In search of real essays
Many people who hear the word "essay" will think first of a kind of writing demanded by high school teachers, college lecturers and by those who set writing tasks in EFL, ESL English language exams - a kind of writing in which students are often expected to present other people's ideas, findings or arguments and impartially weigh them up. One of the most characteristic features of this kind of essay is that authors (the students) are to avoid referring to themselves as much as possible, replacing phrases like "I think" with impersonal alternatives such as "It could be argued that."
What is striking is the difference between this rather nasty form of writing and the much more colourful style of writing that filled the earliest essays back in the days when it was new and rather shocking. The form first appeared in the late 16th century with writers such as the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who published a large collection of essays in 1580. Curiously, the most characteristic feature of this sort of essay is precisely its personal quality. One participant in a roundtable discussion of the history of the essay, describes Montaigne's originality in the following way: "As so many people have observed, it all begins with him and the idea of the personal voice, the idea of thinking about your ideas, what you feel, what your experience has been. It evolves over the course of many of his essays. He started out doing something fairly academic, quoting liberally from his reading, and eventually he gets more and more personal."
As an example of Montaigne's writing, we would recommend "On the vanity of words". This interesting critique of oratory and the decline of civilisation includes a very personal explanation of how he came to sit down and write about this topic:
"I have entered into this discourse upon the occasion of an Italian I lately received into my service, and who was clerk of the kitchen to the late Cardinal Caraffa till his death. I put this fellow upon an account of his office: when he fell to discourse of this palate-science*, with such a settled countenance and magisterial gravity, as if he had been handling some profound point of divinity."
* i.e. oratory
It is impossible to resist the temptation to quote another part of the same essay:
"To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors, and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that come near to the babble of my chambermaid."
For many people who have tried to put their finger on the essence of the essay, the etymology of the word is significant. It comes from a French word meaning "try". This is appropriate for a piece of writing that is often an attempt - and a tentative one at that - to clarify a personal point of view on a matter. Essays are less likely to be intellectually arrogant declarations of the Truth; they tend to be more humble and more provisional, and more aware that the point of view expressed depends on a particular experience of things. The subject matter is also almost always drawn from the circle of personal experience, instead of being taken from academic or theological disputes about, for instance, the correct interpretation of the Holy Trinity. In fact, an essayist is more likely to describe witnessing such a debate, and to express his sense of its futility, rather than take part in it with a view to settling the matter once and for all.
Whether the author's opinions appear tentative or utterly self-assured, the voice is always the voice of personal experience. It is not the voice of the scholar. William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote a very powerful essay criticising scholarship and implicitly defending the kind of writing being done by himself and other essay writers. It is entitled "On the ignorance of the learned", and it is strongly recommended. Here is an excerpt:
"Learning is, in too many cases, but a foil to common sense; a substitute for true knowledge. Books are less often made use of as 'spectacles' to look at nature with, than as blinds to keep out its strong light and shifting scenery from weak eyes and indolent dispositions. The book-worm wraps himself up in his web of verbal generalities, and sees only the glimmering shadows of things reflected from the minds of others. Nature puts him out. The impressions of real objects, stripped of the disguises of words and voluminous roundabout descriptions, are blows that stagger him; their variety distracts, their rapidity exhausts him; and he turns from the bustle, the noise, and glare, and whirling motion of the world about him (which he has not an eye to follow in its fantastic changes, nor an understanding to reduce to fixed principles), to the quiet monotony of the dead languages, and the less startling and more intelligible combinations of the letters of the alphabet. It is well, it is perfectly well. 'Leave me to my repose,' is the motto of the sleeping and the dead. You might as well ask the paralytic to leap from his chair and throw away his crutch, or, without a miracle, to 'take up his bed and walk,' as expect the learned reader to throw down his book and think for himself. He clings to it for his intellectual support; and his dread of being left to himself is like the horror of a vacuum. He can only breathe a learned atmosphere, as other men breathe common air. He is a borrower of sense. He has no ideas of his own, and must live on those of other people. The habit of supplying our ideas from foreign sources 'enfeebles all internal strength of thought,' as a course of dram-drinking destroys the tone of the stomach. The faculties of the mind, when not exerted, or when cramped by custom and authority, become listless, torpid, and unfit for the purposes of thought or action. Can we wonder at the languor and lassitude which is thus produced by a life of learned sloth and ignorance; by poring over lines and syllables that excite little more idea or interest than if they were the characters of an unknown tongue, till the eye closes on vacancy, and the book drops from the feeble hand!"
