What Essays Are, and What Essayists Do

We’re on break until Labor Day. Meanwhile, please enjoy some of our most-read articles since last summer. Today’s originally appeared on January 8, 2019.
There are no good books about essays, only essays. The first practitioner of the form, the 16th-century French politician and minor aristocrat Michel de ...

There are no good books about essays, only essays. The first practitioner of the form, the 16th-century French politician and minor aristocrat Michel de Montaigne, never said what an essay was. He just said what he was doing. And he did it. Likewise, the Irish writer Brian Dillon, in his new book Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction, wisely declines to offer a potted history of the form. Instead he shows us glimpses of his subject from all sides, uncovering bit by bit what this way of writing is all about: he essays the essay itself.

As Montaigne was in his Essais, so Dillon himself is a character in his own book, and through his own story—in accounts of his writerly and readerly habits, his literary predilections, and, movingly, his deep bouts of melancholy—he shows how essayists see themselves and the world. He draws our attention not so much to the what as to the how of the essay, the stylistic imprint left by the attitude of the essayist. This attitude is “essayism,” a word Robert Musil coined in The Man Without Qualities to describe his protagonist’s “haphazard, paralysing, disarming manner against logical systematisation.”1 The young man approaches all he encounters “approximately in the way that an essay, in the sequence of its paragraphs, takes a thing from many sides without comprehending it wholly—for a thing wholly comprehended instantly loses its bulk and melts down into a concept.”2

Sensitivity, tenderness, and a measure of slyness characterize Dillon’s opening essay, “On Essays and Essayists,” in which he writes, in one of the most astute observations on the form, that essayists “perform a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be.” Summing up his own method and, in a way, Essayism itself, he identifies the essay as “a form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal measure.” An essay tells the truth, but it tells it “slantwise,” with a difference—sometimes subtle, sometimes extreme.

Diversity is the essay’s reason for being, and its principal theme. Every essay has something original in its approach, paradoxical in the root sense of going at least slightly against the grain of popular opinion, showing the way a single person thinks and a single person writes. One of the founding fictions of the form, in Montaigne’s Essais, is that the essayist simply can’t write in any other way: his form is necessarily as idiosyncratic as his mind and his body, and to write a different kind of book would be not only dishonest to himself and to the reader but also on some level impossible.

An essay tells the truth, but it tells it “slantwise,” with a difference—sometimes subtle, sometimes extreme.

Like Montaigne, Dillon writes essays because he has to. It’s somehow in his literary DNA: “I will have to write, can only write, in fits and starts,” he admits. Recounting his abysmal performance in a required logic course at university, Dillon admits that, like Musil’s protagonist, “I was and remain quite incapable of mounting in writing a reasoned and coherent argument, never mind describing to myself, as the study of logic required, the parts and processes, more or less persuasive, of that argument.”

The essay, according to Dillon, isn’t simply a means to an end, even though, without an end (usually stated in terse titles—“Of Practice,” “On Consolation”—that gesture toward the Greco-Roman precursors of the form), an essay has no motion. Unlike an instruction manual or a polemic or a speech, the essay isn’t merely a technology for informing or persuading an audience. It has much more to do, at least at first glance, with the writer; the work it may do on the reader is secondary to the intellectual or emotional itch it scratches for the essayist.

In its independence, it’s something closer to a poem—or, to use a metaphor Dillon hints at, a photograph. The presence of Roland Barthes, like that of Joan Didion and Elizabeth Hardwick, suffuses Essayism, and in the chapter “On Vulnerability,” Dillon dwells on Barthes’s distinction, in Camera Lucida, between two planes of the photograph: the studium, which is the explicit subject of the image, the information we learn from it; and the punctum, “that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty.” The punctum exists only in the gaze of the viewer; it may change, as it does for Barthes, and as it does for Dillon in his rereading of Barthes.

Any given essay has some theme—a Borgesian catalog of which opens Essayism—but also some distinct, idiosyncratic, and often changing view of that theme. To use one of Dillon’s examples, we read Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a point-by-point refutation of commonly held misconceptions, not because it’s fascinating to consider, for example, the widespread belief that a badger’s legs are shorter on one side than the other or that a dead kingfisher can be used as a weathervane, though these things are entertaining. We read Browne because we want to know how he thinks about these curiosities. We read for the punctum: that peculiar way of seeing, or writing—in a word, the writer’s style.


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If something seems quaint about Essayism, it’s Dillon’s emphasis on style, the part of writing that, in contemporary conversations about literature, may seem to be the most superficial. But essayistic writing begins, as Adorno once noted, not with the simplest thing but with the most complicated: the richest form of reality explored by, and within, the essayist.3 This concern for the concrete, for realistic complexity rather than rationalistic reduction, is why an essay, like a poem, ultimately is its style—and why essayism is itself a style.

In one of several Whitmanesque moments, Dillon writes that the essay “is diverse and several—it teems” with topics and perspectives as various as the people who write about them. We read to experience, and sometimes, as in the case of Dillon’s melancholy, to be reminded of the teeming diversity of the world and, at the same time, of human experience, “the halo of affinities and correspondences” that surrounds everything; to be reminded, quite simply, that there are others out there who are as particular and peculiar and strange as ourselves, whose feelings are as motile and contradictory as our own, each with her own style—the way she reshapes the world through her language. He writes, “‘I like your style’ means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness.” We read an essay not simply to learn something but to see through someone’s eyes, to follow the traces of their mind on the page as they come to terms with a theme or an idea or an experience.

