Ogden 2
On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays by Emily Ogden

At a time between five and six, I try to find my way back to sleep. Instead, taking my phone from under the pillow, I open the notes app and write:

This is a book of essays, like this: a needle, thread behind it, pierces up through a plane of fabric. Let’s say the needle is silver and the thread red. We follow its route across the fabric, and it now flings itself back down into it. The needle pierces down and through. It disappears a while. The thread follows, its line against the face of the fabric tautening.
The fabric of living.
Beneath, the thread has another life, unseen, darkened.

Thinking has happened somewhen and this handled object, the book, like a piece of coal, is its product, is held out to us.

The book is a row of shined coals.

An insufficient capturing. I put the phone down.


In On Not Knowing, a suite of linked essays, Emily Ogden faces not knowing as both subject and method, leaning into ‘an almost erotic lassitude,’ writing towards the bits between the sharp moments of revelation with which one might usually describe a life. This is paired with a writing style that’s rigorous, particular, delicious––aesthetic at sentence level. At times the author uses a spareness of vocabulary to lead us through an idea in various ways, riffing on a thought, and at others to jarring effect––the cool oddness of a sentence bringing you off kilter. Take the first two of the book: ‘The world burns, yet the fire is not bright enough to read a map by. Nor am I mostly reading.’ Ogden brings close two different kinds of reading: the act of reading a map and the act of reading the written word. Map-reading is normally a search for sense, clarity. To know which way north is, where water is, where high ground is: as the world burns these are crucial. The pursuit of writing, and of reading, might just not be.

Though in the US it was published by a university press, On Not Knowing is marketed here in the UK as an academic’s first book outwith academia, by virtue of its method, values and tools, and it’s interesting to think about the difference of these contexts and subsequent framing.

In the opening essay, ‘how to catch a minnow’, Ogden speaks of revelation, and its counter. Of revelation versus ‘the dim times’. I think of that library in Paris I studied in school, and of the architecture of revelation. You enter into a low ceilinged dark passage, then immediately ascend a staircase (an ‘imperial,’ the kind where you double back and go up a second flight, ending up facing the opposite direction). You pass Plato and Aristotle in conversation on the stairwell, in a rendition of Raphael’s The School of Athens. Once up, you have exited that initial darkness, and find yourself in the ample, exalting reading room. The ‘quest’ for ‘knowledge’ is spatially represented.

Ogden mentions the stroke/strike of inspiration in order to undermine it. In On Not Knowing, she turns from the drama and light of crystalline revelation, and thus from established forms of knowledge-making and framing. Instead, she proposes we sit in the shaded parts, which are our bread and butter, after all. That we remain peripheral, here in the semi-dark.

Later, Ogden describes a photo, immediately suggests her description could be incorrect, then says: ‘I am reluctant to check.’ This soft obstinancy’s like Melville’s I would prefer not to. I’ve often felt this way in essays. That––I’d prefer to sit with (and write from) my own position as it stands, rather than reach out for others. I do not desire to stabilise, to signal, to make a point very secure. This isn’t about not wanting to be more well-informed, but moreso about being at ease with lack of knowledge, or with the references and ideas one might coldly bring to something. Comfortable with the things that have sunk in, and those that refer back to life, so as not to require other external cultural touchpoints. I meet the book, and continue to meet it, as I am and as no more than that. I think this is a feature of the essay as a form that has been lost somewhat, in favour or fully researched, footnoted, verified things. These can also be called essays, but become less about to essay, to attempt, less about position, experience, less about how you fell off your horse and want to tell us all about it. I mention to a friend that in the blurb beautiful is used to describe the writing in On Not Knowing, and we talk briefly about Sianne Ngai, of how such an aesthetic category as beautiful gestures both to everything and nothing. How these terms lack meaning. But, I don’t desire to read up on Ngai in order to perform that reference here for a reader, from a position of more surety.

I am not sure.

I am reluctant.

I would prefer not to.


