The Formless Form

A literary scholar pays tribute to the essay as a literary genre. Scott McLemee thinks you should wait a couple of weeks before reading this book.

December 14, 2005

Perhaps December is not a good time to sing the praises of the essay. The days grow shorter; the semester reaches its crisis; and right about now, any reference to the essay will call to mind not a literary genre, but a set of obligations -- even the occasion for profound weariness of the soul.

This is the time of year my academic friends send e-mail messages containing evidence that they have made no difference whatsoever in their students' capacity to assimilate information, let alone understand the world. It's bad enough when you can tell that from a multiple-choice exam. When it's demonstrated in consecutive paragraphs..... The word "essay" comes from a French root, essayer,  meaning "to try" -- an experiment, in other words. But to anyone facing a stack of dubiously argued and episodically coherent undergraduate essays, a different sort of trial probably comes to mind. One with a medieval ambiance. Something involving the rack.

In that case, maybe it would be best to wait until after the holidays to read Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth by G. Douglas Atkins, published last month by the University of Georgia Press. But I'll recommend it anyway -- both as an antidote to the seasonal malady, and as evidence that academic lit-crit can sometimes be of interest to people not engaged in writing academic lit-crit.

Atkins, who is a professor of English at the University of Kansas, offers a small volume of (what else?) essays on the literary form now sometimes called "literary nonfiction." (The label is graceless, though not quite so oxymoronic as its detractors seem to think.) He looks at work by Montaigne, E. B. White, Cynthia Ozick, and other essayists -- trying to find the moments of "embodied truth" in their writing. An essay is, he writes, "the intersection of experience and meaning, idea and form (or body)."

And yet the form itself has a kind of second-class citizenship in the world of literature. "Refusing to 'take on airs,'" Atkins writes, "the essay often appears so unassuming as to be self-effacing, which is certainly part of its charm as well as of its power. Its brevity -- the essay can often be read in one sitting -- militates against epic pretensions or visions of grandeur, before which the maker of essays is, besides, uncomfortable and wary.... The essay has, typically, manifested contentment with itself, though just as typically it manifests discontentment with the world surrounding it."

Arguably, discontentment with academic routines or expectations is one of the more durable fuels to the essayistic flame. Atkins doesn't quite say so himself. But he mentions discovering the work of contemporary literary essayists only in the mid-1980s -- after years of graduate school and tenure-track immersion in the discourse of the professional "article," a format Atkins calls "scholarly, impersonal, important." Stray references indicate that he was also emerging from a midlife crisis involving divorce, alcohol, and usual unfinished business of the ego.

The moments of personal revelation are few, and discrete. But it sounds as if reading the work of contemporary authors such as Edward Hoagland and Richard Selzer was something akin to a conversion experience. "When I discovered these essayists," Atkins writes, "my life, both professional and personal, changed."

What he found in their work was "the essayist's wondrous mapping of the undulations of his own, simple, humble cogitations."

To the naked eye –- or, conversely, to the academic eye habituated to checking the endnotes every few minutes -- that sort of "mapping" can look pretty casual, even haphazard. And it may reek of egotism. Montaigne confronted that charge head-on more than 400 years ago. Some people think, he said, "that to be occupied with oneself means to cherish oneself too much." But not really. Socrates followed the oracle’s command to "know thyself" -- and, as Montaigne writes, "because by that study he had come to despise himself, he alone was worthy of the name wise."

The problem being, of course, that in the age of Oprah "know thyself" usually just means "love thyself." (Which in turn means "buy something nice for thyself.") Atkins acknowledges that the essay is a genre that "feeds into, and derives sustenance from, the culture of self-esteem." But it might also serve as a corrective. "Were I to look honestly into my heart," he writes, "I might think less well of myself, which, in our me culture, would be the worst of sinning."

Now, some 20 years ago, around the time Atkins was discovering the contemporary non-academic essay, I read another book of his. It was called Reading Deconstruction/Deconstructive Reading (University Press of Kentucky) -- a title that has a certain I Love the '80s-ish nostalgia factor now, though as I recall it offered a pretty solid basic introduction to the initial phase of Derrida's thought.  

Just a ghost of that earlier emphasis can be found in Atkins’s more recent work. The title Tracing the Essay, for instance, alludes to Derrida's thinking about "the structure of the trace." (To simplify wildly: Any given instant in time is always constituted by a past that is gone and a future that doesn’t yet exist. The simplest moment of perception is always marked by traces that complicate it beyond all telling.)

None of the old theoretical scaffolding is still standing now. Or rather, there is (if you’ll forgive the expression) just a trace of it between the lines of Atkins' prose -- along with echoes of Theodore Adorno's praise for the essay as the form that resists the ambitions of any system-builder.

"The essayist's is a literal imagination, his eye trained on the letter, on concrete particulars, on details," writes Atkins. "Spirit is something he can and often does reach, but only via the a posteriori path that spiritualists, Gnostics, and theorists alike eschew. One of the essay's great, enduring contributions lies just here, in its clear-sightedness and its stubborn refusal to pass too quickly beyond the commonplace."

Tracing the Essay is something rare: a book that is learned but plain-spoken, very personal yet also discrete. It may be that the author can say of it what Montaigne announced in creating the genre: "What I write here is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me."


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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