An Essay on Essays

Some of the rhetoric books my generation used in college went back to Aristotle for many of their definitions. “Rhetoric,” he says, “may be defined as a faculty of discovering all the possible means of persuasion in any subject.” Persuasion, indeed, is more the purpose of an essay than of fiction or poetry, since an essay deals always with an idea. A true essay, however desultory or informal, states a proposition which the writer hopes, temporarily at least, to make the reader accept. The defense of a mood, subject, and predicate are the bare bones of any essay. It may be of a complex nature (like many of Emerson’s) stating several propositions; but unless it states at least one, it is not an essay.

Let us neglect the old rhetorical distinctions between exposition and argument. To sort all essays into those two types of writing would be more troublesome than a wicked stepmother. When is an essay argument, and when is it exposition? In so far as an essay attempts to persuade, it partakes of the nature of argument. Yet who would call Lamb’s “Dream Children” an argument? Or who would say it is not an essay? It contains a proposition, if you will only look for it; yet to associate Lamb’s persuading process with the forum would be preposterous. All writing presupposes an audience (which some of our younger writers seem to forget) but formal arguments presuppose opponents, and I cannot find the faintest scent of an enemy at hand in “Dream Children.”

Let us now forget the rhetoricians, and use our own terminology (our common sense too, if we have any). Let us say, first, that the object of the essay is, explicitly, persuasion–and that the essay states a proposition. Indeed, we need to be as rigorously simple as that if we are going to consider briefly a type that is supposed to include Bacon’s “Of Truth,” De Quincey’s “Murder as a Fine Art,” Lamb’s “In Praise of Chimney Sweeps,” Hazlitt’s “On Going a Journey,” Irving’s “Bachelors,” Hunt’s “Getting up on Cold Mornings,” Poe’s “The Poetic Principle,” Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Arnold’s “Function of Criticism,” Stevenson’s “Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured,” Paul Elmer More’s “The Demon of the Absolute,” Chesterton’s “On Leisure,” Max Beerbohm’s “No. 2. The Pines,” Stephen Leacock’s “People We Know,” and James Truslow Adams’ “The Mucker Pose.”

The foregoing list, in itself, confesses our main difficulty in delimiting the essay. The most popular kind of essay, perhaps, is that known as “familiar.” When people deplore the passing of the essay from the pages of our magazines, it is usually this that they are regretting. They are thinking wistfully of pieces of prose like Lamb’s “Sarah Battle on Whist,” Leigh Hunt’s “The Old Gentleman,” Stevenson’s “El Dorado,” Max Beerbohm’s “Mobled King.” They mean the essay that is largely descriptive, more or less sentimental or humorous, in which it is sometimes difficult to find a stated proposition. This kind of prose has not been popular as of late, and I for one, am not regretting it. It will come back–as long as the ghost of Montaigne is permitted to revisit the glimpses of the moon. But the familiar-essay-which-is-hardly-an-essay can be spared for a few years if necessary, since it demands literary gifts of a high order, and the authors mentioned have at present no competitors in this field. If the bones of the essay are to be weak, the flesh must be exceeding fair and firm.

Are we to admit, at all, that “Sarah Battle” and “The Old Gentleman,” and “El Dorado” and “Mobled King” are essays? Do they state a proposition to which they attempt to persuade us? Well, we can twist them to a proposition, if we are keen on our definition–though I think most of us would admit that they are chiefly descriptive and that they are only gently directed to the creation of opinion. Must we then deny that they are essays? No, I think they are essays, though it is obvious that the familiar essayist goes about his or her business far otherwise than Arnold or Emerson or Macaulay. He or she attempts rather to sharpen our perceptions than to convince us of a statement; to win our sympathy rather than our suffrage. His or her proposition is less important to him or her than his or her mood. If put to it, we can sift a proposition out of each one of these–and they were especially chosen because they put our definition on its defense. Lamb states, if you like, that to abide by the rigor of the game is in its way an admirable thing; Leigh Hunt states, if you like, that growing old is a melancholy business; Stevenson states that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive; Max Beerbohm states that no man is worthy to be reproduced as a statue. But the author’s proposition, in such essays, is not our main interest. This brings us to another consideration which may clarify the matter.

