How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” This oft-quoted line from E.M. Forster is delivered by an old aunt in one of his novels, in response to the nieces urging her to be more logical. Logic, the old woman insists, is “rubbish.” A good many writers since Forster have conceded her point—not so much as to the worthlessness of logic, but certainly as to the practical truth that writing is a way of thinking, not always dictated by left-brain logic, that generates new insights as one puts words on the page. Tidy outlines and airtight arguments have their uses, but most of us recognize at some point in our writing careers that, while classic rhetorical strategies and structures may persuade, they don’t always reflect the complex, subtle, circuitous, sometimes inexplicable ways we arrive at a point of view.
For most essayists, arrival is, in any case, only part of the point. A good essay is a record of a mind at play, turning a topic over, peering behind and around it, poking it with a stick, subjecting it to heat and cold and uncomfortable queries. The genre has fluid boundaries, reflected in the term that has stuck since Montaigne coined it in the sixteenth century to describe his sundry impressions, musings, and quibbles: essai simply means an attempt. A trial balloon. An experiment, undertaken both playfully, to see what happens in the course of “thinking out loud,” and with more serious purpose of the sort implied in Gandhi’s decision to call his autobiographical reflections “experiments in truth.”
Like autobiographies, essays cover a wide range in length, formality, focus, intended audience, and tone. They stretch from Plutarch’s eclectic observations about fraternal affection, Egyptian religious rites, and the bad behaviour of public persons to Hazlitt’s wistful “Of Persons One Would Wish to have Seen,” to David Quammen’s snapshots of natural history laced with wildly disparate musings about Western culture and its discontents. One of my favourites of his is “Jeremy Bentham, the Pietà, and Precious Few Greyling.”
Most of us remember a few landmark essays from high school or college readers where we encountered samples of Bacon’s topics on tap—“Of Truth,” “Of Adversity,” “Of Death”— or De Quincey’s “Of the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” or Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” We probably read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”—still pertinent after all these years. We read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Chief Seattle’s 1854 oration on the concession of native territories to white people, and, if we were lucky, one of Wendell Berry’s prophetic essays on the preservation of land or language. If we had professors with an eye for “landmarks,” we probably read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” If we moved in Christian circles, we likely encountered Chesterton (though if we skipped directly to Orthodoxy, we might have missed his choice little piece on the delights of Stilton cheese) and C.S. Lewis, whose varied collection, God in the Dock, offers a rich trove of theological reflections for the un-seminaried. The essay, like the novel, has its own peculiar history, and, though collections of them are often published as sidebars or postscripts to a corpus of heftier works, essays have been the primary claim to literary fame for more than a few folk who nary a novel wrote.
Two belletrists (an elegant but dusty term I retrieve with some pleasure) whose essays provided lasting models for their successors are Francis Bacon and Michel de Montaigne. Alexander McCall Smith took interesting note of how different the two were, despite their similar experiments in form. He describes Bacon as a writer who lived “amongst great ideas, as with great nobles, with whom he dare not be too familiar,” and his lofty titles—Of Boldness, Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature, Of Nobility, Of Seditions and Troubles, Of Atheism, Of Superstition, Of Travel, Of Empire, and so on—as material worthy to “lie in the closets of statesmen and princes.” “Bacon,” he concludes “always seems to write with his ermine on.” Montaigne, on the other hand was “volatile, a humourist, and a gossip” who found great occasions boring, and inscribed on the lintels of his library, “I Do Not Understand; I Pause; I Examine,” taking, evidently, a particular pleasure in renouncing authority even as he found his place among “men of letters.” Emerson, with similar transparency, proclaimed, “I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, ‘Whim.’” All three give themselves liberal permission to venture where statesmen and respectable citizens might fear to tread, and to allow personal conviction to trump proprieties that kept more obedient writers in their courtly or churchly places.
That permission is not hard to come by now. Essayists, especially in American culture, are an exuberantly self-authorized lot, bolstered by a culture whose individualistic mythos has produced more autobiographies than most, not to mention untold gigabytes of blogs, personal website content, E-zine columns and Facebook reports about dogs, dating life, and undergraduate angst. Notwithstanding the many examples of fine personal essays from other traditions, the form has flourished with particular expansiveness in this country for good reason: we’ve been taught by Puritan spiritual autobiographers, impassioned preachers, idiosyncratic Transcendentalists, riverboat rebels, escaped slaves, explorers and those they exploited, articulate immigrants, and liberated women that ordinary lives and points of view matter and that our general welfare depends on our willingness to say what we think—out loud, in public, in print, as an antidote to the imperial discourses of “the Establishment” and official party lines.
