Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.
The essay began in a crisis of attention. Montaigne’s tiny early chapter “Of Idleness”—less than 300 words in its first version, still just a page in its last—worries about minds. “Unless you keep them busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them,” he writes, “they throw themselves in disorder hither and yon in the vague field of imagination.” This he knows from experience. Retiring from public life to his home, he was determined to “bother about nothing” and let his mind “entertain itself in full idleness.” But rather than encouraging it to “stay and settle,” idleness—unbridledness—prompted his mind to behave “like a runaway horse,” producing “fantastic monsters.” The antidote was to write: “in order to contemplate” his thoughts, Montaigne explains, “I have begun to put them in writing [les mettre en rolle], hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.”1 The essay as a register of monsters.
“Of Idleness” offers an origin story for essays before Montaigne knew that was what he was writing. They are a technique of bridling the runaway horse of the mind with a “definite subject,” limiting the “vague field of the imagination.” But giving the mind something to think about also allows it to catch itself in the act. In passages added in later editions, Montaigne seems to disavow his early call for definite subjects. In “Of Vanity,” Montaigne claims that “[t]he titles of my chapters do not always embrace their matter,” praising instead the “lusty sallies” and “variation” of “casual and accidental” approaches to theme.2 In “Of Practice,” the “definite subject” fades from view: “It is many years now that I have had only myself as object of my thoughts, that I have been examining and studying only myself”; “if I study anything else,” he claims, “it is in order promptly to apply it to myself.”3 But though Montaigne’s idea of what he was doing no doubt changed—not least in that his mind became not ashamed, but interested in itself—the contradiction is only apparent. That essays are notoriously digressive requires a subject: the title gives Montaigne something from which to play truant. And it is only by thinking of something else that the mind’s activity comes into view.
We live now—at least so we are told, by journalism, pedagogy, academic discourse—in a new crisis of attention, bringing fresh pertinence to the nest of conditions which gave rise to the essay. And so some of the best contemporary essayists find themselves, whatever else they are doing, rewriting “Of Idleness.” Take, for example, how Brian Blanchfield accounts for his 2016 volume Proxies: A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts. In a prefatory text called “[A Note],” he reveals the two “constraints” he used to generate his writing. The first: he “wrote these essays,” we learn, “with the internet off,” refusing sources of information other than his own mind and memory. Blocking the Wi-Fi connection is a familiar writer’s gambit against distraction. But it is also, as Blanchfield indicates, a modern way of asking Montaigne’s genre-founding question, “Que sais-je?”—what do I know, without resort to the internet’s cornucopian encyclopedia? Blanchfield’s second constraint is a pledge “to stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.” He gives his mind a definite subject until it gives onto something else. All of the essays in Proxies are titled for particular subjects, more and less concrete: “On Owls,” “On Sardines,” “On Propositionizing,” “On Man Roulette,” “On Minutes,” “On Abstraction,” “On Frottage.” All begin with that subject, sometimes with the word itself. But all, eventually, “give,” opening onto a view of self “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source,” as the phrase which acts as subtitle and aegis for each essay has it.4
Or take how Emily Ogden opens her new collection, On Not Knowing—a title which also asks “que sais-je?”, and “que ne sais-je pas?” The first essay raises the problem of living and thinking now, in this twittering world, of how to exist in apocalypse and dailiness. The world is full of threat and fire, but also “mundanity, duration, bullshit.” “The light flickers,” she writes: “Leviathan threatens. Mostly I see minnows.” If Leviathan is the hulking sea monster of the Bible or white whale of Moby-Dick, it is too big to visualize, manifesting only as effects on the surface, an occasionally breaching fin or fluke; if it is the strange composite figure on the title page of Hobbes’s Leviathan, its larger body compiled of the micro-bodies of citizens, it is too weird and various to grasp. The problem is not only how to survive in crisis, but how to think; and not only how to think, than how to find a “definite subject” of the right scale. This first essay is called “How to Catch a Minnow,” and this smaller task is a relief from the problem of seeing the whole whale at once. But the singular minnow is also fickle. Its survival, as Ogden explains, is keyed to a predator’s inability to select a single fish from the shoal for focus. When Ogden poises over the river to watch, “[t]he fish sense my intention propagating itself toward them,” and scatter. To see one minnow is, she writes, “as difficult as it is for me to think one thought among a proliferation of thoughts,” recalling the sprouting monsters of Montaigne’s idle brain.5 “Attention’s principal and most primal task,” Lucy Alford’s recent study of poetic attention observes, is “to isolate objects […] from the general surrounding flux”, separating figure from ground.6 This minnows resist.
