On the Early English Essay
An Experimental Array
[T]o Assay or rather Essay of the French worde; To assay: to prooue: to assaile: to sette upon by deceite; To espie or essay priuity; To attempt againe, & assay to dooe something; A proofe: a trying: an assaying; Tasted, essayed, sacrificed, taken out of; To thinke deeply: to studie: to muse on a thing: to recorde in ones mind, to practise and assaye how well he can doe: to propose: to singe or playe sweetly . . . To assaye with money, to corrupt a judgement; An assay or flourish, that one maketh to prouve what he can dooe, before he fight in deede; An assaying or prouving before, a groaping or feeling of the way with ones hande or other thing. It is no hard matter to assaye or prouve.
And should or would any dog-tooth’d Criticke, or adder-tongu’d Satirist scoff or find fault, that in the course of his discourses, or webbe of his Essayes, or entitling of his chapters, [Montaigne] holdeth a disjoynted, broken and gadding stile; and that many times they answere not his titles, and have no coherence together, to such I will say little, for they deserve but little...
I Holde neither Plutarche’s nor none of the auncient short manner of writings nor Montaigne’s nor such of this latter time to be rightly termed Essayes; for though they be short, yet they are strong and able to endure the sharpest tryall. But mine are Essayes, who am but newly bound Prentise to the inquisition of knowledge and vse these papers as a Painter’s boy a board, that is trying to bring his hand and his fancie acquainted. It is a maner of writing wel befitting vndigested motions, or a head not knowing his strength like a circumspect runner trying for a starte, or prouidence that tastes before she buys. For it is easier to thinke well then to do well, and no traill to haue handsome dapper conceites runne inuisibly in a braine but to put them out and then look vpon them.
My earnest request to the Schoolmaster or Reader, who shall make use here is, that they would please, to adde, insert, alter, or more aptly place these, or other occurent Proverbs, as they shall find occasion . . . and to this purpose vacant spaces are left under every head, that alteration might be made, additions inserted.
Some that turn over all books, and are equally searching in all papers, that write out what they presently find or meet, without choice: by which means it happens that what they have discredited and impugned in one work, they have before or after extolled the same in another. Such are the essayists, even their master Montaigne. These, in all they write, confess still what books they have read last, and therein their own folly so much, that they bring it to the stake raw and undigested; not that the place did need it neither, but that they thought themselves furnished, and would vent it.
[T]he way of Miscellany or common Essay; in which the most confused head, if fraught with a little Invention, and provided with Common-place-Book-learning, might exert itself to as much advantage, as the most orderly and well-settled Judgment.
From an Essay or Morall Discourse, we are to require nothing, that was never harped on by any Orpheus . . . From it therefore we are to expect only matter well digested, with such a trimming and furbishing of the Argument, that the Reader may be tempted, like some Gentlemen, as it were to buy that Horse in Smithfield, which himself lately sold in a Country Fair, Such an Art of new compounding the same notions in variety of Expression, that the Herbalist shall have much adoe to discern his own Simples.
Authors (to say true) are more Thumb’d that are variously usefull, than those Embodyers of Arts in Cancellous saue Methodi [the latticework method], into the limits of their proper Method: useful I confess they are, but wanting the Dulce, Pleasure of variety, and convenience of more contracted brevity: the paines of reading them is seldom bestowed on them, especially if they swell into Tomes of that bignesse, that he that can have no leisure, dareth not look on them, and he that will have none, careth not. I know not, how but as Montaigne saith of himselfe, Tracts of a continued Thread are tedious to most Fancies, which of it selfe indeed is of that desultory nature, that it is pleased with Writings like Irish Bogs, that it might leap from one variety to another, than tread any beaten Path.
[W]e can little advantage by reading of books, if we do not come to what we read, as he that finds a Diamond must be able to distinguish it from a pebble, so that in conversing with books, we are but made more acquainted with our selves by the assistance of others.
A man would not thinke, how much the Charactering of a thought in Paper, fastens it. Littera scripta manet [written letters remain], has a large sense. He that does this, may, when he pleaseth, reiourney ouver all his voyage, in his Closet.
