TLS Online November 2, 2017
© Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP
© Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP

What does the essay do?


Consider the following essays, almost all of which are classics of the genre – if that’s what it is. There are essays on cannibals, on friendship, on noses, on experience. On the death of a moth, the Hoover Dam and how to write. On the origins of roast pig. On the pleasures of hating. On the author’s addiction to opium, on sudden death, on murder considered as one of the fine arts. On certain funerary urns lately found in Norfolk. On the art of noise. On the aesthetics of silence. Seven Dada manifestos, forty-one false starts, the writer’s technique in thirteen theses. On the objects at present on the writer’s desk. On kissing, tickling and being bored. On the Lisbon earthquake, on a stagecoach crash, on the destruction of Hiroshima. On essays and essayists.

How to begin to define a literary form that has interested itself in such disparate things? You would not try to describe the novel by recourse merely to the kinds of people, events and places that novels have been written about, but something in the essay demands that its diversity of subject matter be taken into account. As Elizabeth Hardwick put it: “The essay is nothing less than the reflection of all there is: art, personal experience, places, literature, portraiture, politics, science, music, education – and just thought itself in orbit”. The essay thinks, and while it thinks it seethes, it bristles, it adventures. Essays fly to extremes or stick close to home, attending the everyday. And just as subjects must vary, so will styles. The essays listed above include learned treatises, fragments of autobiography, mysterious numbered aphorisms, experiments in voice or structure, polemical assaults and urgent manifestos. Also a few more or less frank inventions.

Literary forms are never pure, though purity may be one of the things they wish for. Against its own vagrant nature, the essay wants to be well made, clean in outline, self-contained. It is crude but legitimate to ask how long an essay can run and still deserve the name. The essayist is most at ease in modestly proportioned apartments – except when not, when the piece outpaces its projected form and becomes the sprawling mansion of, for example, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. For the most part, essays are self-limiting in extent, even brutally so. In his “Essay on Virginia” of 1925, William Carlos Williams declares that an essay is like “an infant which fails to continue”. (An odd image, though less so in the hands of a poet–physician.) Essays have affinities with, and may at times be composed of, aphorisms and fragments: forms that aspire to the cool minimum of wit, the utmost economy of thought and expression. Essays, in short, are usually short. They start, they stop, but in the meantime they may wander far from their avowed subjects or terrain. If not dilation, digression is the essayist’s favoured rhetorical move.

But who is the protagonist of the essay, the persona that speaks and swerves and surveys? It’s customary to say that since Michel de Montaigne – who may or may not have invented the modern essay and with it a version of self-centred modernity – the form has been dominated by a certain “I”. Montaigne’s vital category of experience still holds sway; the essayist attests, whether his or her topic is intimate, historical or universal. According to David Foster Wallace, the essay is “basically an enormous eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees”. Of course what it sees, especially in essays as manically reflexive as those of Wallace, is frequently its own mirror image: the essay is a genre in which the “I” itself is at issue. Virginia Woolf on essays: “Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem”. The essay is an experiment with (or on) the writing self, as much as it is a form that is curious about curiosity, a mode attentive to ways of attending.

Some or all of this may account for the periodic historical eclipse of the essay. It can appear altogether too sententious, addicted to its own tone of authority, its inclination to impart lessons. (Ironically enough, the best place to get a sense of the essay’s lost dominance in English literature is in the pages of Victorian novels, whose protagonists were the last readers – until our present, perhaps – who turned to essays before fiction for moral as well as intellectual improvement.) Or the essay may seem too frivolous, as it did in a way to Woolf, who worked hard to put some distance between her own oblique experiments in the form and would-be essayists who took the subjectivism of the genre as an excuse for chatty inconsequence: “You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes – the amiable garrulity of the tea-table – cast into the form of essays”.

For sure, that sort of gentlemanly essay no longer exists, but concerns about a tendency to trivia have not gone away. Hence, I suppose, an attraction, for some, towards the confident bruisers of the English and American essay in the twentieth century. (How dully and dutifully, for the rest of us, the names roll out: Orwell, Mailer, Hitchens, Amis.) If the essay has been having a renaissance in recent years, it is not so much because it offers an opportunity for authorial assertion, for dispatching again the insistent self. It has been said – notably by Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker earlier this year – that the “personal essay” (a phrase of Woolf’s) has come and gone again since the turn of the millennium. But in truth the most exacting and innovative essays today are personal and at the same time impersonal, marked by awareness that the “I” is exactly what is at stake. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, Joan Didion famously writes at the outset of “The White Album”. The line seems to sanction a frictionless shuttle between expression and consolation, but things are really otherwise. Didion’s frequently cited sentence, like the essay that follows it, is in fact all about the failure of words to fix things, and the ways the essaying “I” may fall apart.

Here is another list, of notable essays recently read. (Essayists are fond of the list as literary form – something to do with their commitment to short serial production.) This list is made of essays, or collections of essays, that announce themselves as such, and others, not exactly accidental, that append themselves to the history of the genre with less self-consciousness. The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick; Hilary Mantel on Princess Diana (“collar turned up, long feet like blades carving through the rain”); the work of Maggie Nelson but especially (because I’m partial) Bluets; Lisa Robertson’s Nilling; Kate Briggs on translation, and especially on Barthes, in her recent book This Little Art; a London Review of Books essay by Amia Srinivasan about what it’s like to be an octopus; Fleur Jaeggy on Keats, De Quincey and Marcel Schwob in These Possible Lives; Rebecca Solnit on Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; the recently republished short stories of Susan Sontag, who couldn’t help being an essayist when she wrote fiction; Lydia Davis on translating some sentences of Proust; the strangely pitched writings of the artist Helen Marten; “A Lecture on the History of Skywriting” by Anne Carson; Didion’s “lost” account of a tour of Southern states in the early 1970s, now published in South and West: From a notebook.

I’ve held off till now from the usual acknowledgement of the etymology of “essay”: its derivation from the French essayer, to try or to test. The essay is provisional, perhaps unfinished, a textual “sally” of sorts, as Samuel Johnson put it. All of which is true, but also something of a cliché. I prefer to think of the Swiss critic Jean Starobinski’s deeper archaeology of the word. Essai, he notes, comes from the Latin base exagium, meaning a scale. Exagium is related to examen, a needle – and in turn a swarm of bees or a flock of birds. The essay is teeming and multiple, it corrals all the above diversity and at the same time maintains a form, a logic, a sense of being bound and possessing a point. It is a venerable form orientated to the present, to the moment and the manner of its making as much as to the world around it.

Brian Dillon’s most recent book is Essayism, 2017