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July 15, 2024

Baring It All in Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

By Bernie Pilarski

In the book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, author Brian Blanchfield takes on an intriguing challenge: create a series of essays using no resource other than his own knowledge.

"I decided on a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources. I wrote these essays with the internet off. I determined not to review again the books and other works I consulted in memory, and I did not stop thinking through the subject at hand to verify assertions or ground speculation or firm up approximations."

That's the way we live a lot of our lives -- we make decisions based on information we remember (correctly of not) having encountered somewhere along the line, and we don't usually have the time to thoroughly research everything we think we know. It also seems obvious to me that what I remember having encountered and what other people remember having encountered are usually very, very different. I certainly don't take the time to research their claims any more than my own, but if I did, I would probably have a much better understanding of what makes them think they way they do. Perhaps for just that reason, Mr. Blanchfield added a second condition to his writing.

"Having determined that this would be unresearched essaying, analytic but nonacademic, I was almost immediately drawn to a second constraint -- or, better, invitation: to stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there."

Ah, the real challenge. We can all, when we put our minds to it, blather on about this or that, and we do in numerous social settings with little fact checking in these situations. Most of these conversations stop a bit short of being too revealing, however. We don't blurt out details about ourselves that leave us a little too naked. Fiction writers take a little more risk. The characters we create have to be at once authentic and relatable or our readers will lose interest, and our characters will succeed to the degree that we the writer understand them. Whether our characters react as we ourselves have, or they are a finely constructed fantasy, either way exposes some of our inner reality. Essayists, however, can't really hide behind the veil of fiction. If they are talking about themselves, then it is autobiographical, and they are hanging out there for all to see.

Mr. Blanchfield uses his essays for the most part to explore his sexuality. Proxies, as one person commented online, is an "instant queer classic." I might argue that it is more an apology for promiscuity than homosexuality (numerous sexual partners, visits to porn sites and strip clubs), but there is no denying that Mr. Blanchfield is a tremendous writer. He is a poet, and that is evident in the beauty and richness of his prose. His essays are engrossing and challenging, and while what he writes can be explicit and raw, it is never sensational or lewd, and that alone is an accomplishment. Ultimately, the book is not even about homosexuality, it is an intimate and sensitive self portrait.

I think I might try to do something similar, to write with the internet off, to see where I'm taken, and to unpack what vulnerabilities I discover. I don't know if I have Mr. Blanchfield's courage to say that I will let everyone see what I find. It may well be that I will write something, read it to my self, and send it off to the shredder, but kudos to Mr. Blanchfield for so skillfully setting an example.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-06-05
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