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The first duty of an essayist is to generate pleasure


What should an essay be like? asks the Irish critic Brian Dillon in his latest book. And he finds in Virginia Wolf part of the answer: he must enchant us with the first word and wake us up, renewed, with the last.

The bust of the philosopher Michel de Montaigne in the Bordeaux library in September 2016.GEORGES GOBET (AFP/Getty Images)

The essay, as all the articles, treatises, and conferences on the subject inform us, is etymologically an ingenious proof or textual commentary with no claim to be definitive or ambition to exhaust its subject.

Actually, this is such a big topic in the critical and journalistic chatter about the form that it has ended up hiding much about both the essay and the nature of the work and the experiment.

The fact that the essay is a tentative or tentative approach is more than proven, and as the definitely non-essayistic GWF Hegel once said, what is known informally is not properly known at all.

How did we get from the French verb


to this more or less consolidated form of thought and word?

According to the Swiss critic Jean Starobinski in his article

Can the essay be defined?

, from 1983,


dates back to the 12th century and comes from the Latin root


, meaning balance.

Starobinski says: "To try" derives from


, which means to weigh.

Similar to this term we find 'examination': needle, long and narrow strip in the box of the balance, therefore, weighted consideration, control”.

In other words, the essay is above all a type of measurement or judgment, not so much a test of himself or of his competences or of the author's faculties as a weighing of something external to him, that is, to rehearse. is to value.

(It has also meant, historically, a flourish, a preamble, and an example. Also the chest or breast of a deer.) But these needles, the precision instruments with which the nascent essay is supposed to do its job ( at least according to the etymological legend), they begin to proliferate now: “[…] another meaning of examination designates a swarm of bees, a flock of birds.

The common etymology would be the verb


, expel, persecute, require later.

How tempting that the core meaning of today's words should result from their meanings in the remote past!

The essay could also be a demanding weighing, an attentive examination, but also a verbal swarm from which one frees creation.

The essay is diverse and distinct;



But of course also



And quit.

There are many passages in which the great essayists announce (or denounce, because essayists are sometimes ashamed of being essayists) the tentative nature of their method or form.

That happens to Sir William Cornwallis, who published two collections of his essays at the beginning of the seventeenth century: "My are essays, I who am but an apprentice recently destined to the inquisition of knowledge and I use these pages as the table uses the assistant to a painter trying to get his hand and his imagination to interpenetrate.

It is a way of writing that is very much in keeping with proposals that have not been digested or with a head that does not know its power, as a cautious errand boy makes an effort at the beginning or prudence tastes before buying”.

The brevity of the essays, which observes its formal apogee in the aphorisms, has for Francis Bacon “[…] many excellent virtues, which systematic writing does not reach.

Well, first of all, it puts the writer to the test, revealing whether he is superficial or deep: because aphorisms, unless they are ridiculous, cannot be made except with the heart and marrow of the sciences, since they have no place in they neither the illustrative discourse, nor the enumerations of examples, nor the discourse of connection and order, nor the descriptions of practice”.

But here the conflict of the essay as a form arises: it aspires to express the quintessence or the crux of its subject, therefore, to a kind of brilliance and completeness, and, at the same time, it wants to insist that its scope is partial, that it be incomplete. it is a value in itself, as it better reflects the brave and curious, if hesitant, nature of the writing mind.

What unites these trends?

The classic thing is to say that it is the self that writes and calmly resort to Montaigne, who assures in his essay

On the exercise

: “I am not bringing up my doctrines here, but rather my particular experience, and I should not be blamed if I explain it: what is useful for my benefit, perhaps it can also be used for that of others.

For the rest, no harm can be received by the experience of others with this relationship: I expose only my own, so if I act crazy, it is at my expense, without harm to anyone else, because it is madness without consequences that dies in me ”.

This self is as contained as it is provisional;

it is as important as scattered.

As Starobinski says, the very multiplicity of Montaigne's essays proclaims or sanctions something about the form: that it is both repeatable and multiple, serial and assorted.

Because that is the nature of the self, as the essay

On Experience

tells us .



is tentative and hypothetical, and yet it is also a habit of thinking, writing, and living that has definite boundaries


This is the combination of essays and essayists that appeals to me: the spirit of the genre torn between its impulses toward chance or adventure and to finished form, aesthetic integrity.


The Modern Essay

, published in 1925, Virginia Woolf points out that “the form, too, admits of variety”, but also that the essay has or should have a completeness that derives from the requirement of giving the reader pleasure: “The controlling principle is simply that it should give pleasure;

the desire that drives us when we take it off the shelf is simply to get pleasure.

Everything in the essay must be subordinated to that end.

It should enchant us with the first word and it should wake us up, refreshed, with the last.

In the interval we can experience the most diverse experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation;

we can rise to fantastic heights with Lamb or plunge into the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be provoked.

The essay must surpass us and draw the curtains on the world.

The genre can and should be heterogeneous and foreign to itself, but its variety and breadth do not imply that it lacks form.

One of the things that the essay usually contains is erudition or knowledge, but "an essay must be so fused with the magic of writing that not a single fact stands out, that not a single dogma tears the surface of its texture."

The essays are complete, without seams, of good workmanship, except when they are not, when they fracture and fail and open up to the possibility that they will not be liked.

Of course, both trends can coexist in the same essay, as in the case of Virginia Woolf herself.

Brian Dillon

(Dublin, 1969) is a critic and Professor of Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London.

This excerpt is a preview of his book


de él, which is published by Anagrama publishing house on March 29. 

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2023-03-28

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