ROGER ROSENBLATT: In the 1997 novel "The God of Small Things," Arundahti Roy portrays her deity as a God of limited function, a God of loss. People who write essays see the God differently, as the all- powerful, all-embracing God who builds great things into small, and then tests whether or not one is able to discover their true and hidden magnitude.
SPOKESMAN: A picnic near the lakeside in Chicago is the start of a lazy afternoon early one October.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Charles and Ray Eames made a film suggesting that a man contains the universe.
SPOKESMAN: We begin with a scene one meter wide, which we view from just one meter away.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The poet Roethke described this discovery process as "a ripple widening from a single stone, winding around the waters of the world." The poet Rilke took the idea deeper and made it spiritual: "If you have the love of inconsiderable things, and seek to win the confidence of what seems poor," he advised a friend in a letter, "then everything will become easier, more coherent." Maybe.
But the God of small things is not naive, and often the big things buried in the little ones give up as much terror as beauty: Cancer in the DNA; A stain on a White House intern's dress; a third-rate burglary. Whole systems of destruction lie in seed.
Essayists worship their God because He is always right about the meaning of small things, even when one does not want Him to be right. The essayist Gayle Pemberton wrote a brilliant and saddening essay some years ago called "Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey?," in which she honed in on and examined one short line from Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," a line spoken by an unseen and unnamed African American baby-sitter and delivered over a phone.
WOMAN: Do he have your number, Mr. Jeffrey?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Pemberton opened this small line wide to expose all the cruel and tacit assumptions of white racism in America. I guess you could say that essayists are small-minded -- in that we are not unlike poets, who often start poems with a single isolated image, and then explode it to the size of a universe.
But essayists don't have the cachet of poets, or the pizzazz of novelists or playwrights.
Anyone can name a hundred of those types off the top of one's head, but ask for a long list of essayists and you may get Bacon, Montaigne, Hazlitt, Emerson, Thoreau, uh... Before the stare goes blank. People favor stories, and essays are an odd and abstract form. A novel is the story of an action; a poem, the story of a feeling. But an essay is the story of an idea; it's harder to get hold of, harder to track.
The only purpose of writing is to bring readers to their knees, and essays rarely do that, which is where the God of small things comes in. He builds a story in the theme, and by so doing, He makes the essayist appreciate not only the greatness in the smallness, but the small thing itself.
Essayists are ancient mariners. We only free ourselves when we bless-- aware or unaware-- the incidental, inconsiderable life.
Virginia Woolf made a very great essay of "The Death of a Moth," about the grandeur of the struggle of life against death. Only when one goes toward the small thing does one realize how big is the thing it contains, how it lies beyond one's capacity to grasp and control.
For example: This season with its diminished light. For example: Songs, symbols, hands clasped in prayer. For example: Little gestures of kindness and generosity. For example: Winter, with its brief and concentrated days that slowly broaden and widen into a wholly new and infinite season. These are the gifts of the God of small things.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.