Essay VI. Against Formalism (a Pep Talk)

As a reader-writer you dwell in the midst of the universal impermanence. You are pulled hither and on by energies and are tempted, being possessed of writerly capacities, to stop the whirling words, to freeze the drift by more words. You may set up idols of the mind; you may cultivate cosmic consciousness. You can find other writers to support your fictions. Ultimately these efforts to fight words with words will reduce to several varieties of nihilism. Ultimately they are all types of formalism.

Reality will gently and persistently resist your nihilisms, your formalism, regardless how high you hoist your flag and how urgently you gather the troops. Literary schools are legion. The effort to live only in your mind, to construct images of reality in private, will eventually give way to what you share in common with the world.

In China, five hundred years before Lu Chi, Chuang Tzu noted that the basis of order was simply the fact of the human being’s involvement with the things of the world and vice-versa—- the transformation of things. The intermediation. His realism was labeled relativism by outraged logicians and the keepers of the public order.

Our betweens are structured by an irreducible dialogue. Between the human mind (language) and the other threshold of the Between is the other, the other than can be thought. Betweens are double—-horizontal and vertical (that’s why we call betweens asymmetrical). As humans we interact with human others all the time, and we are more dimly aware of divine others that give ultimate meaning to life. As reader-writers we try to understand these divine others —- and ultimately the mysterious One—- in terms of myths and philosophical concepts that are other to the flux—-concepts like eternity, spirit, wholeness, transcendence. So our Between is full to overflowing with dynamic energies that render our nihilisms absurd.

Reader-writers are full of questions.

Our works reflect this structured flux, this asymmetrical order that we pass through and that passes through us and our works. In futile exasperation, we try to close off our works by formalism: prioritizing elements of the mix—-narrative types, rhyme and metrical schemes and so on. These games may be innocent and constructive or they may be weaponized in the war against reality. Formalism is recognized by its unsuccessful resistance to its other: the energies streaming through the Between from beyond it, the mystery of being.

Reader-writers come to sense this mysterious order in the works of others. These works become lifelong companions in the Between.

Seamus Heaney writes:

Where does spirit live? Inside or outside
Things remembered, made things, things unmade?
What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul….

What’s the use of a held note or held line
That cannot be assailed for reassurance?
(Set questions for the ghost of W. B.)

from “Squarings”

Reader-writers are resilient participants in the universal impermanence.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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