Hazlitt is scathing of the scholar who "is conversant with books only as they are made of other books, and those again of others, without end - [who] parrots those who have parroted others. He can translate the same word into ten different languages, but he knows nothing of the thing which it means in any one of them. He stuffs his head with authorities built on authorities, with quotations quoted from quotations, while he locks up his senses, his understanding, and his heart." And in writing this, it is clear that Hazlitt sees the essay as a form of writing in which he can express those unscholarly truths that have a direct connection with genuine experience.
"What I mean by living to one's-self is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is as if no one know there was such a person, and you wished no one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it; to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, such an interest as it might take in the affairs of men, calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them. He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart, looks at the busy world through the loop-holes of retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray. 'He hears the tumult, and is still.'"
The form of the essay also allows writers to use more conversational language. As an example we will quote the beginning of Gail Hamilton's (1833-1896) lovely essay on childhood entitled "Happiest Days":
"Long ago, when you were a little boy or a little girl - perhaps not so very long ago - were you never interrupted in your play by being called in to have your face washed, your hair combed, and your soiled apron exchanged for a clean one, preparatory to an introduction to Mrs. Smith, or Dr. Jones, or Aunt Judkins, your mother's early friend? And after being ushered into that august presence, and made to face a battery of questions which where either above or below your capacity, and which you consequently despised as trash or resented as insult, did you not, as were gleefully vanishing, hear a soft sigh breathed out upon the air, "Dear child, he is seeing his happiest days"? In the concrete, it was Mrs. Smith or Dr. Jones speaking of you. But going back to general principles, it was Commonplacedom expressing its opinion of childhood. There never was a greater piece of absurdity in the world. I thought so when I was a child, and now I know it; and I desire here to brand it as at once a platitude and a falsehood. How the idea gained currency, that childhood is the happiest period of life, I cannot conceive. How, once started, it kept afloat, is equally incomprehensible. I should have supposed that the experience of every sane person would have given the lie to it. I should have supposed that every soul, as it burst into flower, would have hurled off the imputation. I can only account for it by recurring to Lady Mary Wortley Montague's statistics, and concluding that the fools are three out of four in every person's acquaintance. I for one lift up my voice emphatically against the assertion, and do affirm that I think childhood is the most undesirable portion of human life, and I am thankful to be well out of it."
Hamilton writes as if she were talking directly to the reader, using the pronoun "you", which would be out of place in an essay written to meet the tedious expectations of teachers and tutors.
Of the essays I have read so far, my personal favorite is Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own". Written in 1928, it is a reflection upon why there had been so few eminent female writers. It is a wonderful example of how argument can be interwoven with narrative in an essay. It develops the argument that a woman needs, at the very least, both financial independence and a room of her own if she is to stand a chance of becoming a writer, and at the same time it narrates the series of experiences and enquiries by which Virginia Woolf arrived at this conclusion - a personal journey that uncovers examples of the patriarchal attitudes the argument calls into question. Although, in general, the form of the essay is loose enough to allow for a number of digressions, Woolf here ties everything together, with earlier details that first seemed unimportant reappearing later, taking on a greater significance.
Despite the concerted efforts of narrow-minded teachers, a vigorous essay-writing style still survives. Two examples picked almost at random are Gore Vidal's reflections on the 9/11 terrorist attacks: "Taking Liberties", and a piece by Camille Paglia, entitled "The Magic of Images: Word and Picture in a Media Age". The latter includes the following reference to her personal experience.
"As a classroom teacher for over thirty years, I have become increasingly concerned about evidence of, if not cultural decline, then cultural dissipation since the 1960s, a decade that seemed to hold such heady promise of artistic and intellectual innovation. Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them. I am reminded of an unnerving scene in Stanley Kubrick's epic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where an astronaut, his air hose cut by the master computer gone amok, spins helplessly off into space. The new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer but deprived of a solid primary education, has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture. Technology, like Kubrick's rogue computer, HAL, is the companionable servant turned ruthless master. The ironically self-referential or overtly politicized and jargon-ridden paradigms of higher education, far from helping the young to cope or develop, have worsened their vertigo and free fall. Today's students require not the subversion of rationalist assumptions (the childhood legacy of intellectuals born in Europe between the two World Wars) but the most basic introduction to structure and chronology. Without that, they are riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images."