Though an essay must state a proposition, there are other requirements to be fulfilled. The bones of subject and predicate must be clothed in a certain way. The basis of the essay is meditation, and it must in a measure admit the reader to the meditative process (this procedure is frankly hinted in all those titles that used to begin with “Of” or “On”: “Of Truth,” “Of Riches,” “On the Graces and Anxieties of Pig-Driving,” “On the Knocking at the Gate in ‘Macbeth’,” “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places”). An essay, to some extent, thinks aloud; though not in the loose and pointless way to which the “stream of consciousness” addicts have accustomed us. The author must have made up his or her mind–otherwise, where is his or her proposition? But the essay, I think, should show how and why he or she made up his or her mind as he or she did; should engagingly rehearse the steps by which he or she came to his or her conclusions (“Francis of Verulam reasoned thus with himself”). Meditation; but an oriented and fruitful meditation.

This is the most intimate of forms, because it permits you to see a mind at work. On the quality and temper of that mind depends the goodness of the production. Now, if the essay is essentially meditative, it cannot be polemical. No one, I think, would call Cicero’s first oration against Catiline an essay; or Burke’s Speech on the Conciliation of America; hardly more could we call Swift’s “Modest Proposal” a true essay. The author must have made up his or her mind, but when he or she has made it up with a vengeance, he or she will not produce an essay. Because the process is meditative, the manner should be courteous; he or she should always, by implication, admit that there are good people who may not agree with him or her; his or her irony should never turn to the sardonic. Reasonableness, urbanity (as Matthew Arnold would have said) are prerequisites for a form whose temper is meditative rather than polemical.

We have said that this is the most intimate of forms. Not only for technical reasons, though obviously the essayist is less sharply controlled by structure than the dramatist or the sonneteer or even the novelist. It is the most intimate because it is the most subjective. When people talk of “creative” and “critical” writing–dividing all literature thus–they always call the essay critical. In spite of Oscar Wilde, to call it critical is probably correct; for creation implies objectivity. The created thing, though the author has torn its raw substance from his or her very vitals, ends by being separate from its creator. The essay, however, is incurably subjective; even “Wuthering Heights” or “Manfred” is less subjective–strange though it sound–than “The Function of Criticism” or “The Poetic Principle.” What Oscar Wilde really meant in “The Critic as Artist”–if, that is, you hold him back from his own perversity–is not that Pater’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci was more creative than many a novel, but that it was more subjective than any novel; that Pater, by virtue of his style and his mentality, made of his conception of the Mona Lisa something that we could be interested in, regardless of our opinion of the painting. I do not remember that Pater saw himself as doing more than explain to us what he thought Leonardo had done–Pater, I think, would never have regarded his purple page as other than criticism. I, myself–because I like the fall of Pater’s words, and do not much care for Mona Lisa’s feline face–prefer Pater’s page to Leonardo’s portrait; but I am quite aware that I am merely preferring criticism, in this instance, to the thing criticized. I am, if you like, preferring Mr. Pecksniff’s drunken dream–“Mrs. Todger’s idea of a wooden leg”–to the wooden leg itself. Anything (I say to myself) rather than a wooden leg!

A lot of nineteenth century “impressionistic” criticism–Jule Lemaître, Anatole France, etc.–is more delightful than the prose or verse that is being criticized. It is none the less criticism. The famous definition of the “adventures of a soul among the masterpieces” does not put those adventures into the “creative” category; it merely stresses their subjectivity. Wilde is to some extent right when he says that criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography; but he is not so right when he says that the highest criticism is more creative than creation. No one would deny that the purple page Wilde quotes tells us more about Pater than it does about Leonardo, or even about Mona Lisa–as Macaulay’s Essay on Milton conceivably tells us more about Macaulay than about the author of “Paradise Lost.” All Bacon’s essays together but build up a portrait of Bacon–Francis of Verulam reasoning with himself; and what is the substance of the Essays of Elia, but Elia? “Subjective” is the word, however, rather than “creative.”

It is this subjectivity–Montaigne’s first of all, perhaps–that has confused many minds. It is subjectivity run wild that has tempted many people to believe that the familiar essay alone is an essay; which would make some people contend that an essay does not necessarily state a proposition. But we are talking of the essay itself; not of those bits of whimsical prose which are to the true essay what expanded anecdote is to the short story.

The essay, then, having persuasion for its object, states a proposition; its method is meditation; it is subjective rather than objective, critical rather than creative. It can never be a mere marshaling of facts; for it struggles, in one way or another, for truth; and truth is something one arrives at by the help of facts, not the facts themselves. Meditating on facts may bring one to truth; facts alone will not. Nor can there be an essay without a point of view and a personality. A geometrical proposition cannot be an essay, since, though it arranges facts in a certain pattern, there is involved no personal meditative process, conditioned by the individuality of the author. A geometrical proposition is not subjective. One is even tempted to say that its tone is not urbane!

