What fu­ture has the es­say in a so­cial me­dia age?

The Irish Times - - Education - Joe Humphreys Un­think­able

If you judged hu­man­ity’s lit­er­ary out­put by clicks and out­rage, you’d think the art of es­say­ism is dead. Con­tem­po­rary taste is for un­adorned in­for­ma­tion, lists, bite-sized prej­u­dice and more lists. Dialec­tics is as fashionable as ta­ble man­ners and cor­re­spond­ing in longhand.

Three old-fash­ioned hur­rahs then for Brian Dil­lon’s wise, hu­mane and stylish book Es­say­ism (Fitz­car­raldo Editions). The pro­lific, Dublin-born au­thor has spent his adult life writ­ing es­says – in the past 15 years pro­duc­ing 1,174 pieces (yes, he counted them).

But what’s the point of an es­say? Dil­lon is not the type to sum­marise it in a line (although he does do a neat side act in apho­risms). Rather, he sug­gests that hav­ing the pa­tience and hu­mil­ity to en­gage with this artis­tic form says some­thing about the way you think.

Since Dil­lon oc­ca­sion­ally writes for this news­pa­per, it might seem like back-slap­ping to say that if you’re study­ing English and you want to ace your ex­ams then read this book but if you’re study­ing English and . . . (well, you know how this ends). Dil­lon, who teaches at the Royal Col­lege of Art, Lon­don, is this week’s Un­think­able guest. Is there a fu­ture for es­say­ism in a world where po­lit­i­cal de­bate is be­ing con­ducted in 140 char­ac­ters? Brian Dil­lon: “If by ‘es­say­ism’ we mean telling hard, com­plex truths with el­e­gance and pre­ci­sion and some dar­ing, then I’d say the art is as hale as it’s ever been, just harder to find in the old places. Yes, pol­i­tics is me­di­ated – or, as you say, ac­tu­ally car­ried out – in grim and child­ish reg­is­ters. (Though I’d ar­gue good thought and ex­pres­sion could sur­vive 140 or 280 char­ac­ter counts: what else are apho­risms?)

“I’m modestly en­cour­aged by how many read­ers nowa­days pay at­ten­tion to voices – Re­becca Sol­nit, Maggie Nel­son, Olivia Laing – you would have to call es­say­is­tic. It turns out that read­ers are still well able to en­gage with works of non­fic­tion that ad­dress the world ur­gently and at the same time try to reimag­ine what this ven­er­a­ble form, the es­say, may be ca­pa­ble of do­ing in artis­tic terms.” You came up with some great ques­tions in a sec­tion of your book ti­tled ‘On cu­rios­ity’, such as: “Were there rain­bows be­fore the Flood? . . . Did Je­sus laugh?’ Is the se­cret of a good es­say ask­ing good ques­tions? “Those ques­tions be­long to the great 17th-cen­tury doc­tor and es­say­ist Sir Thomas Browne. He’s one of those in­cur­ably cu­ri­ous writ­ers (Robert Bur­ton and John Eve­lyn are oth­ers) who are not yet prop­erly of the En­light­en­ment and so are eas­ily dis­tracted by es­o­teric ques­tions and odd bits of lore. They love the par­tic­u­lar more than the gen­eral, and that seems im­por­tant to the es­say form.

“There are an­swers, but they’re not fi­nal, de­fin­i­tive or uni­ver­sal. In the 17th cen­tury, ‘cu­rios­ity’ meant among other things an ex­ces­sive care for small or pre­cise sub­jects – and I think the es­say­ist still has to have the courage to say: look, look over here at this tiny thing you thought didn’t mat­ter but re­ally does.” A thought that struck me read­ing the book is that it’s re­ally about the mean­ing of life, or rather the mean­ings we give to our lives. Of the es­say-writ­ing life, you ask: “What’s it all for, ex­actly?” Have you come closer to find­ing an an­swer? “Not at all, but pre­dictably an an­swer of a sort might be in the search. Es­say­ists, in­clud­ing es­say­is­tic philoso­phers, such as Michel de Mon­taigne, Friedrich Ni­et­zsche or EM Cio­ran, seem al­ler­gic to those large ques­tions and an­swers. My am­bi­tions are smaller than theirs in turn.

“As I say in the book, the very act of writ­ing many es­says over many years feels like a way of struc­tur­ing your life: be­ing in­ter­ested in all man­ner of sto­ries, places, in­di­vid­u­als, works of art and lit­er­a­ture, and then turn­ing that at­trac­tion into some­thing else – a way of mak­ing things and putting them modestly (or pre­sump­tu­ously?) into the world.

“Like most writ­ers in any genre, I tend to call the things I pub­lish ‘pieces’, and I like the idea of a life in pieces. If you write enough of them, and pay enough at­ten­tion, the time seems to go slower.” Some of the most pow­er­ful pas­sages of the book re­late to your own dis­cus­sion of de­pres­sion or “the Bad Thing”. Has the writer a duty to con­fess his or her in­ner­most thoughts? (I re­call Wittgen­stein once writ­ing: “If you are un­will­ing to know who you are your writ­ing is a form of de­ceit.”)

“‘The Bad Thing’ is David Foster Wal­lace’s la­conic term for de­pres­sion – though he never wrote di­rectly about his own. I’ve tried to say some­thing about my ex­pe­ri­ence, but I’m never sure ‘con­fes­sion’ is the right word – an­no­ta­tion, more like. The in­ter­est­ing thing about that Wittgen­stein sen­tence is that it’s not a clear de­mand for au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ing – re­fus­ing or fail­ing to know your­self might equally make you a de­ceit­ful poet, nov­el­ist or philoso­pher as per­sonal es­say­ist. I don’t think there are du­ties in es­say writ­ing other than telling some truth, and you can ar­rive at it obliquely.”

What is your favourite apho­rism?

“I’m not sure I have any­thing as pre­cious as a favourite, but I can’t help ad­mir­ing how well put to­gether this line is that I just dis­cov­ered in a short story by Su­san Son­tag, who’s chan­nelling Pas­cal, La Rochefou­cauld and EM Cio­ran all at once – ‘We would be glad of the world, if we were fly­ing to it for refuge.’ It’s sim­ple but beau­ti­fully made: nicely bal­anced, the al­lit­er­a­tion not over­done. And it says some­thing pro­found, tragic and ridicu­lous: be­cause where else can we fly to?”

‘‘

I think the es­say­ist still has to have the courage to say: look, look over here at this tiny thing you thought didn’t mat­ter but re­ally does

PHO­TO­GRAPH: THINKSTOCK

What’s the point of an es­say?

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