A few years ago, when my son was still a baby, a knock came at the door. I picked the baby up and answered it. A young woman, clutching some pamphlets, greeted me with a formal speech: “Good afternoon, ma’am. Do you ever feel that it is so hard to know how to be happy?” It took a second to register such an unexpected question. But almost before I could understand what was happening, I knew my answer. I was happy. At that moment in my life, I did not suffer from the problem so pervasive that this young woman—a missionary peddling a religion I knew little about—could presume to cure it in strangers. Just being asked the question filled me with the euphoric certainty of my own happiness.
But certainty did not equal clarity. I couldn’t have told the evangelist how to be happy, any more than I can tell you now when I stopped being quite so undeniably so. “Euphoria” comes from the Greek “to bear well,” a meaning related to the sickroom. A euphoric patient is one for whom the treatment is working, who has been pulled out of danger by drugs. I wasn’t on drugs when this stranger came to my door, though I probably still had some remnants of the oxytocin high that comes from days full of nursing. I had “borne well,” if you can call it that. After several miscarriages, I’d held out long enough to bring a high-risk pregnancy to completion. Having been on bed rest for 18 weeks due to a cervix deemed (to use the clinical term) “incompetent,” I was also happy about being allowed once again to stand up, walk down the hallway, and open my front door.
I recalled this moment while reading Emily Ogden’s book of essays, On Not Knowing—not only because her essays also feature babies, miscarriage, and unexpected encounters with strangers, but also because Ogden writes about the ways we come to understand experiences we cannot explain, or, perhaps better, how we never quite understand them. In short essays on mothering, poetry, sex, and animal husbandry (among other topics), Ogden muses on daily encounters with a world that remains stubbornly unknowable. And in a new biography of the book’s avowed literary inspiration, 20th-century author Elizabeth Hardwick, we learn that literary genius is another subject that resists easy explanation.
Ogden begins by explaining her project as a kind of domestic apocalypticism: “The world burns, yet the fire is not bright enough to read a map by. Nor am I mostly reading. I am still sweeping the dirt out of the corners and intercepting my children’s arms half-way through the act of smashing a glass on the stone ground.” To carry on performing domestic labor as the world ends is not to ignore that the world is ending, but to notice all the parts of one’s life that will end along with it.
Ogden likens this noticing to watching the minnows dart about as the Leviathan looms, borrowing an image that fuses Elizabeth Hardwick and Herman Melville. There’s a clever toggle built into Ogden’s title and chapter headings. While the chapters appear to offer guidance and expertise (“How to Give Birth,” “How to Listen,” and so on), read in tandem with the book’s title, they simultaneously undermine such insights (“On Not Knowing … How to Give Birth,” etc.). Likewise, the book purports to be about ignorance (or, as Ogden prefers, “unknowing”) but ends up performing that same sleight of hand as Ogden disclaims her knowledge but nevertheless displays considerable erudition and insight. She describes herself as focusing on “moments of heightened experience”—birth, sex, sexual violation, and brushes with death among them—that nevertheless don’t resolve themselves into enhanced knowledge. That we might be different, better after encounters with the sublime, is the idea that comforts us. But Ogden refuses the commonplace belief that our most extreme experiences educate us, a refusal that is at times unsettling but ultimately liberating.
Sometimes we don’t want the answers we seek, even if we devote our lives to asking the questions.
Ogden returns to images of collective life (schools of fish, flocks of birds, even her conspiratorial twins), but the observation of that life feels lonesome. These essays are not about joining collectives but about witnessing them as a solitary onlooker. Each essay guides the reader through a series of successive interpretive steps as if watching Ogden turn an idea over in her mind. Like Hardwick’s minnows, Ogden’s writing can be hard to hold on to, though the experience of its movement is largely pleasant. Her metaphors have a way of spinning off into the literal, recto to verso to recto, until they become richly overdetermined. Those minnows, for example, are the trivialities of quotidian life, but they are also, well, little fish, and a few pages later they are the first uncertain feelings of a fetus kicking.
Highly allusive, the essays recur to a handful of literary and psychoanalytic authors (among them Dickinson, Emerson, Adam Phillips, and D. W. Winnicott), but the primacy of the book’s twinned epigraphs goes to Melville and Hardwick, two writers whose work is also threaded throughout the book. (Ogden is an academic specializing in 19th-century American literature.) From Melville, she takes the serendipity of an unexpected image, the delightful density of his descriptions—of, say, a baby whale’s umbilical cord getting tangled in a ship’s ropes. The Hardwick references are all to her semi-autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights (1979), and one senses a formal influence at work. Hardwick’s novel and Ogden’s essays can both seem miscellaneous, replete as they are with images, references, and locales. (“If I want a plot,” Hardwick once quipped, “I’d watch Dallas.”) But a perspectival center unites these otherwise disparate things; the reader is grounded by the focalizing intelligence that gathers the fragments into a composite whole.
Hardwick has come in for renewed attention in the last few years, thanks to the republication of her remarkable essays: a decade after her death, The Collected Essays (2017) appeared, and NYRB Classics has just released The Uncollected Essays (2022). She is a major figure in Kate Zambreno’s 2012 work of memoiristic scholarship Heroines (Semiotext[e]). Another recent book of literary-inflected personal essays, Christina Lupton’s Love and the Novel: Life After Reading (Profile Books, 2022) also uses Hardwick as a touchstone.