Perhaps–with the essay defined–we will understand without effort why it is being so rarely written at present. The whole world is living more or less in a state of war; and a state of war produces any literary form more easily than the essay. It is not hard to see why. People in a state of war, whether the war be military or economic, express themselves polemically. A wise man said to me, many years ago, that, in his opinion, the worst by-product of the World War was propaganda. Many times, in the course of the years, I have had occasions to recall that statement. There are perhaps times and places where propaganda is justified–it is not for me to say. But I think we should all agree that the increasing habit of using the technique of propaganda is corrupting the human mind in its most secret and delicate processes. Propaganda has, in common with all other expression, the object of persuasion; but it pursues that legitimate object by illegitimate means–by suggestio falsi and suppressio veri; by the argumentum ad hominem and hitting below the belt; by demagogic appeal and the disregard of right reason. The victim of propaganda is not intellectually persuaded, but intellectually–if not emotionally–coerced. The essayist, whatever the limitations of his or her intelligence, is bound over to be honest; the propagandist is always dishonest.

To qualify a large number of the articles and pseudo-essays that appear at present in our serious periodicals, British and American, as “dishonest” calls for a little explaining. When one says that the propagandist is always dishonest, one means this: he or she is so convinced of the truth of a certain proposition that he or she dissembles the facts that tells against it. Occasionally, he or she is dishonest through ignorance–he or she is verily unaware of any facts save those that argue for him or her. Sometimes, having approached his or her subject with his or her decision already made, he or she is unable to appreciate the value of hostile facts, even though he or she is aware of them. In the latter case, instead of presenting those hostile facts fairly, he pr she tends to suppress or distort them because he or she is afraid that his or her audience, readers or listeners, will not react to them precisely as he or she has done. The propagandist believes that his or her conclusions are right; but, no more than any other demagogue, does he or she like to give other men and women a fair chance to decide for themselves. The last thing he or she will show them is Francis of Verulam reasoning with himself. He or she cannot encourage the meditative process. This type of write is, at best, a special pleader.

It could not have escaped readers of British and American periodicals that there is very little urbane meditation going on in print. Half the articles published are propaganda–political, economic, social; the other half are purely informational, mere catalogs of fact. The essay is nowhere. Either there is no proposition, or evidence is suppressed. Above all, there is no meditation—no urbanity. All this is characteristic of the state of war in which we are unfortunately living.

We need the essay rather particularly, just now, since fiction and poetry have suffered even more cruelly than critical prose from the corruption of propaganda on the one hand and the rage for “fact-finding” on the other. We need to get away from polemics; we even need to get away from statistics. Granted that we are in a state of war: are we positively so badly off that we must permit every sense save the economic to be atrophied–that we cannot afford to think about life in any terms except those of bread? The desperate determination to guarantee bread to every one–which seems to be the basis of all our political and economic quarreling–is perhaps our major duty. And after? As the French say. Is it not worth our while to keep ourselves complex and civilized, so that, when bread for every one is guaranteed, we shall be capable of entertaining other interests?

The preoccupation with bread alone is a savage’s preoccupation; even when it concerns itself altruistically with other people’s bread, it is still a savage’s preoccupation. The preoccupation with facts to the exclusion of what can be done with them, and the incapacity for logical thinking, are both savage. Until a person begins to think–not merely to lose his temper or to learn by heart–he or she is, mentally, clothed in the skins of beasts. We are, I fear, under economic stress, de-civilizing ourselves. Between propaganda and “dope” there is little room for the meditative process and the subtler propositions.

I am not urging that we play the flute while Rome burns. I recall the sad entry in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal: “William wasted his mind all day in the magazines.” I am not asking the magazines to waste the minds of our Williams….The fact that the familiar essay of the whimsical type is not at the moment popular–that when people wish to be diverted, they prefer Wodehouse to Leacock, let us say–does not disturb me. But it seems a pity that meditative prose should suffer a total eclipse, if only because meditation is highly contagious. A good essay inevitably sets the reader to thinking. Just because it expresses a point of view, is limited by one personality, and cannot be exhaustive or wholly authoritative, it invites the reader to collaboration. A good essay is neither intoxicant nor purge nor anodyne; it is a mental stimulant.

Poetry may be, indeed, as Arnold said, “a criticism of life.” But most of us need a different training in critical thinking from that which is offered to us by the poets. A vast amount of the detail of life, detail which preoccupies and concerns us all, is left out of great poetry. We do not spend all our time on the heights, or in the depths, and if we are to live, we must reflect on many matters rather temporal than eternal. The essayist says, “Come, let us reason together.” That is an invitation–whether given by word of mouth or on the printed page–that civilized people must encourage and, as often as possible in their burdened lives, accept.


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