Dec 9, 2013
Cristina Nehring on What’s Wrong With the American Essay
Posted on Nov 29, 2007
Although Michel de Montaigne, who fathered the modern essay in the 16th century, wrote autobiographically (like the essayists who claim to be his followers today), his autobiography was always in the service of larger existential discoveries. He was forever on the lookout for life lessons. If he recounted the sauces he had for dinner and the stones that weighted his kidney, it was to find an element of truth that we could put in our pockets and carry away, that he could put in his own pocket. After all, Philosophy—which is what he thought he practiced in his essays, as had his idols, Seneca and Cicero, before him—is about “learning to live.” And here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition. It is as though they were unthinking stenographers—“recording secretaries,” as indeed the most self-conscious 20th-century essayist, E.B. White, called them—pedantically taking down their own experience simply because it is their own.
The problem, of course, is not merely our essayists; it’s our culture. We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke. “Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne’s by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter.
“The next best thing to a good sermon is a bad sermon,” said Montaigne’s follower and admirer, the first American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a good sermon we hear our own “discarded thoughts brought back to us by the trumpets of the last judgment,” in the words of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In a bad sermon we formulate those thoughts ourselves—through the practice of creative disagreement. If an author tells us “love is nothing but jealousy” and we disagree, it is far more likely we will come up with our own theory of love than if we hear a simple autobiographical account of the author’s life. It is hard to argue with someone’s childhood memory—and probably inadvisable. It is with ideas that we can argue, with ideas that we can engage. And this is what the essayist ought to offer: ideas.
In our own day the essay is an apologetic imitation of the short story. Like the short story, it tells a tale. Unlike the short story, it usually does not tell a very interesting tale—after all, this is nonfiction, so the bar for excitement is set lower. But speaking historically, the essay is not just a duller and tamer form of short fiction. It is in a different business altogether—and it should be. The work of the greatest essayists, past and present, is replete not with anecdotes, not with narratives, so much as with hypotheses; it is replete with bold theories, muscular maxims, portable inspiration. This is the very tradition that Montaigne himself drew upon. For much of his life Montaigne was known as “the French Seneca”—and not by accident: He modeled his essays after the thoughtful, feisty, pragmatic letters of that Roman writer and statesman. And Seneca, like Montaigne, like Francis Bacon, like Samuel Johnson, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, like Henry David Thoreau, was in the business of learning—and in the process of showing others—how to live and die. “Philosophy is good advice,” writes Seneca, before proceeding to mock the scholars of his own age who (precisely like those of ours) spend their time playing word games and toying with their navels. “I should like those subtle thinkers ... to teach me this, what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used. It makes one ashamed,” he declares, “that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this into a game.”
There was a feeling of urgency in Seneca’s prose—as there is in the prose of all the great essayists after him: “You are called in to help the unhappy,” he reminds his fellow intellectuals. “Where are you off to? The person you are engaging in word play with is in fear.” Seneca himself was in fear for much of his days; like every honest essayist-philosopher, he needed all the good advice he could give himself. After a life of political intrigue, success and persecution, he was asked to commit suicide by the emperor Nero, and he did—slowly slashing his wrists, then his ankles, then his knee interiors, before taking poison and ultimately climbing into a steam bath to drain his aged blood, which refused, stubbornly, to flow from his veins. He was, in some sense, prepared: His essays had proposed many ways to combat the fear of death, if not the pain of it: “A lamp,” he had wagered, is not “worse off when it [is] put out than it was before it was lit. ... Wouldn’t you think a man a prize fool if he burst into tears because he didn’t live 1,000 years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn’t going to exist 1,000 years from now.” A good point—and, it appears from Seneca’s own biography, a useful one.
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