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Posts Tagged ‘first person’

The Uncanny I: An Interview with Kristin Dombek

October 11, 2016 | by

Photo: Amy Touchett.

Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” The Editors


When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?



Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.

But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More »

I’ve Been Sick for Over a Year

August 22, 2016 | by

You Can Still Hear It

March 14, 2016 | by

George Martin, 1926–2016.

In the summer of 1971, I got a lift to Marblehead, Massachusetts, to audition for George Martin. It wasn’t my idea. I wasn’t ready; musically I was barely ambulatory, but my friend Dick Shapiro had dropped out of school a few months earlier and landed a gig with a mobile recording service who’d set up shop in an old house on the Cape to record Seatrain. George Martin was producing, and had agreed to see me. 

When Martin walked in, he filled the room. He was trim and neatly pressed, gracious, with just a hint of malice behind his poise, like an assistant principal making a surprise visit to the classroom. I got the sense that he’d rather be sharpening pencils. Read More »

A Dance to the Music of Time

January 1, 2016 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


Do the Twist!

Back when I was at my loneliest, I decided it would be a good idea to force myself to do all sorts of things alone. It’s not that I had an aversion to solitude: I’ve always enjoyed, for instance, dining solo, and I like watching movies without the pressure of other peoples’ reactions. But that was not enough; that was too easy. If it was not galling, if it didn’t make me feel acutely self-conscious, somehow it didn’t count. Accordingly, I started singing karaoke and riding carousels and seeing bands with grim determination. I won’t pretend this phase lasted long, but it was horrible while it did. I still can’t hear the song “Veni, Vidi, Vici” without a pang. 

The point was not to meet anyone; I shunned company. It was some combination of self-improvement and self-punishment. One June evening, I determined that I would go dancing. I didn’t want to—of course I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do any of it. Read More >>

Who’s Number One?

December 31, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.

It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.

Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat. Read More >>

Saturday: See Lorin Stein Discuss “Narcissus and Literature”

October 9, 2015 | by


New York! Tomorrow—Saturday, October 10— at three P.M., our editor Lorin Stein will moderate a discussion with our Southern editor John Jeremiah Sullivan, Elif Batuman, and Jessica Moss. The matter at hand: How do writers interact with the mirror of the page? They’ll talk about the uses and perils of the first person in modern and classic literature.

Their discussion is part of this year’s Onassis Festival, a four-day series of arts and ideas to inaugurate the renovated Onassis Center; the theme is Narcissus Now: The Myth Reimagined. The event takes place in the gallery at Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue, at Fifty-first Street. Tickets are available here. We hope to see you there!