The first and most ancient seekers after truth were wont, with better faith and better fortune too, to throw the knowledge which they gathered from the contemplation of things,and which they meant to store up for use, into aphorisms; that is, into short and scattered sentences, not linked together by an artificial method; and did not pretend or profess to embrace the entire art.
I remember, to have heard from Sir William Cornewallis, (esteemed none of the meanest Witts in his Time) That Mountaign’s Essays, was the likelyest Book, to advance Wisdom: because, The Authours own Experiences, is the Chiefest Argument in it. For as St. Augustine saith, of Short and Holy Ejaculations; That they pierce Heaven as soon, if not quicker, then more Tedious Prayers: So, I have reaped greater Benefit, from concise and Casuall Meditations, on severall Topicks, then long and voluminous Treatises, relating meerly to one and the same thing.
“Essay” enters into English untamed. It not only tries and attempts, those verbs to which Montaigne pins it, but it also assails and sacrifices, it gropes and sings; it serves as the flourish before a fight. In Baret's definition, which is to say at its origins in English, "essay" behaves (and misbehaves) as it does in the best experimental essays of our moment: John D'Agata's, for example, which swerve, return, accrue, and, at moments, fail stunningly. Or Anne Carson's, which think on a thing until the thought is set, then unsing themselves. Or Jenny Boully's, which are partial eclipses that readers stare into. I want to look at the origins of the English essay because I want to see what light its unsettled past throws on our unsettled present. I want to hear how its bones rattle in the essays we write.
Metaphor seems the best snare for the essay. Montaigne famously describes his essays as “monstrous bodies,” at least as John Florio first translates him in 1603. And Bacon, on first publishing his Essayes in 1597 (and bringing Montaigne’s genre into English), compares his essays to a tonic or treatment, offering them as “medicinable.” The metaphors abound. Liken the essay to a mirror, a lamp, a movement of the mind or the feet, and the essay will reflect or shine or sally forth. In “On Miniatures,” Lia Purpura invites us to imagine essays as “workable things on very small scales,” like chihuahuas, bonsai trees, girl gymnasts. What strikes me is how easily the essay accommodates its metaphors, even when they conflict. (Monster and mirror? Miniature and ramble?) The essay’s mutability makes me want to liken it to a shapeshifter, a Proteus, which both proves and misses my point. The essay always slips its metaphor.
The English essay emerges from and alongside the commonplace. In the late 1590s and early 1600s, a burst of commonplace books appear in print, written entirely in English, with titles that stress their nature as a metaphoric place: Palladis Palatium, for example, glossed as “wisedoms palace.” For the early essayists, the commonplace offered not only material—those quotations by classic writers that run through their work, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not—but also a method, a means of engaging other writing to generate their own. Early essays are more or less made of quotations. Think, in our moment, of David Shields’s recent manifesto, Reality Hunger. Shields makes his argument from “hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text” (he’s said Reality Hunger began as a commonplace book) and claims that “value” now lies in “the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work.” Here Shields may be quoting the sci-fi writer William Gibson, but that confusion—that fusion—is Shields’s aim: contemporary writing should transfigure the commonplace and place it back in the common.
What if the essay didn’t hark back to Montaigne, to the self he lodges at the center of the essay? In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate glosses Montaigne as “the great innovator and patron saint of personal essays,” giving Montaigne’s work its own section in the anthology under the unequivocal title “Fountainhead.” Lopate celebrates Montaigne for revealing the modern self, right at the moment that self is finding the shape it will take in Western literature for the next four hundred years, with its spry individuality and dark interior, its personableness. The essay, then, becomes a fount for the self, an instrument of it, a person-abler and personifier. It can’t go on without its self, even when that self doesn’t show up. “[A]ll essays’ implied subjects,” observes Ander Monson, “are the essay itself, the mind of the writer, the I in the process of sifting and perceiving, even if the I is itself only implied, never apparent, hidden underneath the shroud of formal argument. Who argues, we ask. A pause. Silence. Awkward moment. Then: I do, it responds weakly.” The I is inevitable, irresistible, pushy even. Monson’s essay “Solipsism,” for example, opens with the sentence “Me” repeated 768 times. An essay doesn’t know how to quit me. Unless, perhaps, it were to reboot. What if the essay returned to that formative moment, just before Montaigne fused it and me. (A renaissance is, after all, a “rebirth.”) What possibilities might an Orphic glance back open for the essay going forward without me? What is the art of the pre-personal essay?