Some sentences seem complete as an aphorism: ‘Hooded like falcons, we pass into or out of love’. But, rather than being closed, such exacting phrases build and grow. The book then, is a building up: essays that daisy chain, ever to re-emphasise from an altered position. A row of shined coals.

I don’t know how much it’s about love, maybe more about looking and seeing and attending. Offering attentiveness to a person or a thing, in its dailiness and its drama, but mostly in dailiness, and considering what it means to set that down. To say: I have seen. The love I care about in it is the love of the parent.

‘Children… have the same sick appetite for pattern as any mammal.’

A lot of time in the book is spent at the breach between stimuli and language, as Ogden’s children find sound, pattern it to speech, then story. These bits make me want to send the book to my mum, for her to be reading it and then for her to have read it. For us to share that. On the phone she tells me how much love she felt for me that day last week, while watching me draw out a floor plan on a scrap of paper in IKEA, talking all the while about pine and depth. We get emotional about similar things. I still feel in some ways within the undifferentiated sea between baby-Kate and my mum. Ogden quotes Mary Ruefle, that the first true act of translation ‘was when a mother heard her baby babble or cry, and had to decide in an instant what it meant.’

We supersede language when we communicate across the showroom of IKEA.

When something moves into language, into definition, by the time there’s a word for it it’s as though it’s always had that word. Ogden dwells on such humps of definition, the difficulty of pinning a name or a quality to something, and whether such description is extraneous to writers, to anyone. She writes: Can a person go back to the unpruned adjectives of immediate experience?’ And, later, her children do say things unpruned. As they give clarity to the world around them, their observations about the most implicitly held sinews of our world, are vast. Shocking in their non-attachment to received ideas. One says: ‘Cats have paws. Can’t take them off.’ (This reminds me of a joke I read a few weeks ago, one Susan Sontag apparently told on her deathbed: ‘Where does a general keep his armies? In his sleevies.’) There are some things we have that we are extricable from, and others that we aren’t. It is the work of childhood to discern some of these differences. In a later essay, Ogden repeats her child’s statement and it’s playful, mordant, a matchstick illumination.

‘There were no pronouns at first, and when the pronouns started, my children did not know that pronouns are relative to the speaker’s position.’

Recently, someone decided that he could use my words against me. That, because in a piece of my own writing I’d said that I’d used pronouns flagrantly, that justified him (and those for whom he spoke) readily, happily using the wrong pronouns for me. He did not know that pronouns are relative to the speaker’s position. Childlike, ignorant and remaining so, he opted for aggression, as they often do. Ogden doesn’t sit with ignorance wilfully in this way, rather proposing and demonstrating an ethical not knowing. Not knowing as a way of destabilising structures of power, rather than enforcing them.

A long something from Rob Halpern that speaks to this more coherently: ‘Like the verisimilitude proposed by naive realism, the appearance of transparency is an accomplishment of ideology: the effect of an optimal performance achieved by a disciplined body, a laboured production of social grammars whose fundamental incoherence is seamlessly concealed ‘so as no appearance of any wound or hurt outwardly might be at once perceived’ [his emphasis].

One last jab. It’s between one and two in the afternoon and I’m in the local library, a local seat of knowledge. I’m sat by the ‘b’s: beside Nicholson Baker’s The Mezannine and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, both great in their steady different ways. In the space between them is a pair of unshined coals: two books by J G Ballard. It is a pleasure to say no to them, to actively deny reading them, to leave them as matte unshined coals. Because, even in the not having read, they’ve already taken up enough space, held so close by so many cis white men. I am reluctant to ever read them. I swim in this not knowing.


Kate Morgan is a writer and editor based in Glasgow. They care about attending to the quotidien as a site of research and a way of thinking through. Their writing has been featured by Sticky Fingers, Pilot Press, Nothing Personal, Design Exhibition Scotland and Hedera Felix. They also co-produce Fortified, a journal that prioritises unwieldy writing on food and eating.

Emily Ogden’s On Not Knowing is published by Peninsula Press.