Attempting to define the essay is notoriously both compulsive and impossible; like the minnow, the essay is evasive both in each individual quicksilver example and as a flickering, changeable shoal. But one way to try is to think of it not as a form but a mode of attention; or even as a way of paying attention to attention itself, catching, in Coleridge’s felicitous phrase, “the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking.” Blanchfield’s “On the Locus Amoenus” discusses an “exercise” in which “you imagine there were but one person in a group who points, who understands pointing as the act that might send the gaze of others in a direction he indicates with his outstretched arm and indicating finger.” But since no-one else understands the conventions of pointing, “all the others keep their eyes on him,” the finger drawing attention only to itself.7 Failure of ostension: ostensible failure, a mismatch between intention and reception. Blanchfield is thinking about the constructed nature of the persona in poetry, but the vignette is equally revealing about the essay. The essay presents us with something to which it seems to want to draw attention, but in its attempt to direct its own and our attentiveness, we see not only that subject, but also the pointing finger, and the person pointing. That Blanchfield presents us with this scenario as an “exercise” of our imagination, a thought experiment revealing the dynamics of attention, writing, and the self, is also an analogue for the essay.
The essay, after all, is characterized by aboutness. Virginia Woolf, in “The Modern Essay,” famously claimed that “[t]he form […] admits variety. The essay can be short or long, serious or trifling, about God and Spinoza, or about turtles and Cheapside.”8 For all their wild variety, essays have something in common: whatever they are about, they are about something. Alexandra Kingston-Reese discusses “a vague about-ism” which is “endemic to the essay form, always on, about”; David Shields claims that “What the lyric essay gives you—what fiction doesn’t, usually—is the freedom to emphasize its aboutness, its metaphysical meaningfulness.”9 Rather than forever returning to the question “what is an essay?” we might better ask what it is about; or even: is aboutness the essay’s whatness?10
The essay, Adorno claims, “is always directed towards something already created, does not present itself as creation.”11 Its aboutness has historically been a reason for its minor status. While fiction creates a world unto itself, the essay, belated, points at what already exists. Part of the contemporary vogue for the essay is a revaluing of the documentary and the literature of realia: “The world exists; why recreate it?”, asks Shields, announcing his reality hunger. Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, advocating for the lyric essay, declared that “[i]t partakes of the essay… in its overt desire to engage with facts,” coupling an “allegiance to the actual” with poetry’s investment in form.12 But the essay’s aboutness is not just a desire for facts, but a posture towards them. “Aboutness” is a technical term in philosophy: the English equivalent of intentionality, defined as “The distinguishing property of mental phenomena of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary.”13 There is no thought that is not about something, “directed upon” it: “intention propagating itself,” in Ogden’s terms.
And so the essay, to catch itself thinking, must be “on.” The preposition is a two-letter signal of aboutness. In its modern usage—Adam Phillips On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored; Maggie Nelson On Freedom; Eula Biss On Immunity—it suggests incompletion, indirection, idiosyncrasy, and a resistance to academic writing.14 The earliest essays availed themselves of a much wider range of prepositions: essays of, towards, concerning, tending to, touching. There are frequent contemporary essays “against”: Susan Sontag “Against Interpretation,” Philip Lopate “Against Joie de Vivre,” Mary Karr “Against Decoration,” Mark Greif “Against Everything.” All avail themselves of an angled preposition. What is the difference, to take a Montaignean example, between an essay “Of Thumbs,” and a piece titled “Thumbs?” The “Of” implies that what we will read is not just thumbs, but thoughts on thumbs: to abuse Wallace Stevens, thoughts about the thing, not the thing itself. The title of Susan Sontag’s book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others flickers between “regarding” as a gerund, the ongoing process of looking, and as a preposition meaning “on” or “in relation to”: is it “Looking at the Pain of Others,” or “On the Pain of Others?” The indecision performs the ethical burden of her argument: the need, when confronted with images of suffering, not just to look, but to reflect on looking. We think not just of the object, but of the object as being thought of. Regarding regarding, on on: the essay is interested in its own prepositionality.
