Patrick Madden is perhaps the closest thing we have to a Michel de Montaigne, ver. 2017. Pat began with his meandering, discursive essays in his collection, Quotidiana (Nebraska, 2010) before following up with 2016’s Sublime Physick, which won a Gold Medal this year from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. “Quotidiana” is Pat’s somewhat made-up word, but refers to a collection of materials concerned with the everyday, just like Montaigne’s essays themselves. Quotidiana is also a website Madden maintains, an online compendium of 420 public-domain essays published before 1923. Along with students at BYU, Pat picks the “essayest” of essays each year and posts the winners on his site. The process of selection is unapologetically subjective, which would soften Montaigne’s heart.
Sublime Physick is marked for its playfulness, a 100-page essay that is completely engrossing, and performs a modern take on Montaigne’s rambles into subjects ranging from fatherhood to Eduardo Galeano. Besides Quotidiana and Sublime Physick, Pat co-edited the anthology After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, 2015), which went on to win a Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. He co-translated Eduardo Milán's Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2012), and his writing has appeared in The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, The Normal School, and lots of other places. Madden finished his PhD at Ohio University in 2004 and began teaching at BYU. Because who wouldn’t want to talk to a Montaigne reincarnate, I sent Pat a message, and he was kind enough to chat with me over a few weeks through the internet.
Patrick Madden: I’ve felt apprehensive about this very thing, though I should say that maybe if a reader knows my previous work, they might suspect they’ll find a long essay in the book. But not this long! So I worried that people wouldn’t read the essay. And maybe that’s been true to some extent, but I’ve also heard from a handful of people who say they really enjoyed the long essay, and some for whom it’s their favorite, in part because it’s “audacious” to expect enduring attention in this time of cultural attention deficit, and in part because it’s a sustained and sinuous argument against a simplistic view of originality. So I feel semi-vindicated, and I’m rather pleased at the fact that we pulled it off, whether or not most people actually read it. On the off chance that someone reading this interview might be tempted, I’ll mention that this essay contains the book’s biggest and most intricate Easter egg, which is hinted at throughout the essay, perhaps most notably in its expression of my wish to be made immortal through others’ (or computers’) supplemental, anonymous writing in my voice and on my behalf.
CCP: One of the things I love about Sublime Physick is the first essay, “Spit,” and how much you focus on bodily fluids. I love that I find it gross and you know it. I love that you seem aware of this feeling and sticking the essay at the front of the book anyway. How in the name of William Hazlit do you begin with bodily fluids?
PM: Thank you. This move got me my first negative review (you and I belong to a mostly civil club of writers who generally aren’t inclined to say anything unless they have something nice to say), from Kirkus, an unsigned pre-publication review that began asking “WWMD: What would Montaigne do? Left to write a fresh collection of essays, he might not lead with a piece in which expectoration takes center stage…” I can say that the Essays are veritably full of unpleasant bodily emanations, in scene and in story, directly and euphemistically. Montaigne never shied away from spit or vomit or sperm or shit, so, ultimately, I had to conclude that the reviewer hadn’t really read Montaigne.
I chose to lead with “Spit” for a variety of reasons, including the feeling that beyond the unpleasantness of the ostensible subject lay a kind of redemption, in that the essay winds up being about repentance, its complexities and complications. I suppose I was setting up an initial challenge for readers, too, a kind of parallel to Montaigne’s admonition in his note “To the Reader,” that “You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so vain and frivolous a subject.” If a reader is not chased away by Montaigne’s dismissal, they’ve passed the first test. Similarly, if they’re intrigued, instead of disgusted, by my literal treatment of spit, then they’re my kind of reader, and they’ll probably enjoy the rest of the essays, too. Finally, I modeled “Spit” stylistically after “Laughter,” my most-published and maybe best-loved essay, which essay would have led off Quotidiana if I’d been savvier then. Instead, I began that book with an introduction of sorts, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” which, I discovered too late, became the free sample available on Amazon and other online places. “Laughter” would have been the better choice, as it’s more personable and funnier. “Spit” borrows from “Laughter” in its general shape and in some specific section moves and even in some key phrasings. It’s more serious in its subject, but I think it’s also funny at times, and both essays are, ultimately, about transcendent matters.
CCP: When did you fall in love with Montaigne and why? What kind of OKCupid profile do you think Michel would have in the 21st century?
PM: Not having any experience with OKCupid, I had to do some research to answer this question, which brings up one of my core writing principles: that one should never walk away from an essay without first learning something new. You shouldn’t allow yourself to simply download what’s already in your brain onto the page. Anyway, I’m still not quite sure how Montaigne would respond to OKCupid, so he very well might enjoy the opportunity to seek out romantic partners based on a secret mathematical algorithm, but I suspect he’d be rather skeptical of the whole endeavor, and he’d certainly freak at the faulty parallelism in the “3 principles that make OkCupid the best dating site on Earth: our love of math, we’re always free, and everyone’s welcome.” Why not “we love math”? (OK, maybe that’s just me freaking out.) And I think, from reading all of his essays numerous times, that he’d push back against the claim that the site “makes the ineffable totally effable.” Montaigne honored the ineffable and disbelieved any claims of totality.
All of which is to say that a while back David Lazar and I already created a similar kind of Montaigne profile, based on James Brady’s old Parade “In Step with…” columns. It’s up at Essay Daily. We had a lot of fun with it.