Let’s go for a walk, says the essay, but no one walks nowadays, not really and certainly not through Irish bogs. Walks happen in malls. Walks have special shoes. Now we travel by car or, if the drive looks too long, fly. In “Of Idle People who Rove About,” Dinty W. Moore hits on the problem such traveling poses for essayists. Under the Florida sun—and arguing with Thoreau’s “Walking” as he goes—Moore tries to make his way on foot over the asphalt and concrete around Boca Raton’s I-95, concluding: “In death, our souls are transported, though we do not know in precisely what fashion. In Boca, our souls are transported, by sports cars with spoked rims and tinted windows. Either way, that’s not quite living.” Yet Moore also gives new life to traveling by essay. In “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” he creates a customized Google map and drops pins in it for each section of the essay. A reader can zoom in and out of the sections, look directly at the places Moore mentions. Each pin offers readers the familiar intimacy of a street view and the inhuman distance of an aerial view, and these perspectives alternate and merge. Readers encounter a sequential narrative that they can navigate in or out of sequence. With Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Bing Maps, Ovi Maps, the essay’s early modern amble makes a postmodern return. An essayist can rove, once again, on a human (and post-human) scale, even as sedans whiz by in Boca.
The fragment, that method of the postmodern essayist, sets you on a quest. The saint’s knuckle, the shattered glass or the self you glimpse in its shards—where are the wholes of these pieces? And how do we pick up those pieces? And what do we do once we have them in our hands? Those last two questions are asked by Terry Tempest Williams in Finding Beauty in a Broken World. For answers she turns to the mosaic, a method that begins in fragments but aspires toward a whole. Another answer, of course (a postmodern course), is to give up on wholeness. Accept a world in which the pieces won’t cohere, never would, never meant to, a world in which you learn to get by without fixed points—Eric Auerbach’s take on Montaigne—or finalities. The fragment, then, becomes free play, possibility, the self scattered and scattering as it moves across the map. As another alternative, you might turn to the aphorism, the method that Bacon uses to initiate the English essay and that looks so much like the postmodern fragment. An aphorism lets you to store up knowledge to use it when you need it. An aphorism is an essay you can carry with you in a broken world.
What essays may offer us is a way of thinking about writing, production, composition in terms of nodes in networks, or cycles in ecosystems. Although “personal” is often appended to the essay, the self that essays suppose is a distributed one, a myriad, layered, formal one, one known in the act of borrowing and relaying others’ works. In those movements, in passing through texts and passing them on, perhaps something else moves through you, angled and tempered by your tastes, pleasures–and accidents– but like land something you only cull and till, and perhaps ruin by mistaking your use for ownership. The lightness of passages.
I suspect that essays gave early modern writers a way to clear (or forge) a space outside the institutional structures of church, family, caste. In essays you could chart your own bearings, or perhaps just drift, in a space that would—partly thanks to such writings—become the space of psychology, the private arenas of pleasure and anxiety mapped between official texts. But now essays may offer a space outside the institutional structures of psychology itself, a practice of composition in which we can recognize the ways we’re formed by joinings, how we’re com-posed. Essays remind us that any position is relative and relational, a passage between others—a lightened load for you and perhaps, who knows (that’d be nice), a light for someone else to follow. If a presciently postmodern genre in its recycling of cultural scrap, the essay retains, still, a residual willingness to hear voices, echoes, presences within its assemblages. Essaying as responding to those echoes, echoing them, and giving them room to sound.
