of publication.