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essays

Dec 1, 1976

Introduction to Imaginative Literature, Part VI

The Essay

Riggenbach addresses the mainstay of popular and professional academic writing: the essay.

Introduction to Imaginative Literature

By Jeff Riggenbach

PART VI: THE ESSAY

An essay is a work of discursive prose or verse which is valuable, not alone or not at all for whatever information or philosophical truth it may contain, but rather, in whole or in part, for the thinking process, the cognitive style, the psycho-epistemology, it embodies, displays, formulates. As essayist Edward Hoagland puts it:

A personal essay is like the human voice talking, its order the mind’s natural flow, instead of a systematized outline of ideas. Though more wayward or informal than an article or treatise, somewhere it contains a point which is its real center, even if the point couldn’t be expressed in fewer words than the essayist has employed. A personal essay frequently is not autobiographical at all, but what it does keep in common with autobiography is that, through its tone and tumbling progression, it conveys the quality of the author’s mind. Nothing gets in the way. Because essays are directly concerned with the mind and its idiosyncrasy, the very freedom the mind possesses is bestowed on this branch of literature that does honor to it, and the fascination of the mind is the fascination of the essay.

The fascination of the mind—not the fascination of any particular subject the mind might choose to generalize, concretize, simplify, illustrate, expand, contract, define, refute—think about. It makes literally no artistic difference what an essay is “about,” as long as it is “about” something. This is why Charles Lamb’s essay on “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist” is as meaningful today as when it was written, though we contemporary readers know nothing about Mrs. Battle. It is why some essays, like those of James Branch Cabell, are biographical and/or literary, while others, like those Of Henry Miller, are typically autobiographical. Still others, like those of Edgar Saltus and Walter Pater, are historical and philosophical. And a few—Joanna Russ’ The Female Man seems a good example—combine fictional and even poetic elements with autobiography and philosophy, the whole being unified artistically (and this is why it is best classified as an essay) by a consistent method of thinking about its central subject: in the case of The Female Man, its presentation of the way one account of Woman emerges from four different ones in a kind of interior tetralogue—each account being presented as a character and distinguished by the verbal style in which she thinks and speaks.

The Female Man is both one of the most recent and one of the most complexly elaborate major works in the essay category—a category less than four hundred years old (most historians trace it no further than the French philosopher Montaigne, whose Essays appeared in 1580) and in our own era enjoying the greatest public acceptance in its history. The second half of the twentieth century is proving to be a period when (in urban North America, anyway) essays like Frederick Exiey’s A Fan’s Notes, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Robert Ringer’s Winning Through Intimidationbecome best sellers and when the too-often hack-infested form of essay writing called book reviewing is the easiest sort of writing for an unestablished author to sell. It might even reasonably be argued that at least two of this century’s finest essayists come from among the ranks of its professional reviewers: Cyril Connolly, whose posthumously published The Evening Collonade offers a representative sampling of his atmospheric essays in miniature—evocations of persons, places and periods now remote, all of them cast as ruminations upon books and richly textured with the deep, complex harmony of a mental life in which books are the primary facts; and James Gibbons Huneker, who filled nearly twenty volumes between 1899 and 1921 with magazine and newspaper reviews of the seven traditional arts—the Drama, Dance, Poetry, Painting, Music, Sculpture, and Architecture—bringing to his criticism the sort of metaphorical originality and self-conscious verbal control one might expect of the Symbolist, or Aesthetic, movement of which he was a part.

Edmund Wilson argued nearly fifty years ago in his first book, Axel’s Castle (itself a not inconsiderable essay in criticism), that the Symbolist movement, including its disciples and close relatives, the “Decadence” of the 1890s and 1920s and the Modernist movement, is an outgrowth of the original Romantic movement—and, as such, is a literary celebration of the Individual. It should not seem surprising, then, if symbolist writers should find a form “directly concerned wth the mind and its idiosyncrasy” a congenial one or if a disproportionate number of the best essays in English should be written by symbolist writers. Beside Huneker, the major figures in this tradition, in roughly chronological order, are Edgar Allan Poe, Walter Pater, George Moore, Edgar Saltus, Oscar Wilde, Carl Van Vechten, and James Branch Cabell. Particularly noteworthy among their works are Pater’s The Renaissance, Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man, Saltus’ Imperial Purple (see my review in LR, July 1974), Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” and “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (in The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Essays, Harper, 1970), Van Vechten’s Excavations, and Cabell’s Beyond Life (see my “Philosophy and Sense of Life Revisited,” Reason, November 1974).