On failing. Cornwallis claims the title of essayist from Montaigne in an elegant gesture of homage. Montaigne's essays are too learned, too full, too complete to bear the humble title of trial. They’re not experiments because they’re successful. In one of those rickety shows of gentlemanly deference that fool no one—oh no, after you, sir!—Cornwallis says he himself is the essayist, a disciple to the master, an apprentice, an amateur. As far as we can tell, no one returned the favor and credited Cornwallis with the excellence he ascribes to Montaigne. But some found Montaigne through Cornwallis.
Montaigne never finishes because there's always another thought provoked by a previous one, or by its neighbor, whether accidentally met in a knight's move of association (and digression here is as sturdy a ligament as reason), or dug out like a root, or just because time moves on and our attention follows it, rather than our promises to be good or steady or true. If the very project of essaying is premised on failing, on the relentlessness of desire and the fragility of attention, and the genre's typical gesture builds into its performance a recognition of those limits, there’s also a more mundane kind of failure that Cornwallis put his finger on in the very act of mimicking Montaigne, or showing how to fail to mimic him. Success is accidental. And if we take Montaigne’s essays as studies of the limits of learning or faith or expression or whatever, I suspect he’d claim for himself Cornwallis’s position in relation to that imaginary, mistakenly successful “Montaigne” who exists only on the page, a name, a ghost, who will haunt only the most naive and literal readers.
Both Ben Jonson, in the 1620s, and Lord Shaftesbury, in the following century, damned essayists for practicing in public or, even more disgustingly, for digesting in public. Yes, books must be digested, worked through and thought through, but surely you can keep that to yourself. We don’t need to hear your mental tummy rumble. But somewhere along the line—perhaps with those sublime egoists, the Romantics, who invented their selves as they invented their gods (and often confused the two) and gave us avatars of the Essayist no less than the Poet, whether in the achingly diffident postures of Lamb or the virile vertiginous acrobatics of Emerson—the charm of a persona comes to feel like the point of the essay. But there are also those who say the genre offers “only matter well digested,” like one “T.C.” who neither inscribes his own name nor expects such matter to be claimed. This modesty suggests the work of the essay is not to form selves but to share work. And indeed for all the orienting of their writings by the compass of their own experiences, it’s notable that Montaigne’s essays and those of his English followers are streaked and marbled with the works of others; they’re echo chambers that capture what William Gass calls the “context of citation.” Can we hear in Montaigne, and in Lamb and Emerson, not a model of a self to be copied but another person to be answered?
There’s that moment in Google Maps when you dive through the map and suddenly get an image of the street-level places and activities abstractly modeled at the higher level. Maps are artifacts of a certain height (whether actual or metaphorical), at once registers of the surveyor’s movements and guides to your own. You need a map to navigate a new city, but once you’ve made a home in it the map is superfluous. Essays are maps. They’re registers of movements through books, or streets, or woods, which also remind their readers that a map suggests a route through a place you have to make your own. At that moment of use, you both realize the map and make it redundant. Is an essay the register or the realization? Let’s say it’s the hinge, that moment of transfer from map to motion and back to map, the interface where forms form our movements and reality realizes, in part, our attempts to attend to it.
Energy storage systems, little batteries, essays hold movements momentarily still, until activated again in another place, another time, by another, a reader. That rhythm of pause and release cycles recursively through the many layers of sense we make: thoughts preserved as texts, texts thawed in minds. Essays may be the residue of readers’ work, and perhaps a cache of their efforts, but not hoarded up as much as invested, or better, held on spec. Essays speculate in several ways, bringing together a thought and a hope of a return, and they say, we’ll see. In their posture of facing outward, we’re reminded that writing doesn’t only refer back to a source (why are we so hooked on origins?) but leads us on. If we’re formed of texts, they’re redeemed by us. Essays are built of that forward lean of language, its passage and its slippage. Essays pass the baton. Or the buck. Or maybe slip the noose?
Zeno’s paradox says we can’t think motion, but it also seems we can’t think fragments. Brain scientists suggest we coordinate and blur perceptions, like film cells, into Zeno’s impossible motion. The illusions of time’s arrow and a stable, cohesive world are perhaps themselves temporary, jerry-rigged, ad hoc solutions. They may be ways we receive and transmit in momentary configurations the bits of information we thereby, essaying a world, call home.