Why Hardwick, and why now? What draws these critics to her writing? For Ogden, Zambreno, and Lupton, it is no doubt Hardwick’s careful sifting of personal experience with literary insight, along with her resistance to ready answers. (“Literal ‘understanding’ is not always the whole aim of an author,” Hardwick writes.) It’s not enough to say that Hardwick is a useful avatar for autotheorists. There are plenty of those to go around. She is, more specifically, a figure who couches sharp critical insight in a looser, fragmentary form.
Readers drawn to Hardwick (or noticing this attention to her work) may be compelled to learn more about the woman behind the criticism, the Lexington native who grew up flirting with jockeys and ended up cofounding the New York Review of Books. Cathy Curtis’s A Splendid Intelligence is the first biography of Hardwick to appear, and it evinces some of the challenges attendant upon telling the story of her life. Hardwick is an uncongenial subject of biography, not least because she was no fan of the genre. She called biography “a scrofulous cottage industry,” which needs “some equity between the subject and the author. And serious, incomparable reflection.” It’s not at all clear that Curtis meets Hardwick’s own standard for a biographer, though the resulting book will still appeal to readers eager for glimpses into her private life. Although Hardwick herself wrote a biography of Melville (published by Penguin in 2000), Curtis points out that it was unconventional, “largely a literary analysis with topical chapters rather than a conscientious chronicle of the life.”
I found myself wanting that version of Hardwick’s own story—a critical biography that could illuminate her writing as she did the writing of so many authors she respected and admired. Hardwick’s writing has garnered fans for her uncompromising judgment and incomparable style. Susan Sontag, a friend of Hardwick’s and no slouch when it came to style, wrote of her “beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer” and claimed Hardwick knew “virtually all there is to know about adjectives.” (Now there’s a blurb.) Like Melville, Hardwick can also be startlingly funny; I laughed out loud at her description of her toddler’s “sturdy, manly sense of humor that moderates somewhat her common-sense bias.” One reads Hardwick and asks, How did she come to write like that? This biography offers few answers.
Those who don’t already admire Hardwick’s writing likely know her from her marriage to poet Robert Lowell. It is at times a lurid story. A masterful poet, Lowell was also bipolar at a time when treatment was (as it still can be for many) uncertain and inconsistent. During manic episodes, he could be cruel to his wife. (“Everybody has noticed that you’ve been getting pretty dumb lately,” he told her during one episode.) While she worked to keep their household together, ensure bills were paid, and oversee his care, he would call her family to tell them he never loved her. His mania often coincided with brazen affairs; friends, colleagues, and even doctors sometimes suspected Hardwick of jealousy when she tried to get him help. When he finally left her after 20 years of marriage, he wrote a collection of poems—dedicated to his new wife, Caroline Blackwood—that excerpted his ex-wife’s plaintive letters to him and (perhaps the worse betrayal) fabricated others without noting the difference. The Dolphin was condemned by friends like Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich, but it also won the National Book Award. (In a published review, Rich called the book “one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry.”) Years later, Lowell and Hardwick reconciled. Visiting her in New York not long after, he took a taxi from the airport and died before arriving. Summoned by the cab driver, Hardwick rode alongside Lowell to the hospital, knowing that he was already dead.
Curtis opens the biography with a tantalizing author’s note, cautioning (but also promising) readers that the book will include “only as much information … as is necessary” about Lowell to tell Hardwick’s story. Readers familiar with Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights will recognize this gesture; there, the narrator figure, clearly drawn from Hardwick’s own life, has a husband referred to only obliquely. (He is called, in the epithet of the cleaning woman, “the Mister.”) Her friend the writer and critic Mary McCarthy remarked that Lowell’s absence in the novel left “a sort of black hole in outer space … which is poetic justice.” But despite Curtis’s disclaimer, the biography includes an utterly conventional amount of Lowell (whom she calls by his nickname, Cal). The tumultuous relationship between the two writers makes up the bulk of the volume.
Reading this biography alongside Ogden’s book of essays, I found myself wanting to know more about how Hardwick wrote; I felt that writer-reader’s desire to learn more about process and craft. Curtis includes some hints, mostly from Hardwick’s published writing on craft, but she seems herself uninterested in exploring further what was clearly a challenging subject for Hardwick. Mostly, Curtis seems to find Hardwick’s writing overly difficult—too dense with allusion, too fragmentary, too idiosyncratic in its critical judgments. At times she suggests that it is out of step with our moment (a strange claim for a biographer presumably appealing to the reader’s sense of relevance).
“You are always confronted with the limits of yourself, your knowledge, your ear, your character,” Hardwick writes. “And for that reason, writing is a very daunting activity and it will not make you happy.” This sentiment, familiar to any serious critic, puzzles Curtis, who suggests that anyone who wrote as much as Hardwick must have enjoyed it. She later compares Hardwick’s critical investment in stories of “long moral causality” (she was drawn to Middlemarch, Hedda Gabler, Clarissa) to contemporary cancel culture. The comparison yanks Hardwick’s ideals about writing down to earth with a thud.
I recognize that my question—How did she come to write like that?—is without an answer. If Curtis had offered a ready formula for critical perspicuity, for impeccable style, I’d have been just as unsatisfied. Ogden reminds us that sometimes we don’t want the answers we seek, even if we devote our lives to asking the questions. And with her collection of essays, she also suggests that the better way to get to know Hardwick’s writing might just be to follow her lead.
This article was commissioned by Leah Price. Featured Image: Still Life by Eugene Landry, Oil on canvas. Photograph by A.Davey / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)