Not every important essayist in English falls within the Symbolist tradition, of course, and space permits mention of a few who fall, gracefully and artistically as one might wish, without it. Henry David Thoreau might lay some claim to being he first native American individualist anarchist—see his famous essay “Civil Disobedience,” which is often conveniently packaged by publishers with another of his major works, Walden. Edward Dahlberg’s essay “Thoreau and Walden” (in The Edward Dahlberg Reader, New Directions, 1967) may serve both as a useful commentary on the earlier writer and as a highly favorable introduction to the sadly neglected and unread later one. Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary must surely represent a sort of high-water mark for that haiku among essays, the epigram (see L.A. Rollins’ review in LR, August 1974), though Thomas Szasz (in The Second Sin and Heresies) and Robertson Davies (in The Table Talk of Samuel March banks) have also done highly finished work in its demanding form.

Colin Wilson, Aldous Huxley, and Henry Miller are three contemporary essayists who capture in their work that infinitely suggestive and fertile process which is the artistic mind’s natural way of dealing discursively with philosophical ideas. Perhaps because he is so essentially an essayist that his true subject is always his own mind, Wilson is at his best in his autobiographical Writing, like Voyage to a Beginning, though his essays on the writers who have helped shape him, like “Hermann Hesse” in his recent volume Hesse, Reich, Borges (Philadelphia: Leaves of Grass Press, 1974), are always provocative.

A representative selection of Huxley’s best short essays is to be found in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow—see especially “The Education of an Amphibian” and “Knowledge and Understanding” for an artistic approach to epistemology. And among his longer essays, The Doors of Perception is not to be missed—either as artistic epistemology or as a triumphant confirmation of our language’s capacity—in the hands of an artist—to formulate even modes of awareness which played no part in its creation (see my review in LR, September 1975).

Henry Miller, that satyric would-be Noble Savage of Letters, is a pioneer in the depiction of the ways in which human passions—ecstatic as well as tragic—affect human thought, portraying them with an uninhibited ferocity virtually unknown in English before. Some times, as in “The Tailor Shop,” this ferocity breaks through straightforward realistic narrative like a volcanic eruption; at other times, as in “Jabberwhorl Cronstadt” and “Megalopalitan Maniac,” it imposes on the subject material from the beginning a kind of surrealism of vocabulary and even of grammar, as if trying to force language into as exaggerated, even grotesque, a shape as that of the emotions it is being twisted to formulate. All three of these essays are included in Miller’s 1936 collection, Black Spring, a book whose style exhibits almost none of Miller’s usual unevenness and whose beautiful title, unfortunately, has almost nothing to do with its content.

A title, after all, ought to be the work in a nutshell; it ought to name the essence of what follows it. Still, a work grows as it is written: it branches out in unexpected directions, sheds dead and dying parts which once had seemed major arteries, and soon becomes essentially a different thing. And if its title was chosen, at its birth, as in the case of the work now ending, it likely now appears inappropriate and misleading. And so it seems, to me at least, in the present case. Accordingly, I want to conclude my “Introduction to Imaginative Literature” by adding the word “informal” to its title. Properly printed, the amended title is: “An Introduction to Imaginative Literature,” with a carat between the words “an” and “introduction,” and the word “informal” hovering above. It isan introduction because it is one of many different possible introductions to a subject as complex and various as the human race itself and because it is designed to launch a new relationship in which the introducer, having acted as a catalyst, need play no further part. It is an informal introduction because it aspires to no particular type or form—being neither historical survey nor annotated reading list nor bibliographical essay—but freely exhibits the idiosyncracies of its author—his passions for the fantastic, the exotic, the decadent, the abstract, the philosophical, the artificial, the self-conscious, the avant garde, the Teutonic—formulating all this in its recommendations and exclusions, and formulating in its involuted and parenthetical essayist’s style his entire method of awareness—his way of prehending the way the world is.