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S E P T E M B E R 1 9 9 8
by Cynthia Ozick
N essay is a thing of the imagination. If there is information in an essay, it is by-the-by, and if there is an opinion, one need not trust it for the long run. A genuine essay rarely has an educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play. Though it is written in prose, it is closer in kind to poetry than to any other form. Like a poem, a genuine essay is made of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance.
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I speak of a "genuine" essay because fakes abound. Here the old-fashioned term
poetaster may apply, if only obliquely. As the poetaster is to the
poet -- a lesser aspirant -- so the average article is to the essay: a look-alike knockoff guaranteed not to wear well. An article is often gossip. An essay is reflection and insight. An article often has the temporary advantage of social heat -- what's hot out there right now. An essay's heat is interior. An article can be timely, topical, engaged in the issues and personalities of the moment; it is likely to be stale within the month. In five years it may have acquired the quaint aura of a rotary phone. An article is usually Siamese-twinned to its date of birth. An essay defies its date of birth -- and ours, too. (A necessary caveat: some genuine essays are popularly called "articles" -- but this is no more than an idle, though persistent, habit of speech. What's in a name? The ephemeral is the ephemeral. The enduring is the enduring.)
A small historical experiment. Who are the classic essayists who come at once to mind? Montaigne, obviously. Among the nineteenth-century English masters, the long row of Hazlitt, Lamb, De Quincey, Stevenson, Carlyle, Ruskin, Newman, Martineau, Arnold. Of the Americans, Emerson. Nowadays, admittedly, these are read only by specialists and literature majors, and by the latter only under compulsion. However accurate this observation, it is irrelevant to the experiment, which has to do with beginnings and their disclosures. Here, then, are some introductory passages:
One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.What might such a little anthology of beginnings reveal? First, that language differs from one era to the next: archaism intrudes, if only in punctuation and cadence. Second, that splendid minds may contradict each other (outdoors, Hazlitt never feels alone; Emerson urges others to go outdoors in order to feel alone). Third, that the theme of an essay can be anything under the sun, however trivial (the smell of sweat) or crushing (the thought that we must die). Fourth, that the essay is a consistently recognizable and venerable -- or call it ancient -- form. In English, Addison and Steele in the eighteenth century, Bacon and Browne in the seventeenth, Lyly in the sixteenth, Bede in the eighth. And what of the biblical Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), who may be the oldest essayist reflecting on one of the oldest subjects -- world-weariness?
O the essay is ancient and various; but this is a commonplace. Something else, more striking yet, catches our attention -- the essay's power. By "power" I mean precisely the capacity to do what force always does: coerce assent. Never mind that the shape and inclination of any essay is against coercion or suasion, or that the essay neither proposes nor purposes to get us to think like its author -- at least not overtly. If an essay has a "motive," it is linked more to happenstance and opportunity than to the driven will. A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and Emile Zola's "J'Accuse ... !" are heroic landmark writings; but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone's mazy mind. This is not to say that no essayist has ever been intent on making a moral argument, however obliquely -- George Orwell is a case in point. At the end of the day the essay turns out to be a force for agreement. It co-opts agreement; it courts agreement; it seduces agreement. For the brief hour we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction. And this will occur even if we are intrinsically roused to resistance.
To illustrate: I may not be persuaded by Emersonianism as an ideology, but Emerson -- his voice, his language, his music -- persuades me. When we look for words of praise, not for nothing do we speak of "commanding" or "compelling" prose. If I am a skeptical rationalist or an advanced biochemist, I may regard (or discard) the idea of the soul as no better than a puff of warm vapor. But here is Emerson on the soul: "When it breathes through [man's] intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love." And then -- well, I am in thrall; I am possessed; I believe.
The novel has its own claims on surrender. It suspends our participation in the society we ordinarily live in, so that for the time we are reading, we forget it utterly. But the essay does not allow us to forget our usual sensations and opinions. It does something even more potent: it makes us deny them. The authority of a masterly essayist -- the authority of sublime language and intimate observation -- is absolute. When I am with Hazlitt, I know no greater companion than nature. When I am with Emerson, I know no greater solitude than nature.
And what is oddest about the essay's power to lure us into its lair is how it goes about this work. We feel it when a political journalist comes after us with a point of view -- we feel it the way the cat is wary of the dog. A polemic is a herald, complete with feathered hat and trumpet. A tract can be a trap. Certain magazine articles have the scent of so much per word. What is indisputable is that all of these are more or less in the position of a lepidopterist with his net: they mean to catch and skewer. They are focused on prey -- us. The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.
Or else, though still not having us in mind (unless as an embodiment of common folly), it is not self-centered at all. When I was a child, I discovered in the public library a book that enchanted me then, and the idea of which has enchanted me for life. I have no recollection of either the title or the writer -- and anyhow, very young readers rarely take note of authors; stories are simply and magically there. The characters include, as I remember them, three or four children and a delightful relation who is a storyteller, and the scheme is this: each child calls out a story element, most often an object, and the storyteller gathers up whatever is supplied (blue boots, a river, a fairy, a pencil box) and makes out of these random, unlikely, and disparate offerings a tale both logical and surprising. An essay, it seems to me, may be similarly constructed -- if so deliberate a term applies. The essayist, let us say, unexpectedly stumbles over a pair of old blue boots in a corner of the garage, and this reminds her of when she last wore them -- twenty years ago, on a trip to Paris, where on the bank of the Seine she stopped to watch an old fellow sketching, with a box of colored pencils at his side. The pencil wiggling over his sheet is a grayish pink, which reflects the threads of sunset pulling westward in the sky, like the reins of a fairy cart ... and so on. The mind meanders, slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.