I invest a good deal of my own hope for a functional democracy and a healthy community of faith in widespread willingness to produce the kinds of direct, thoughtful, substantive essays and arguments that equip us all. I count on writers of lively essays to keep public discourse edgy, honest, and pertinent to our deepest needs as citizens and as people of faith. And I rejoice in the flexibility of the essay as an instrument of public instruction and high entertainment. When I think of my personal favourites among essayists at work today, I realize how various are the virtues I applaud in them—wit, honesty, imagination, scope, prophetic vision, memorable sentences, apt analogies, and a well-stocked historical memory, techniques I can learn from—gifts that I, as a reader, can celebrate and for which I hold them accountable. I read them to be taught, and each of them shows me a different point of entry into what one critic called “the long conversation.” In each of them I see a particular union of word and spirit that points beyond any personal objectives to the light that comes from a common source and, as Leonard Cohen memorably put it, blazes in every word.
I count on Annie Dillard, for instance, for exhilaration. Some, I gather, find her exhausting; a colleague judged her sprightly metaphysical leaps and “lunatic juxtapositions” (Harold Bloom’s appealing term for a feature of style in which she regularly indulges) to be “a little too dazzling.” Perhaps. But I enjoy being dazzled, and being reminded of Emerson’s insistence that “All things swim and glitter.” Dillard’s childlike astonishment at the way a mockingbird swoops into a kamikaze dive only to avoid a crash landing in the final millisecond, the empathetic curiosity that leads her to learn how newly sighted people navigate visual fields, the way she allows a report of a burned child to lead her into deep theological waters— and her willingness to swim there—fill me with gratitude.
Dillard unites whimsy and discipline, playfulness and precision in cascades of paradoxes that demonstrate that no single approach to what is “out there” is adequate. She looks again— and again—rediscovering how much surprise may be mined from repetition (an insight she shares, no doubt, with the best liturgists). She chronicles processes that take place beyond the field of vision, calling on science, imagination, and faith to speak of things unseen. At the beginning of a chapter in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for instance (a book whose chapters, like those in Walden, work as free-standing essays), she maps the journey of a beam of light from “an explosion on a nearby star eight minutes ago” through the filtering “mesh of land dust: clay bits, sod bits, tiny wind-borne insects, bacteria, shreds of wing and leg, gravel dust . . .” to the “plank of brightness” that stretches over her goldfish bowl. She takes similar pleasure in broaching the threshold of mystery in a little essay called “Living Like Weasels” in which she recounts a remarkable moment of crossspecies encounter when she and a weasel stood “locked” in eye contact:
Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls. So.
The final “So” in its deliberate indeterminacy leaves us pondering how these things can be: this meeting with an animal seems very like a meeting with an angel—a “boundary experience” she can describe only as an unsettling admixture of the violent, the comic, and the cosmic. For all her expertise in natural history, her essays end more often than not in ambiguity, inconclusiveness, and awe.
At that boundary between science and mystery I find another of my favourite essayists lingering, musing over imponderable medical conundrums with a curiosity that has all the earmarks of compassion. Oliver Sacks’s “clinical tales”—subjective, reflective, often amusing, frequently moving accounts of his work with patients who have suffered neurological “deficits” or “excesses”—invite readers to reconsider medicine as a radically inter-subjective enterprise, informed by rigorous science, but more numinous than any clinical paradigm or protocol might suggest. Though he has written many books and New Yorker essays since his early collection, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the title essay of that book is as fine an example as any of how a record of diagnostic investigation can—and perhaps should—become an exercise in imaginative humility. Recounting his first visit with a gifted musician whose rare neurological dysfunction led him to make odd, “Magoo-like” errors in interpreting visual data, Sacks begins with the simple pleasure he finds in “Dr. P’s” company—his grace of bearing, courtesy, and intelligence. As they talk, he begins to notice odd mistakes that betray Dr. P’s problem:
He faced me as he spoke, was oriented towards me, and yet there was something the matter—it was difficult to formulate. He faced me with his ears, I came to think, but not with his eyes. These, instead of looking, gazing, at me, “taking me in,” in the normal way, made sudden strange fixations—on my nose, on my right ear, down to my chin, up to my right eye—as if noting (even studying) these individual features, but not seeing my whole face, its changing expressions, “me,” as a whole. I am not sure that I fully realized this at the time—there was just a teasing strangeness, some failure in the normal interplay of gaze and expression. He saw me, he scanned me, and yet . . .