Despite the usual claim that it is “the nature of the essay that it does not create new things from an empty nothingness,” prepositionality does summon things into being through attention, isolating an unexpected something from the flux.15 Robert Boyle’s Occasional Reflections, which he called “short and Occasional Essays,” selected unlikely moments from the ongoing stuff of experience: “Upon the Sight of a Wind-mill, standing still,” “Upon my Spaniel’s fetching me my glove”; “Upon ones Drinking water out of the Brim of his Hat.” Otherwise negligible moments become the opportunity for recognition of divine immanence, rendering, as Adorno put it, “the transient eternal.”16 Boyle’s “upon” is both temporal, a sign of spontaneity, and a signal of consecrating attention. Titles like Marion Milner’s On Not Being Able to Paint, Jacqueline Rose’s On Not Being Able to Sleep, Ogden’s On Not Knowing, make incapacity salient. The preposition isolates negative states otherwise difficult to conceive. The early vogue for essays “On Nothing” is often rightly associated with an eighteenth-century taste for satire and self-spinning verbiage (“any blockhead could write if he had something to say for himself; but he that can write upon nothing must surely be a superlative genius”).17 But it is not only bathos. The second English essayist, William Cornwallis, wrote the first English essay on nothing. His verse essay “The Prayse of Nothing” ends “This is the taske that I did vndertake, | Of Nothings Nothing, something for to make.”18 Without an “on” or “of,” nothing is no thing; prepositionality reifies. That the essay can’t create ex nihilo does not mean it can’t make something of nothing.
But while the essay needs its something, it is often strangely uninterested in it. Montaigne, Blanchfield, and Ogden all suggest that the essay needs a “definite subject” only in order for something else to emerge, as in a line from Roland Barthes which Matthew Bevis used as the epigraph to a lovely essay “In Search of Distraction”: “To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas.”19 Ogden’s essay closes with a hope that attending to minnows “will trace the outlines of a whale,” bringing the grand subject into visibility through the “chance configurations” of the miniature: “In the trembling of the minnows, in the busy chaos of our unknowing, the Leviathan… might become visible.” The reasons Blanchfield gives for calling his book Proxies are revealing: not only does it have biographical relevance, since he has been “stepson, house sitter […], adjunct, sub, temp, warm body” (that last, tellingly, a phrase Cynthia Ozick uses to characterize the essay), but also because proxy is “the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.”20 The New Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetics of 1993 suggests that “[f]rom the point of view of psychology, r[hyme] may […] seem the object of displaced fixation in consciousness which frees the subconscious mind for more creative wordcraft.”21 The subject is to the essay what rhyme is to the poem: a placeholder for attention and a liberating constraint, which lets something else, “prohibitively hard to apprehend,” come into view.
That something else is often attention itself; or the ground against which attention chooses its figural objects. John Berger’s marvelous essay “Field” (1971), gathered in a book aptly called About Looking, tries to get at that ground. It’s no accident that his title avoids prepositionality. There is one particular field at the center of the essay, on Berger’s route home beside a level crossing. Its first mention seems to involve a typo: “In the angle between the railway lines and the road there is field, surrounded on its other two sides by trees.” Not a field, or the field, but just field, lacking an article, let alone a preposition. The apparent error is precise, since the distinction between definiteness and indefiniteness is Berger’s concern. He is trying to write about “field” itself: the space and condition for the exercise of attention. “It seldom happens that your attention is drawn to the field before you have noticed an event within it”: field is difficult to see, without something else to see it by. Event interrupts what Ozick calls “the hum of perpetual noticing,” setting limits to imagination’s “vague field.”22 Such events “can be almost anything”: “an old woman looking for mushrooms,” “chickens pottering,” “a voice calling,” “a flock of sheep moving exceedingly slowly from one corner to the centre.” Field awaits events “in order to become itself realizable.”23
As fields, so essays. Aboutness and prepositionality are techniques of the attention, which occupy the mind only so that something else more difficult to articulate becomes conceivable. Timothy Harrison has observed of Montaigne’s “De l’exercitation” that it attempts to get at “the felt simplicity of life qua life,” something impossible to perceive as soon as we try to think of it, and something Montaigne can only get at by narrating the dramatic event of near-death experience.24 Attend to the event, so that the field in which it happens, or nothing, or attention, or life itself, can come into view.
