A Fortnightly Review
The Cambridge Companion to the Essay
Editors Kara Willman and Evan Kindley
By ALAN WALL.
ESSAYS. WHEN WAS the first? We could say 1580; people often do. That’s the date of Montaigne’s Essais, which gave us the word. Bacon followed up in 1597 with his own Essays. And we have been at it ever since. There were essayistic things before that, but the self-contained entity we call the essay had its definitive birth at that point. And it is one of Montaigne’s legacies that our notion of the essay is something fleeting, grasped at, rather than a monumental affair, with a scholarly machinery to hold and maintain it. You don’t get a monument so much as a brief excursus, a quick-witted exercise that can move as speedily as the wind. It’s more of an attempt than a final definition. It is by its very nature provisional. The word essayistic signifies a commando raid on all things epistemological. We are on a reconnaissance trip to ascertain the terrain. Someone else will have to draw up the detailed maps later. We’ll probably be gone by then anyway. The essay is a hobo rather than a long-term sojourner. He comes with the night and is gone with the dawn.
Montaigne was wonderfully modest. He had no real subject but himself, and that self was forgetful to the point of amnesia. ‘I have no real subject but me,’ he seemed to say, ‘and there’s nothing of real interest there, to be honest.’ But there was, of course. His frankness had about it the quality of revelation. The same could well be said of Augustine’s Confessions, though the saint took considerably longer about it.
Let’s take a serious look at the business of being oneself. What precisely is involved? Inhabiting your own interiority might not be as straightforward as we first thought. Mind you, interiority itself has hardly remained static. Walter Benjamin reckoned that the interior as an alternative to public life, as a redemptive domestic escape from it, was birthed between 1830 and 1848 under the reign of Louis Philippe. Here the bourgeois individual established his private kingdom, a domestic interior of cushions and carpets and a whole panoply of imprintable materials. This was the little world of the clue that the detective story is so dependent on. So many fingerprints and footprints and traces. The world of subjectivity leaves its traces inside the arena of domesticity. The detective detects them. And the essayist in turn becomes a kind of detective. One cannot help but note the remarkable similarity between Freud’s essays and the Sherlock Holmes stories. The microcosm of the interior is the labyrinth wherein we conceal the howling minotaur of our desires. But the monster can be tracked and traced. And even done to death. A body lying dead inside a labyrinth of clues: that’s the classic detective story.
So many books are actually a sequence of essays joined together, even when they must be provided with an overall plot. The essayist, like the short story writer, is dominated by narratology. We are always gazing backwards through the wrong end of the telescope, and what we see is story: this is the inescapable human condition. We cannot think statistically for long. Vast numbers dissolve our linearities. So we start to talk of atoms and we go back (note the spatial metaphor) to Democritus. Then we will arrive soon enough at J. J. Thompson in 1897, when he discovers that the atom (despite its name) is not indivisible, and the electron now so speedily inhabits it. Then we will start to populate the circle of the atom with planetary entities of various sorts, until the planetary model starts to explode on us and we end up with something far more complex and mysterious, involving quantum states and probabilities. We are still telling a story though, even if the story ends in a myriad of possibilities. We still revert to the dynamic model.
Essays correspond to the times in which they are written. They might correspond through contradiction and detestation, but they still correspond. One of the most famous essay openings ever is this: ‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ Orwell’s sentence tells you there’s a war on, but it doesn’t do so pompously, or through historical distance. It roots you in the present moment, and does it through the experience of the writer. That’s how we know there’s a war on. Whatever else essayism as a style does, it does not make a pretence of impersonality. Ink on paper always squirts out of one brain or another, even if some of the brains are about to become artificial. We know that somebody is talking, or impersonating a talker.
And the talk has a relevance to the times. The utopian essay in the seventeenth century was much preoccupied with the New World. Think of the possibilities. Perhaps we could start again. Pre-warned, Eve might take a bit more care choosing her fruit this time around. It took a while before the essay noticed that we did not discover paradise among the natives; more often, we introduced them to hell. Seething with rapacity and disease, we displayed our superior fire-power to these lesser folk. Always keeping a bible close by. We did bring some fruit back with us: strawberries, for example. Our little theft from paradise.
