Anx­ious Es­say­ists

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Re­becca Wat­son

Es­say­ism, Brian Dil­lon, Fitz­car­aldo Edi­tions, June 2017, pp. 228, £10.99 (pa­per­back)

I be­gin by mak­ing a list:

Style – Hy­brid – Woolf!! – Es­say on Es­say – (is my re­sponse to this an es­say on es­say on es­say?) – part bi­og­ra­phy – frag­ments – es­say as sup­port ve­hi­cle

The list, I con­fess, is ar­bi­trary – ini­tial thoughts boiled down into gen­eral terms. I don’t know what ideas will make it into this piece, or if I will even be able to ex­pand the ideas be­yond their now re­duced sign­posts, but I know that the list ap­peases me, that it calms me be­fore I be­gin to write.

I no­tice, as I am writ­ing th­ese down, that I have done ex­actly what the critic and writer Brian Dil­lon de­scribes in Es­say­ism: pre­par­ing to write an es­say by first mak­ing a list. It is a method to ‘smother the anx­i­ety that comes with writ­ing’, by hav­ing the il­lu­sion of a plan; a list swiftly col­lated to avoid fac­ing ‘the blank page or screen with­out a word or thought’. I make a list not to aid my para­graphs, but to ease my head.

Dil­lon sets out in Es­say­ism to de­ter­mine what it is which makes good es­say­ing – an essence? a for­mula? – bring­ing in es­say­ists from Gertrude Stein, Muriel Spark, Anita Brooker to Joan Did­ion, to dis­cern what an es­say ought to pos­sess. The book, along­side nar­rat­ing and analysing valu­able es­say­ists, evokes Dil­lon’s own ex­pe­ri­ence of es­say-writ­ing and his his­tory of de­pres­sion. Far from be­ing a pur­suit of some uni­ver­sal cri­te­ria, Es­say­ism is a per­sonal con­tem­pla­tion on the es­say.

Dil­lon splits the book into a myr­iad of con­nected pas­sages – frag­ments that

make up a vast es­say on es­says. Each frag­ment is en­ti­tled ‘on[…]’, whether ‘on ori­gins’, ‘on lists’, ‘on dis­per­sal’, ‘on anx­i­ety’ or ‘on con­so­la­tion’, and varies from the philo­soph­i­cal, the crit­i­cal to mem­oir. The head­ing ‘On con­so­la­tion’ is re­peated sev­eral times through­out, its rep­e­ti­tion un­sur­pris­ing for the un­der­ly­ing pres­ence in Es­say­ism is a de­pen­dency on es­says and es­say­ing, an in­tense and per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with words and writ­ing. The de­pen­dency is fraught; is sub­ject to all sorts of sus­pi­cions and ac­cu­sa­tions. Dil­lon asks: are es­says a false rem­edy? Are they re­peat­edly help­ing us put off a ‘life-long, ca­reer-long project’ – and for what? To abate the fear into a horde of lesser-felt fears? To be able to face a chain of di­gestible com­mis­sions to write, rather than one mag­num opus?

Th­ese pas­sages are par­tic­u­larly as­tute, Dil­lon re­lay­ing his de­pres­sion with a sub­tle and in­tel­li­gent voice that lacks melo­drama or ex­cess. He re­calls, in one stu­por of de­pres­sion, the Son­tag, the Barthes and the oth­ers that lay in tomes around him, act­ing as a com­fort to his ‘dis­ar­ray’. The com­fort was not even in read­ing them, but in their very phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion. It was what they promised, as they sat there un­opened. It was a re­as­sur­ance, per­haps, that there were words writ­ten, that oth­ers had com­pleted their tasks. Through­out the book it is clear that there is some­thing ma­te­rial, some­thing emo­tional about the es­say. Dil­lon de­scribes ‘count­ing the pages dark­ened and the files saved’ – try­ing to find achieve­ment and self-worth in the 1174 files stored in his ‘Re­views’ folder, as if as a col­lec­tive they could pro­vide a re­as­sur­ance. Such a great num­ber, he begs, must point to­wards suc­cess. But of course, it does not dis­pel the fear.

Some­times, Dil­lon re­marks, ‘those texts have ap­peared in ret­ro­spect or even at the time not quite worth the emo­tional, in­tel­lec­tual, ex­is­ten­tial weight I asked them to bear’. When his mother died, he read the pages of an NME is­sue front-to-back with fe­roc­ity, be­gin­ning again – and again – and again. He read in­ces­santly, less be­cause NME was over­flow­ing with pow­er­ful writ­ing that needed to be re­turned to, but more to fill his head, to find con­so­la­tion in fill­ing his head. He asked the text to bear the weight of his grief, and, just as other es­say­ists later were to, NME held some of it. Dil­lon’s con­sis­tent re­turn in Es­say­ism to ex­am­in­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence with

de­pres­sion and his own emo­tional de­pen­dency on writ­ing is the great suc­cess of the book. He evokes more than just bi­og­ra­phy: he il­lus­trates, vividly, the power that writ­ing has and the re­la­tion­ship read­ers have with writ­ing that does not ex­ist just in the mo­ment of read­ing. We are shown why we must re­fine our un­der­stand­ing of good es­say­ing (we are, af­ter all, deal­ing with the reader’s emo­tions), as well as high­light­ing how ef­fec­tive hon­esty in es­say­ing is. Dil­lon bal­ances mem­oir with crit­i­cism; giv­ing anal­y­sis both on a mi­cro and macro level. He refers to Ge­orges Perec’s de­scrip­tion in An At­tempt at Ex­haust­ing a Place in Paris, Perec try­ing to track every move­ment, every inch, every passerby; he ad­mires Wil­liam Gass’s ob­ser­va­tion of how im­pov­er­ished our lan­guage is in de­scrib­ing sex; in an­other mo­ment he dis­sects El­iz­a­beth Hard­wick’s word or­der (who in turn is dis­sect­ing Bil­lie Hol­i­day). Dil­lon ap­proaches every as­pect of the es­say­ist, right down to the way they craft a sen­tence. His re­spect for the es­say is thor­ough – there is not an inch of the es­say that Dil­lon’s scru­ti­n­is­ing eye does not un­cover.

