Recognition and reversal is the divine principle of art. It is the hinge that swings the book of life. The disguised are revealed, the smug are cleft with empathy, and a new satisfying whole is achieved. So key is the magic principle of recognition and reversal that often I don’t want to teach it to my students. I don’t want to name it. I don’t want them to go looking for it. It is hidden in plain sight, everywhere—in stories and novels, but in plays and essays especially. “What do you need to reverse?” would be a good question for my students to ask when their personal essays aren’t working yet. “What might that reversal let someone recognize?” But I try not to mention it, since sometimes after I reveal something of intimate, hard-won significance (especially if my students don’t gasp and applaud, which they generally do not), I find myself estranged from what I’ve given. Then for several weeks or even longer a cloak of mundanity hides my treasure, and a sense of its value avoids me, as if feeling betrayed.
It was Aristotle, of course, who pointed out recognition and reversal or, as he ordered it, reversal and recognition. The recognition he had in mind was basic identity, the throwing off of the mask. Oedipus discovers he is the prince who was abandoned to die on the mountaintop. Ernest was the infant born to Lady Bracknell, and misplaced by an addle-minded nurse at the train station. The secret name of the man who melts Turandot’s ice queen’s heart is, she discovers in the last notes of the opera, Love. True identity revealed, one’s fortunes alter. We are all Cinderella, smeared with the ashes of mortality but with an immaterial consciousness alight inside. We are all, in our lives, pilgrimaging from one incarnation to another, ingénue to sage, and, for this and other reasons, we are each perpetually in disguise before ourselves. Dreams give us hints of our real nature. Enmities and affinities do too. Through the cage bars of our writing, faces peer. Ghouls, saints, secret sharers—we peel ourselves to find what is ever more elemental, and also what has evolved while we thought we remained the same. I am forever nine, forever seventeen, forever thirty-two. I am also, however, decades older, and when my father passes away something of his paternal power infuses me because now I must take care of myself.
Reversal and recognition work in the personal essay because our writing limns our blind spots. They work in the short story because the climax is a pivot. Tell me what I don’t know, we implore, and out of our characters’ mouths come news of the gaps in our perspective. Which is what is so great about writing. We house ourselves in others and become more completely ourselves.
What do you need to reverse, I want to ask the friend whose essay about her brother is a narrowing portrait of a bullying narcissist. What do you need to reverse, I want to ask the student describing his very nice if know-it-all-ish accountant father’s descent into apparently orgiastic years on crack cocaine. I don’t know the answers to these questions, just that there is a blinkered quality to the work, a feeling that it has propelled itself into a corner where it grinds onward even as it can’t progress.
“Reversal is the direction of learning which transforms existence into writing,” wrote Walter Benjamin, confirming Aristotle. Not just what we didn’t know, but the opposite of what we thought we knew: that is where writing often incandesces. But the trick is to find truth, not formula; to find the right thing to reverse in the right way, the way that feels right.
Which is where a bit of retrospective detachment helps. For with the personal essay especially, we expect two characters: the one who experienced events and the one surveying them now. This is the treble and base of the chord that provides a sensation of depth. What might you be able to perceive now that you couldn’t when you were glued to the event? What we suppressed seeing, what we couldn’t afford to know, what lurked in peripheral vision so consistently that it mesmerized and we went off in search of it—this often provides the engine of the work. All our words are bringing us somewhere. We know we have arrived when things turn upside down. The complacent men and women of Hamlin yearn for the Pied Piper they spurned. The girl who couldn’t go down Madison Avenue because some Veblenesque gorge rose in her throat finds herself craving the posh, the patrician, the end of her own unmarried poverty. And when we identify the camouflaged element in our work, in our psyche—there’s nothing like it.
But I don’t want to tell my students. Revealed, this key to many inner doors might seem ordinary, and I might lose it. How easily I believe what others tell me about the value of my ideas! For all my knowledge, I feel empty. For all my years, I feel ignorant. “But that’s obvious, Bonnie!” is the way so much has been snatched from me, so I hate the notion of sharing a principle of art. I am still learning the secret of how to give something away and keep it. I want the sacred principle to remain hidden in the cigar box buried under the tree where only I can find it, even as I crow it from the roofs. Just as I want to hide under the bed with the dust bunnies, clad in my pajamas, even as I fantasize about being the professor I already am.
Bonnie Friedman is the author of the books Writing Past Dark: Envy, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life (HarperCollins), The Thief of Happiness (Beacon Press), and, most recently, Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays (Etruscan Press), which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein Award in the Art of the Essay. Her work has appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, and The Best Buddhist Writing. (updated 10/2018)