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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Excursion into Essay

The essay dates back to the mid 16th Century when Montaigne coined the term and originated the form. Lopate (1994) traces its history and characteristics, telling us that the essay

has been associated with an experimental method . . . . This idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writing. To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed. (p. xlii)

Montaigne was convinced that there was a basic unity to human experience and said: “every man has within himself the entire human condition” (Lopate, 1994, p. xxiii). Montaigne wrote in conversational vernacular French and followed his thoughts wherever they led him. “The results conveyed the spontaneity of mental discovery on the one hand and a heedless lack of structure on the other” (Lopate, p. 45). Also, in succeeding editions of his Essais, Montaigne would append afterthoughts, letting digressions “swell and complicate, even undercut his earlier idea,” and although Lopate feels that Montaigne’s essays are very rewarding, he confesses that there is “little that is orderly about them” (p. 45).

Honoring the thought as it emerges gives the essay a kind of freshness. Alexander Smith observes that “the essayist gives you his thoughts, and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them” (Lopate, 1994, p. xliv). This process can often lead the essayist to contradict him or herself, and while in some professions, Lopate avers, this way of working could be looked upon as a flaw. Lopate believes that

it may be an essential step for the essayist. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, paraphrasing Keats’ idea of negative capability, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The essay’s capacity for processing doubt is part of what makes it so stimulating and tonic. (p. xliv)

Lopate (1994) maintains that the essay is a way of thinking and a mode of being. It has a flexible and adaptable form that is conversational, contradictory, cheeky, confessional, and uses quotations. In discussing the use of quotations to lend authority to an author’s argument, Lopate tells us that the use of quotations was present from the start in Montaigne who was

a compulsive sprinkler of citations, and he cheerfully claimed he was doing it to get a free ride on other men’s brains . . . . Montaigne made such a mosaic of his and others’ words that quotations became a kind of baroque tilework overlaying his Essais, without compromising his originality . . . . Montaigne being a Renaissance humanist, reverential toward the classical authors (who themselves used frequent quotations) . . . . in England Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a learned catch-all encrusted with citations and meditations, became a kind of mother-text inspiring the essay form. (p. xli)

I see no reason to part with tradition, and so in my dissertation cheekiness and quotations abound. Holman and Harmon (Lopate, 1994) describe the informal essay, which is characterized by: “the personal element (self-revelation, individual taste and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme, freshness of form, freedom from stiffness and affectation, incomplete or tentative treatment of topic” (p. xxiv).

Essay has the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions: “It acts as if all objects were equally near the center and as if ‘all subjects are linked to each other’ (Montaigne) by free association” (Lopate, 1994, p. xxvii). Crapanzano (1992) contrasts essay’s freewheeling style with the more formal paper and article: “The essay enjoys a freedom, a tenativeness, and a speculative possibility that do not exist in the insistent paper or the determined article” (p.1). Crapanzano goes on to discuss the positive possibilities of the essay and links them to play:

The essay is one genre that gives us the possibility of expressing eloquently some of the thoughts, odd bits of information, epiphanous experiences, and speculative fantasies that are conventionally eliminated in the paper and the article. The freedom of the essay permits, without sacrificing rigor of thought, a play, an irony, a critical awareness that is for me at the heart of the human sciences. Of course most human scientists would take offense at the very suggestion that play, irony and critical awareness are at the heir of their disciplines . . . . Have we assumed for too long now that play and seriousness are opposites? Have we forgotten our childhood when we knew how to play seriously? Or our flirtations when we knew how to be seriously playful? (p. 2)

The essay has what Walter Pater called an “ ‘unmethodical method,’ open to digression and promiscuous meanderings” (Lopate, 1994, p. xxxvii). In essays one may freely digress—since digression’s chief role is to amass multiple dimensions of understanding while bringing as many contexts to bear on a problem or insight as possible. “The digression must wander off the point only to fulfill it. A kind of elaboration, it scoops up subordinate themes in passing” (Lopate, 1994, p. xl). There is a method to the seeming madness of promiscuous wanderings:

The essayist attempts to surround a something . . . by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter. In a well-wrought essay, while the search appears to be widening, even losing its way, it is actually eliminating false hypotheses, narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it. (Lopate, p. xxxviii)

The essay can be cheeky, undisciplined, flexible and humorous, qualities important to Montgomery in her dissertation, as previously mentioned. The essayist has

a penchant for outbreaks of mischievous impudence . . . . Cheekiness is a way of keeping readers alert. It cuts through the pious and the commonplace. Such cool impertinence often takes the form of a self-reflexive moment, which punctures the argument by drawing attention to the stage machinery of essayistic discourse. (Lopate, 1994, p. xxxii)

*In spite of, or perhaps because of all of the above, the genre has had an especially strong influence on English Literature. Lopate (1994) recalls that Montaigne’s Essais came out a few years before Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays on appearance and doubt; half a century later, Pascal’s Pensées were directly inspired by Montaigne’s Essais (p. 45).

Essay can be abrupt like conversation, suddenly changing direction, seemingly on a dime, or even a period; essay is also related in its conversational element to dialogue, which is central to the hermeneutic method. Both essay and dialogue acknowledge the multiplicity of selves that we are:

“It is natural to enter into dialogues and disputes with others,” writes the critic Stuart Hampshire “because it is natural to enter into disputes with oneself. The mind works by contradiction.” Personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues and disputes with themselves. (Lopate, 1994, p. xxiv)

In the art form of essay, therefore, we have a wonderful vehicle through which to explore play. “The genre’s virtues: curiosity, openness, appetite for pleasure, willingness to reflect, to give oneself to ‘random provocations,’ nature, beauty” (Lopate, 1994, p. xxxiv), also describe play. Adorno writes that

luck and play are what are essential to the essay. It does not begin with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to discuss; it says what is at issue and stops where it feels itself complete—not where nothing is left to say . . . . The essay does not strive for closed, deductive or inductive construction. It revolts above all against the doctrine—deeply rooted since Plato—that the changing and ephemeral is unworthy of philosophy, against the ancient injustice toward the transitory. (Lopate, p. xliii)

Adorno also notes that a usual criticism of essay is “that it is fragmentary and random” but he points out that “the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal” (Lopate, 1994, p. xliii). O. B. Hardison Jr. defines essay as “the enactment of a process by which the soul realizes itself even as it is passing from day to day and from moment to moment” (Lopate, p. xliv). For Lopate, the essay is soulful:

In the final analysis, the personal essay represents a mode of being. It points a way for the self to function with relative freedom in an uncertain world . . . . This mode of being suits the modern existential situation, which Montaigne first diagnosed. His recognition that human beings were surrounded by darkness, with nothing particularly solid to cling to, led to a philosophical acceptance that one had to make oneself up from moment to moment. (p. xliv)

In life, as in play, to quote fiction writer Tom Robbins’s (1995) theme from Skinny Legs and All, “we’re all just making it up” (Payton, 1995, online); so what better way than essay to express the play of psyche and cosmic play itself? The notion of fiction enters into play here, because my dissertation will use various culturally created fictions, in a hopefully healing way. Before going on, therefore, I cannot resist a brief digression into fiction.


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