By the nineteenth century, the essay was often pondering the great economy, and what it did and didn’t do to its inhabitants. Might there be an alternative system? One which did not involve so much division and strife? Ruskin’s essays are magnificent and moving. We are not creating true wealth, he says. What we are really creating is – and here he has to invent a word – illth. By the twentieth century, we have the possibility of extra-terrestrial life or destinations. In this new century, we have climate change and artificial intelligence. Not to mention the possibilities of war. When Virginia Woolf wrote her essay on the modern essay, she was not worried about excess interiority, so much as the clutter, the bric-a-brac that had started to fill the recent essays in the press: all of the palaver and minutiae of life, detailed beyond anyone’s requirements. This process has most certainly not diminished. But the latest theme would appear to be crisis. We are negotiating our survival.
And yet the essay at its best continues to speak in a small, articulate way, about the connection between the writer’s life and perceptions and the great panjandrum ordering us about. The great panjandrum and the great machine – those monolithic powers that threaten always to silence the dissident voice. The world whirred on, but Joan Didion continued to talk, freshly and fearlessly, about how it presented itself to her. What dictates the essayist’s character is not content but style. Whether Orwell is discussing an elephant shoot or Nazi Germany, we recognize that style, which he fashioned by drilling into himself relentlessly. It dispenses with the fancy footwork and presents us with a peasant boot. It continues to ask basic questions in the most sophisticated circumstances.
The great advantage of the essay is that it does not claim any institutional authority or any point of privilege. Ultimately it explores an interiority. Like all mental states that last for long, interiority is manufactured. Yogic practices understand this all too well. If the mental state we are in is entirely accidental, then it is a chaos. An essay is aware of its own radical incompletion. It focusses on the moment and cultural place of its perception and analysis. It understands that it is a scaffolding, which goes up quickly and can soon be taken down again. Many people these days read essays about books, rather than the books the essays are about. The essay can become a replacement of its subject.
The essays gathered together in The Cambridge Companion to the Essay travel far and wide. We have surveys of the utopian essay, the imperial essay, the novelistic essay, the scientific essay. On this last, it is worth remarking that Niels Bohr used to insist ‘We are suspended in language’. He knew that scientists tended to work in numbers, but he was painfully aware that discursive language is required if everyone outside the scientific community is to catch a glimpse of what is going on inside. At the end of the book we have a couple of essays on the photographic sequence as essay, and the film as essay. You don’t have to have words to make an essay, but you do need to be discursive. You need to take a view on the matter at hand, and observe it from a recognizable perspective.
In ‘Unqueering the Essay’ we are confronted with Susan Sontag, a great essayist herself. Here she is presented in all her contradictoriness. She loved both women and men, and was entirely unapologetic about the fact. Her essays are wonderful; her fiction hard work. But she was convinced that her fiction was high up the mountain, and only the stupidity of contemporary readers failed to register the fact. She had, so it seems to me, an essayist’s mind. That’s a different thing from a novelist’s mind. Nabokov criticised Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus for what he called ‘super-essayism’. A look into that novel shows quickly what Nabokov meant: fascinating subjects are pursued in semi-detachment from the plot. They seem to form little essays by themselves. But then the same could be said of Moby-Dick, where we are treated to mini-treatises on the subject of cetology, or the study of whales. The essayistic mind needs dialogue, another word for which is dialectic. Each answer requires another question. Essays do not round themselves off with a definitive QED. They slide away, with a host of other questions arising.
The essay here on the essay in its lyric form is enticing. There are essays which use the essayistic form the way a poem uses the poetic form. Guy Davenport was expert in this genre, though he doesn’t get a mention here. The essayistic mind-set has an open aperture at both ends. It does not close itself off with conclusions. It remains provisional, in order to dance on the page. When one begins thinking essayistically, one soon wanders far beyond the scope of the essay. It is possible to find essayistic elements in all sorts of forms. T. S. Eliot wrote a famous essay on Hamlet. He found the play formally wanting: it didn’t properly add up to the sum of its parts. He put this down to the pre-existence of texts, particularly Thomas Kyd’s, which had not been coherently absorbed into the later play. But the matter can be seen differently, if one sees Hamlet as the most essayistic of Shakespeare’s plays. The one play where he asked more questions than he provided answers. A play that stops and starts with vigorous and fascinating jerks. Eliot’s devotion to his notion of the classic was a commitment to completion and resolution. This does not apply to Hamlet. There are more questions at the end of the play than there were at the beginning. It is not so much a problem-play as an essay-play.
As the rich and varied essays in this collection make plain, essayism is a cognitive strategy. The essay thinks without certainty. It shapes its literary form into a question-mark. It says human thought is a query, not a resolution.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.
c.f.: Alan Wall on ‘Essayism’ in The Fortnightly Review.