An essay is at once a wound and an act of piercing. An essay is not only about (‘about’) its subject but also, whether the writer is aware of this or not, about (‘about’) writing about the subject (and also, by extension, about (‘about’) reading about the subject (although Brian Dillon in his excellent and thoughtful book Essayism is interested primarily the writing of essays (or rather in what he terms ‘essayism’: “not the practice of the form but an attitude to the form - to its spirit of adventure and unfinished nature - and towards much else. Essayism is tentative and hypothetical, and yet it is also a habit of thinking, writing and living that has definite boundaries.” (note here, incidentally, the introduction of the subject of this review within (closer to the surface, though, than this observation) two levels of parentheses)))). An essay is a transparent barrier, a means of focus at once providing intimacy with and distance from its subject, or, better metaphor (if any metaphor can be better than another (and better by what criteria, we might ask (though that is another matter))), an essay is a stick at once both joining and separating the writer and the subject, a tool by which the writer can lever weight upon the subject, which, although never able to be wrenched free from its context (what we might call the hypersubject), a context innately amorphous, unwieldable and inconceivable, provides a point of leverage from which the writer may rearrange the disposition of that grab-bag (or “immense aggregate” (William Gass)) of feelings, thoughts and impressions that is, out of convenience and little more, referred to as the self. To write is to continually and simultaneously pull apart and remake the ‘I’ that writes. An essay is, in Dillon’s words, “a combination of exactitude and evasion,” an eschewing of the compulsion for, or the belief in the possibility of, completion or absolutism, an affirming instead of the fragmentary, the transitory, the subjective. The operating principle of the essay is style, the advancing of the text “through the simultaneous struggle and agreement between fragments,” the production of “spines or quills whose owner evades and attacks at the same time.” Style is the application of form to content, or, rather, form results from the application of style to content. Style can be applied to any subject with equivalent results. Essayism is an essay about essays, or a set of essays about essays, about the reading and, more devotedly, the writing of essays, about the approaches to, reasons for and functions of essays. Dillon especially examines the connection, for him at least, between the essay and depression: “Writing had become a matter of distracting myself from the urge to destroy myself” (even though “away from my desk it was possible to suppress or ignore the sense of onrushing disaster” (suggesting perhaps that it was only writing itself that presents the void from which it must then rescue the writer (always at the risk of failure))). Is the essay a cure or palliative for depression, or a contributor to, or ‘styler’ of, depression? “What if the ruinous and rescuing affinity between depression and the essay is what got you into this predicament in the first place? Will a description of how you made your way along the dry riverbeds of prose and self-pity provide any clues as to how to get out of the gulch again? How to connect once more, if in fact you have ever really known it, with the main stream of human experience? Such questions seem too large, too embarrassing even - though they have never been too grand for the essay. Or they may seem too small, too personal. Same answer.” As the best essays do, Essayism provides understanding without answers and leaves the reader with a habit of thinking, writing and living which will help them to ask just the sorts of unanswerable questions about their own experience, so to call it, that will increase both their intimacy with and detachment from it.
Imagine a type of writing so hard to define its very name means a trial, effort or attempt. An ancient form with an eye on the future, a genre poised between tradition and experiment. The essay wants above all to wander, but also to arrive at symmetry and wholeness; it nurses competing urges to integrity and disarray, perfection and fragmentation, confession and invention.
How to write about essays and essayists while staying true to these contradictions? Essayism is a personal, critical and polemical book about the genre, its history and contemporary possibilities. It’s an example of what it describes: an essay that is curious and digressive, exacting yet evasive, a form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal measure. Among the essayists to whom he pays tribute – from Virginia Woolf to Georges Perec, Joan Didion to Sir Thomas Browne – Brian Dillon discovers a path back into his own life as a reader, and out of melancholia to a new sense of writing as adventure.