In Notes Toward a History of Scaffolding, Susan Mitchell appears to take up the idea of the entirely “abstract-universal” essay discussed by Huxley and, buried under layers of wobbly scaffolding, wrestle with her desire to fall into it.
Huxley describes the abstract essay in terms of “giving us not oracles, but algebra,” (89) recognizing that standing alone it “is all very well; but a completely bodiless language can never do justice to the data of immediate experience” (90). Ultimately, Huxley concludes by saying all three poles—the autobiographical, the concrete-particular and the abstract universal—of his rhetorical model of the essay should be touched in order to properly execute the form.
Susan Mitchell appears to concur as she begins her essay with a snap of personal experience to enter into the metaphorical discussion of scaffolding, which is interwoven with facts, definitions, and autobiographical information. She then moves into the Journal of Excess which is at first consumed with the personal and slowly progresses toward the final entry (of this excerpt, anyway) which is abstract almost to the point of intelligibility. For Huxley, I believe, this essay would certainly accomplish the necessary components for a well-rounded enactment of the form.
While Mitchell seems to understand and knowingly execute these pieces of the essay, there is also a presence of resistance threaded throughout the piece. She acknowledges the totally abstract writer as one who embraces “wild sprees of shape shifting that refuse to settle into the complacencies of the stabilized gestalt,” and “usurps the stands reserved for the spectator,” (239) with a strong tone of dissent for such a model of creative expression. Referring to such artists as those who are always jumping and falling, she begins her Journal of Excess at the top of the scaffold, and seems to flirt with the edge as time progresses. Beginning with her first entry, she introduces the idea of the temporal, stating simply, “I love time” and discussing her affection for “anything that comes down” given enough time (243). Moving through her entries, each seems to decrease in factual accounts as she nears the edge of the scaffold. She stares at a portrait of a couple on a beach, “With so little space, I’ll have to step into their ocean and get my feet wet. Maybe I won’t bother to go out later,” she says, seeping into the abstract creativity that beckons her. Alas, in her final entry, she speaks of the sweetness of teetering on top of a swaying scaffold. Then, releasing, jumping into flight, she describes the euphoria of such a fall as she fades into complete abstraction,
“Up here is the sweetness so cloying it has gone past midnight, past sour, creams curdled as the paste teachers said never to eat, awakening the desire to devour the salve spreading on the back of a cardboard lamb, daring the child’s teeth to sink into paper wool and take the animal snout into the mouth, its picture into the mouth…” (250).
Such an ending cultivates a new reflection for me on her previous writings: a reading of self-argument, constriction and discipline echoing the motherly warnings of Huxley to not let your art be consumed with abstraction, all the while standing atop the scaffold and dreaming of the edge until, at last, diving into the blissful—though not always beautiful—release of the restrictiveness of the personal and the concrete dimensions of art.