In the same way Montaigne, when contemplating the unpleasantness of sweat, ends with the pure breath of children. Stevenson, starting out with mortality, speaks first of ambush, then of war, and finally of a displaced pin. No one is freer than the essayist -- free to leap out in any direction, to hop from thought to thought, to begin with the finish and finish with the middle, or to eschew beginning and end and keep only a middle. The marvel is that out of this apparent causelessness, out of this scattering of idiosyncratic seeing and telling, a coherent world is made. It is coherent because, after all, an essayist must be an artist, and every artist, whatever the means, arrives at a sound and singular imaginative frame -- call it, on a minor scale, a cosmogony.
NTO this frame, this work of art, we tumble like tar babies, and are held fast. What holds us there? The authority of a voice, yes; the pleasure -- sometimes the anxiety -- of a new idea, an untried angle, a snatch of reminiscence, bliss displayed or shock conveyed. An essay can be the product of intellect or memory, lightheartedness or gloom, well-being or disgruntlement. But always we sense a certain quietude, on occasion a kind of detachment. Rage and revenge, I think, belong to fiction. The essay is cooler than that. Because it so often engages in acts of memory, and despite its gladder or more antic incarnations, the essay is by and large a serene or melancholic form. It mimics that low electric hum, which sometimes rises to resemble actual speech, that all human beings carry inside their heads -- a vibration, garrulous if somewhat indistinct, that never leaves us while we are awake. It is the hum of perpetual noticing: the configuration of someone's eyelid or tooth, the veins on a hand, a wisp of string caught on a twig; some words your fourth-grade teacher said, so long ago, about the rain; the look of an awning, a sidewalk, a bit of cheese left on a plate. All day long this inescapable hum drums on, recalling one thing and another, and pointing out this and this and this. Legend has it that Titus, Emperor of Rome, went mad because of the buzzing of a gnat that made her home in his ear; and presumably the gnat, flying out into the great world and then returning to her nest, whispered what she had seen and felt and learned there. But an essayist is more resourceful than an Emperor, and can be relieved of this interior noise, if only for the time required to record its murmurings. To seize the hum and set it down for others to hear is the essayist's genius.
It is a genius bound to leisure, and even to luxury, if luxury is measured in hours. The essay's limits can be found in its own reflective nature. Poems have been wrested from the inferno of catastrophe or war, and battlefield letters, too; these are the spontaneous bursts and burnings that danger excites. But the meditative temperateness of an essay requires a desk and a chair, a musing and a mooning, a connection to a civilized surround; even when the subject itself is a wilderness of lions and tigers, mulling is the way of it. An essay is a fireside thing, not a conflagration or a safari.
This may be why, when we ask who the essayists are, we discover that though novelists may now and then write essays, true essayists rarely write novels. Essayists are a species of metaphysician: they are inquisitive, and analytic, about the least grain of being. Novelists go about the strenuous business of marrying and burying their people, or else they send them to sea, or to Africa, or at the least out of town. Essayists in their stillness ponder love and death. It is probably an illusion that men are essayists more often than women, especially since women's essays have in the past frequently assumed the form of unpublished correspondence. (Here I should, I suppose, add a note about maleness and femaleness as a literary issue -- what is popularly termed "gender," as if men and women were French or German tables and sofas. I should add such a note -- it is the fashion, or, rather, the current expectation or obligation -- but nothing useful can be said about any of it.) Essays are written by men. Essays are written by women. That is the long and the short of it. John Updike, in a genially confident discourse on maleness ("The Disposable Rocket"), takes the view -- though he admits to admixture -- that the "male sense of space must differ from that of the female, who has such interesting, active, and significant inner space. The space that interests men is outer." Except, let it be observed, when men write essays, since it is only inner space -- interesting, active, significant -- that can conceive and nourish the contemplative essay. The "ideal female body," Updike adds, "curves around centers of repose," and no phrase could better describe the shape of the ideal essay -- yet women are no fitter as essayists than men. In promoting the felt salience of sex, Updike nevertheless drives home an essayist's point. Essays, unlike novels, emerge from the sensations of the self. Fiction creeps into foreign bodies: the novelist can inhabit not only a sex not his own but also beetles and noses and hunger artists and nomads and beasts. The essay is, as we say, personal.
And here is an irony. Though I have been intent on distinguishing the marrow of the essay from the marrow of fiction, I confess that I have been trying all along, in a subliminal way, to speak of the essay as if it -- or she -- were a character in a novel or a play: moody, fickle, given to changing her clothes, or the subject, on a whim; sometimes obstinate, with a mind of her own, or hazy and light; never predictable. I mean for her to be dressed -- and addressed -- as we would Becky Sharp, or Ophelia, or Elizabeth Bennet, or Mrs. Ramsay, or Mrs. Wilcox, or even Hester Prynne. Put it that it is pointless to say (as I have done repeatedly, disliking it every time) "the essay," or "an essay." The essay -- an essay -- is not an abstraction; she may have recognizable contours, but she is highly colored and individuated; she is not a type. She is too fluid, too elusive, to be a category. She may be bold, she may be diffident, she may rely on beauty or cleverness, on eros or exotica. Whatever her story, she is the protagonist, the secret self's personification. When we knock on her door, she opens to us; she is a presence in the doorway; she leads us from room to room. Then why should we not call her "she"? She may be privately indifferent to us, but she is anything but unwelcoming. Above all, she is not a hidden principle or a thesis or a construct: she is there, a living voice. She takes us in.
Cynthia Ozick is a novelist and an essayist whose books include Fame & Folly (1996) and The Puttermesser Papers (1997). Her essay in this issue will appear as the introduction to Best American Essays 1998, to be published by Houghton Mifflin this fall.
Illustration by Brad Holland
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; SHE: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 114 - 118.