Es­say­ism is open. Some­times Dil­lon ar­gues for as­ser­tion, other times for in­de­ci­sion. Many of the sug­ges­tions con­tra­dict and can­not co-ex­ist. Es­say­ism is partly a dis­cov­ery that there can be no sin­gu­lar for­mula to an es­say, and partly an ad­mi­ra­tion for the diver­gent suc­cesses that es­say­ists have had, a cel­e­bra­tion that to es­say well is not to im­i­tate. Dil­lon flour­ishes on this rev­e­la­tion, mov­ing be­tween ideas with­out fear of miss­ing ma­te­rial or the­ory. His ap­proach is full and var­ied whilst re­main­ing unashamedly per­spec­tive. Dil­lon em­braces con­tra­dic­tions – he, af­ter all, has a re­frain of ‘I am not quite sure’; at one point as­sert­ing: ‘I have no clue how to write about the es­say as a sta­ble en­tity’. He does not com­pro­mise his per­spec­tive or per­sonal pre­dis­po­si­tions to­wards cer­tain es­say­ists for the sake of clean lines, or a clear overview. He groups writer and reader, ad­mit­ting: I am merely es­say­ing! And in ad­mit­ting so, he be­comes yet more con­vinc­ing.

He writes: es­says ought to be ‘in­tact and seam­less and well-made – ex­cept when they are not, when they frac­ture and fail and open them­selves up to the pos­si­bil­ity that they will not please’. Later, he im­plores that he needs es­says to have ‘in­tegrity’ for­mally, their strands so ‘tightly wo­ven’ that they

present a ‘smooth and gleam­ing sur­face’. In the same mo­ment, he writes, in the same work, this needs to un­ravel, to fall apart, for the seams to fall partly down, for threads to come loose from the sleeves.

Es­says must be well-stitched, but must si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­veil their stitches. Dil­lon him­self gives this im­pres­sion by leav­ing him­self open; by nar­rat­ing in­de­ci­sion and sui­cide and de­pres­sion and grief and his need for es­say­ists and his need to es­say. But th­ese stitches, seem­ingly bare, are elo­quently and care­fully con­structed, put de­lib­er­ately – art­fully in place.

He ac­knowl­edges the in­con­sis­tency: to need some­thing both shiny and messy, both done-up and un­done, and the idea of vis­i­ble stitches demon­strates his de­mand for con­tra­dic­tion. In be­ing hu­man (and thus an ar­ray of con­tra­dic­tions) and in es­say­ing be­ing a process which does not fin­ish when the es­say is over, to achieve any­thing par­tic­u­larly real, the es­say­ist needs to show fail­ure – an in­tel­li­gently ex­pressed in­abil­ity to per­fectly make sense of some­thing in its en­tirety.

Es­say­ism is not a his­tory of the es­say, nor a foren­sic study – there is no con­text or time­line to Dil­lon’s thoughts, asides from his own life­line. It is an ex­plo­ration – a process – an ex­am­ple. Dil­lon dances from one es­say­ist to the next, from one ex­pe­ri­ence to the next, to dis­play, in full tech­ni­colour, how he sees the es­say.

Any in­tel­li­gent reader of es­says will have a per­sonal Es­say­ism in­side them, but few will be able to trans­late their re­la­tion­ship with es­says (which is of­ten only feel­ing and in­cli­na­tion) into such a poignant and sage first-per­son love story. Dil­lon cul­ti­vates his own essence: he is in­stantly fa­mil­iar, and un­wa­ver­ingly per­cep­tive. Es­say­ism is an ex­quis­ite es­say; stitched to­gether in clear frag­ments and re­vi­sions. It is frank – filled with emo­tional truth and lin­guis­tic eval­u­a­tion, all whilst Dil­lon makes clear his quest.

Dil­lon writes: ‘I like your style’ means: I ad­mire, dear hu­man, what you have

clawed back from sick­ness and pain and mad­ness. I’m a fan, too much a fan, of your ris­ing above. I over­es­ti­mate your power, loved writer, beloved es­say­ist.

A good es­say­ist con­vinces oth­ers that they have over­come any strug­gle that can be felt whilst es­say­ing – a good es­say­ist sup­plies writ­ing that glides with ease; usurp­ing the way I, we, they as writ­ers can fal­ter in ap­proach­ing a piece. A suc­cess­ful es­say has a whole­ness that is, as Virginia Woolf writes, ‘sub­dued’, as if it has al­ways ex­isted as it is. Dil­lon passes his own test – for Es­say­ism comes com­plete, and it ends com­plete, and the idea that it be­gan or once was any­thing other than it is now, can­not be be­lieved. It is whole.

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