As for the first part of your question, I first encountered Montaigne during my master’s program, reading The Art of the Personal Essay. I recall being unimpressed. Worse, I thought the language was stuffy and difficult. I didn’t find the voice personable; I found it distant and slightly sermonic. But as often happens in my life, I was exactly 180-degrees wrong. In my PhD program, I maintained a steady diet of Montaigne, reading nearly all of the Essays, in a pair of different translations, and discussing them with David Lazar and my classmates. I began to perceive Montaigne’s brilliance and personality. I became familiar with his quirks and capacitated to see the rhetorical moves he makes. What was once “rambling” (in the pejorative sense) became “meandering” in a way that mimics an actual mind. I found the essays to be the most nonfictional of nonfiction forms, in that they, better than other genres, even other nonfiction genres, strip away more of the artifice to reveal process. Soon I found Montaigne to be a delightful companion, a well-stocked and supple mind with whom I loved to think. I have become so converted that I now declare that if one would be an essayist, she must first learn to love Montaigne.
CCP: This is obviously a sensitive question, but you are a Mormon in a job culture that is largely un-Mormon and maybe even sometimes, unfortunately hostile or dismissive of your beliefs or at least don’t hold them. How do you navigate this strange tension?
PM: I don’t have a good answer to this question, though I do sometimes think about it. Mostly I think I’ve been lucky in my life, blessed beyond my merits, and I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, and this includes opportunities to meet and befriend wonderful people of many different backgrounds and beliefs. I find that we’re all different in different ways, but also overwhelmingly similar, so that it’s folly to focus on difference as a source of contention. (I also realize that among my myriad blessings is the external relative peace and prosperity that enable me and my friends to interact without the expectation of inherent strife.) So I try very hard not to, not to think of people as categories based on groups they seem to belong to (whether by choice or by default). And I’ve been fortunate not to have encountered much direct resistance to me or my work based on my religion. I do have a funny story along these lines, though. The first time I attended Vermont College’s summer residency, in 2010, after I’d given a reading and a lecture, plus a few workshop classes, one of the students, a gregarious woman without guile, approached me to say, “People can’t figure you out.” I was nonplussed. I asked “What do you mean?” So she explained. “You’re obviously very intelligent. But you’re a Mormon!” I guess this makes sense given the ways certain vociferous religious people act, or the ways they’re portrayed, and there’s probably an evolutionarily advantageous innate judgment center in the brain that needs shortcuts to make sense of other people quickly, based on external or categorical information. But the essayist’s quest has always been to interrogate the self, to distrust gut reactions, to subvert unthinking assumptions, to understand context and culture, to escape system. So I’m ultimately quite comfortable and grateful to be a writer among so many other writers who, I’ve found almost universally, approach me warmly as Patrick Madden, not as “a Mormon.”
CCP: Ok, I lied, maybe my favorite moment in SP is when you pause your 100-page essay, “Independent Redundancy,” for an interlude called, “Brief Pause For a Salutation To the Computers of the Future.” In this funny but strangely haunting letter to future digital beings, I find a reminder of the discursiveness that essays are all about, in case I’d forgotten. How much do you like to write about essays within essays and why?
PM: Thank you, again. It’s certainly true that I’m an inveterate (incorrigible?) meta-essayist. But I was not always this way. I recall clearly that during my first workshop at Ohio University, back in 1999, I bristled at my friend Mike Danko’s habit of writing about writing, addressing readers directly, calling attention to the fact of the essay’s artifice, and, as people say, “taking us out of the story.” I wrote caviling comments in the margins of his drafts. But then (over the next few years) I read thousands of old essays and realized that not only was meta-essaying a longstanding tradition, it was super cool! It was interactive. It was honest. It put aside the illusion of escapism, or at least shifted the target (I’m skeptical of a too-earnest novel, but I love to “escape” into others’ thoughts, or, as Lamb says, “I love to lose myself in other men’s minds.” Still, I think both Lamb and I know that we’re reading a crafted illusion, not of worlds and exploits, but of “thinking.” Before and after Barthes, we understand that “it is language which speaks, not the author.” But isn’t it pretty to think that we’re entering another mind? Resurrecting a long-dead soul?) The illusion works best, for me, when I’m reading a writer who’s upfront about the fact that she’s writing. She’s not trying to hide the fact. As Hazlitt said, the essay is a form “in which the reader is admitted behind the curtain, and sits down with the writer in his gown and slippers.” That passage where I address the computer-readers of the future is one of my invitations behind the curtain, as well as a request for a kind of literary resurrection (supposing that one day computers may have the ability to write new work in the voice of anyone).
CCP: Last question: Pat, you quote a lot. It makes me jealous. Did you invest mega-bucks into quote boards? Are you inundated with Post-its? How do you organize all your intertextuality?
PM: Even in interviews, I quote a lot. Sorry about that!
If I could make one edict to change the world, it would be to banish online quote sites (or at least hide them from search results). They are rife with misquotations and misattributions, and they never cite their sources. The way my mind works, which I suspect is rather common, is to recall snippets and summaries, but not verbatim quotes. So I often find myself searching online for exact wordings and sources. I can’t tell you how often I’ve tried to use the Internet only to come away worse than empty handed: empty handed and frustrated at the time I’ve again wasted and upset with myself for falling into the same trap. In any case, I don’t have any external organizational structure, really. No Post-Its or file drawers. I just read constantly, and I reread certain things frequently, and I listen to a lot of music, and all of this resonates somewhere in my mind, and some of it is hazily retained to come forth at a hint or whisper of association. I think my essays themselves are the only coherently organized form of the intertextuality I seek/find/love. And perhaps this contributes to the feeling I have (not unique to me, though authentic) that when I write, I am discovering something that already exists. It’s not quite true, of course, but it’s a useful metaphor to imagine.