It’s impossible not to like Dillon’s style. His essays are a remarkable mixture of fine-grained criticism and literary memoir, much of which is not only beautiful but also genuinely useful for the study of a form that, because of its non- or even antigeneric nature, falls between the cracks of literary criticism. It should be read by all critics examining nonfiction writing. That said, a book like this is neither scholarly nor comprehensive, and doesn’t set out to be.

The absence a historically minded reader will feel the most is antiquity. Except for one allusion to Augustine, there is no mention of classical literature, which, in its polymathic variety, forms the foundation of the tradition in which Dillon inscribes himself. The motley histories of Herodotus, the philosophical life writing of Plutarch, the essayistic letters of Cicero and Seneca, the lyrical prose of Apuleius, the encylopedism of Pliny the Elder, and the vivid letters of Pliny the Younger—all of these, and more, are the roots of the essay’s family tree. Montaigne, its trunk, does get a few good pages: Dillon homes in on “Of Practice,” the story of Montaigne’s nearly fatal fall from a horse, which is in itself a kind of allegory of how the writer’s “‘I’ travels out from the seat of consciousness and dissipates itself at the extremities” of thought and feeling.

Dillon is best on the authors he knows well, namely 20th-century writers like Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Hardwick, Maeve Brennan, Cyril Connolly, and Roland Barthes, though he also offers some startlingly insightful commentary on Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and on Thomas Browne’s “idea of the essay as collection or repository—or an idea of the museum as essay.” His short chapters on fragments (“spines or quills whose owner evades us and attacks at the same time”) and aphorisms (a form of “sublime ambition that is at present in a kind of disgrace”) would interest and instruct even a seasoned literary historian.

Essayistic writing shows what is at stake when we say “you”: another “I.”

Although it’s almost perversely Anglocentric (all writers are referenced in English, with no allusions to the originals or the problems of translation so relevant to questions of style), Essayism’s bibliography alone is almost worth the price of the book—fitting since, as Dillon teaches us, essays are like encyclopedias, existing in and around other texts, and essayists bring things together in lists, channeling the associative impulse. It’s only a shame the book is so short. Dillon’s take on contemporary writers like Teju Cole and Rebecca Solnit, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Leslie Jamison, as well as writing in the digital age, would be fascinating. But of course Dillon can only write the way he writes.

Yet there is one blind spot in Essayism that is harder to explain away and harder to forgive: politics. Early on, Dillon excuses himself from the subject.

I find myself allergic to polemics, and so in the pages that follow some partisans of political essaying, or boisterous critical opinion, may find that their exemplars are absent. It’s not that I dislike a certain violence in the essay, but I can’t believe in a writing that is forcefully only itself—I want obliquity, essays that approach their targets, for there must be targets, slantwise, or with a hail of conflicted attitudes. This too may be political, even radical. It will often look like something else: what used to be called formalism, or dismissed as aestheticism.

I don’t mean to dismiss Dillon’s welcome book as formalism or mere aestheticism. These are in fact virtues, even necessities, when writing about a literature that is constantly reminding the reader of its own status as writing and of its difference, its peculiarity—Montaigne’s musings on the transience of pain and sexual desire, Brennan’s microscopic attention to the “tiny, interstitial moments” of the city, Barthes’s punctum. But, as Dillon himself begins to say, formalism and aestheticism are also the basis of an ethical stance toward the other, in which difference—in writing style; in politics, the historical, situational aspects of our lives that inform each of our identities and complicate mutual understanding—is a primary characteristic of human life. In a community of infinitely particular members, communication is the central problem of living together. Witness the way identity influences our contemporary political conversations: it is often unclear who can and should speak for whom.

Montaigne, Woolf, Benjamin, Adorno, Sontag, and Barthes—almost all of Dillon’s authors, at some time or another—write about individual selves and experiences that are socially situated, and in language that is socially informed. To ignore how their works engage not only with the second person but also with the group of second persons that add up to a community is to read them only halfway. It is also to ignore the deep crisis of skepticism, born of political turmoil and religious strife, that drove Montaigne to invent a way of writing that took nothing for granted, not even the power of language to make ourselves known to one another.4


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The essay is a marginal, even trivial form, yet it is also deeply and seriously engaged with the weightiest questions of how a philosophical and political subject can be constituted out of a particular body and mind. Essayistic writing—as opposed to strict autobiography, which may simplify and explain a life through narrative—shows what is at stake when we say “you”: another “I.” If the essay has a politics, it’s nothing so ideological as conservatism or radicalism, or any other ideology. In fact, it’s a kind of anti-ideology, couching politics in human terms: since I’m a black box and you’re a black box, how can we live together?

In its last chapter, “On Starting Again,” Essayism seems to know this, even if its author never makes it explicit. Dillon ends by turning away from himself and his “melancholy essayism,” toward another person. “Do you remember when you quoted The Waste Land—‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’—and I was absolutely sure, without checking, that it ought to be ‘ruin’? That is how I have heard the line in my head for more than half my life, and I was awfully sure of myself. I was wrong, of course—it is ‘ruins.’” That “you,” quoting the lines of yet someone else, saves Dillon from his solitary and self-destructive misreading and brings him back into a community of language and thought. And then Dillon invites the reader to join him, calling her “Dear essayist” and asking her to remember a curious metaphor from William Carlos Williams and consider it with him. Both see themselves and the other reflected on the page. Reader and writer essay together; they rely upon each other. The sociability of the essay, its civility, means something in these troubled times, and we have something to learn from this humane book.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, vol. 1, translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (Picador, 1982), p. 301.
  2. Ibid., p. 297.
  3. Theodor Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” translated from the German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, in Notes to Literature (Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 14.
  4. The classic exposition of the Renaissance crisis of skepticism is Richard H. Popkin’s The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle.
Featured image: Field Day (2014). Photograph by Richard P J Lambert / Flickr