He continues, refining his observations: “He approached these faces— even of those near and dear—as if they were abstract puzzles or tests. He did not relate to them, he did not behold.” The catalogue of verbs he introduces to distinguish kinds of seeing invites readers to consider with him the differences among various orders of visual perception and why they matter. The poignant comment that Dr. P did not, and could not “behold”—a word with inescapable biblical resonance— gives Sacks’s clinical observations a spiritual dimension. His generous, sustained focus on patients’ behaviours—he takes more “real time” and spends more “print time” on diagnostic nuances than many practitioners might be able or willing to invest—allows him to explore the relationship between a lived experience of illness and its psychological or spiritual effects on the person who suffers.
Unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries, Sacks draws, here and in other essays, on philosophy, theology, music, and literature to enhance his understanding of another’s way of being. In “Witty Ticcy Ray,” an essay about a young man with Tourette’s syndrome, he devotes a full paragraph to chronicling a rare moment of stillness, which seemed to descend on this patient only in worship, when his tics disappeared for a time and his energies quieted to “an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I had never seen before in him or conceived him capable of. I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue, and could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass.” Sacks’s essays have contributed significantly to broadening medical discourse and the repertoire of questions clinicians bring to their clinical encounters. His distinctive writing style, full of experimental sentences, second thoughts, and reflections on his own processes, demonstrate a rich relationship between literary and clinical skills that together open doors to imaginative, collaborative, empathetic healing work.
Interdisciplinarity, cultural eclecticism, and a certain audacity about boundary crossing distinguish many of the finest essayists of the generation living now. As Arthur Benson suggested in “The Art of the Essayist,” the competent essayist “does not see life as the historian, or as the philosopher, or as the poet, or as the novelist, and yet he has a touch of all these.” George Steiner, one of the great thinkers of the late twentieth century, philologist and master of fifteen languages, offers an example of that audacity in the ways he reaches outside even the wide territory of his formal training to speak of Jewish and Christian scriptures, Kierkegaard’s philosophy, Homer’s vision, the ethics of suicide, and the relation of psychological to geo-political forces in his remarkable essay collection, No Passion Spent. His essays make for slow reading, not because they are difficult— though they certainly demand a quality of attention that challenges the conditioned superficialities of those who do most of their reading on the subway or over breakfast—but because every word counts, and because so many of his sentences address the reader at more than one level of awareness. In his “Preface to the Hebrew Bible,” for instance, he makes in two elegant sentences succinct observations about the ancient scriptures that are breathtaking in scope and implications: “The Scriptures were (for many they still are) a presence in action both universal and singular, commonly shared and of utmost privacy. No other book is like it; all other books are inhabited by the murmur of that distant source (today, astrophysicists tell of the ‘background noise’ of creation).” Behind those sentences lie a rigorously earned sense of history, a rich and specific understanding of what it means to call the Bible “the living Word,” and an awareness of science that gives his analogy luminous precision.
While Steiner has few peers in erudition and literary elegance, and Sacks few colleagues who write with comparable attentiveness to both medicine and style, and Dillard few fellow writers who rival her for literary panache combined with scientific observation and sheer quirkiness, their works sit on library shelves in the good company of many essayists who have shaped and fuelled the public conversations we continue to have and need. For courageous prophetic vision I can think of few I recommend more often than Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, who know, as Brecht wrote, that in the dark times there would still be singing . . . about the dark times. For compassion for the poor united with fierce political intelligence I can think of no more instructive models than Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva, articulate champions of India’s poor and of colonized peoples. For help in reframing the easy assumptions that privilege the privileged, I return with gratitude to Howard Zinn. And for those who help me “rejoice, though I have considered all the facts,” I rely on Tolkien, Lewis, Robert McAfee Brown, Lesslie Newbigin, Marilynne Robinson, Desmond Tutu, and others whose names are less well known, but who find their quiet way into pages combed and clarified by vigilant and undersung editors.
We need them all—those wordsmiths willing to speak with care and courage into a public forum where language is so often hijacked, held hostage, and abused. The literate essay is a life force; the best of its kind are those that do what good sermons are supposed to do: they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They also give us arguments, analogies, examples, allusions, witty turns of phrase, surprising connections, and convicting clarity, and they do it with disciplined and generous brevity. One sitting is all it takes to read a good essay. Perhaps less than the time it takes to watch a feature-length film. It’s worth it to forego the film now and then, pick up a collection, and rediscover the sheer joy of a graceful sentence.