COLUMN: The elastic essay

By Karin Schimke

No doubt, the first time you heard the word “essay” it was at school and, to varying degrees of discomfort, it was a part of the arsenal required for you to pass high school.

Learning a word at school often augurs badly for the concept it shorthands. Although I didn’t have a horror of writing essays – my fears were confined to things mathematical – I didn’t realise until very late in life, that essays are deeply satisfying way to spend reading time, on top of being an amusing way to learn new ways of looking. For the essay – though many things – has very special powers of observation, afforded it by its elastic form, and its tolerance of both heart and head in its discursions.

An essay is nothing at all like the things you had to do at school. And if you haven’t read Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Christopher Hichens, David Sedaris, Siri Hustvedt, David Wallace Foster, Joan Didion and Dave Eggers, then you won’t know just how different the two types of “essay” are.sarah-bakewell

Oh, and Montaigne, of course. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Not, I admit, that I have read Montaigne’s essays, but I am currently reading a book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live. It is a biography of Montaigne, but approached by looking at the questions he asked and the answers he explored.

“Explored” – not “found”. Because an essay exists to discover, not to decree. Bakewell says Montaigne’s essays “have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please with it.” Though some might find this too inconclusive, too fuzzy, his essays were a bestseller in his time and continue to be read 400 years later.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne is considered the father of the essay because that’s what he called his work – a kind of writing that had not been seen before. The word “essay” means “to try”. He was trying a new kind of writing – and the writing was trying to find answers.

He and the talented, amusing, engaging writers I mentioned above, are able to move from the particular to the universal, and from the personal to the political, with fluidity and panache. They are able to “look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”, as one observer put it. What I like is how they hook into the world from a purely personal point of view, but manage – mostly – to avoid solipsism. They are a part of the world, but engage a third eye, a way of linking the self to the political, social and historical Zeitgeist. They make no pretense of it either – they do not try to hide behind a mask of objectivity. They often place themselves centrally and, from there, wander questioningly over much wider ground.

I like that essays are often inconclusive, ambivalent and tentative. They steer away from the absolutism that pervades public discourse. They give body to the poet Walt Whitman’s words: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes)”.

The paeditrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said that tolerating ambivalence was a sign of emotional maturity. Essays require the reader to get comfortable with ambivalence.

In return they inform through close observation, and close observation very often has the effect of exposing the humour or absurdity in things. Essays do not alienate by doling out wisdom from lofty positions, but engage the reader in observing peculiarity, particularity and in, ultimately, discovering personal meaning.

Essays show us “how to live”: inquisitively, questioningly – and tolerant of life’s infinite shades of being. – Schimke is a poet, a journalist and a the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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