And something else. Blanchfield’s “On the Leave”, one of the most brilliant pieces in Proxies, interweaves an account of Blanchfield’s absent pool-shark father with the idea of the “leave” in games like pool, snooker, billiards: “the position in which the balls are left for the next player or stroke.”25 The essay meditates on circumstance and opportunism: how Blanchfield was able to take the model his father left him of a messy and aggressively heterosexual masculinity, and take his leave of it; how you take the cue, your cue, and wrest some agency in circumstances outside your control; more generally, how to relate to inheritance not as the given, but as a leave, which constrains a field of operation, while also offering opportunities of transformation.
“On the Leave” ends with Blanchfield making what he intends explicit: “I mean, the magic act of the leave is that gradually, motionlessly, the frozen scatter of independent entities are reorganized into relational possibilities along a single-point perspective, a subject position.”26 This is another figure, like the exercise of imagining unsuccessful pointing, which articulates a version of what the essay is and does: finds itself among existing things and sets them in relation to each other and to a viewpoint, a cue point, which constellates them into legibility and opportunity. But it also suggests that concentration on the geometries of the leave, stalking the field of the pool table to work out the right angle of incidence from which to make one’s shot, allows something else to appear. Playing pool is a proxy, here, for the emergence of a self, another flickering thing visible only when not looking directly at it. As in “Of Idleness”, self, that hulking leviathan, scattering shoal, only comes view when it pays attention to something else.
This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.
- Montaigne, Essays, trans. Frame  (London, 2003), 24.
- Montaigne, 925.
- Montaigne, 331.
- Brian Blanchfield, Proxies: A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts (New York, 2016); ‘[A Note]’, vii-viii.
- Emily Ogden, On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays (Chicago, 2022), 3-9.
- Lucy Alford, Forms of Poetic Attention (New York, 2020), 12.
- Blanchfield, Proxies, 25.
- Virginia Woolf, Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford, 2008), 13.
- Alexandra Kingston-Reese, ‘Introduction: The Art Essay’, in Art Essays: A Collection (Iowa City, 2021), 6; David Shields, ‘Reality Hunger: A Manifesto: Why the Lyric Essay is Better than Fiction’, Believer Magazine (1 March 2006), https://believermag.com/reality-hunger-a-manifesto/, accessed 8 March 2022.
- ‘Whatness’, happily, is first used by John Florio, Montaigne’s earliest English translator, to render Italian quiditá: quiddity, essential quality. On the futility of asking ‘what is an essay?’, see most recently Thomas Karshan, ‘What is an Essay? Thirteen Answers from Virginia Woolf’, in On Essays, eds. Karshan and Kathryn Murphy (Oxford, 2020), 31-54.
- Theodor Adorno, ‘Essay as Form’, in Notes to Literature, Volume One , ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York, 1997), 17.
- Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, ‘New Terrain: The Lyric Essay’, Seneca Review 72/1 (1997), 7-8, available at https://www.hws.edu/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx, accessed 8 March 2022.
- ‘Intentionality’: also first used by Florio, to translate Italian intentionalità. See OED s.vv. aboutness, n.; intentionality, n.
- On the longer history see Nicholas Dames, ‘Chapter Heads’, in Book Parts ed. Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth (Oxford, 2019), 151-64; James Williams, ‘Chapters’, The Cambridge Companion to Prose, ed. Daniel Tyler (Cambridge, 2021), 78-95, esp. 78-9; Thomas Karshan, ‘The Problem of a Name: The Essay and Its Titles’, Edinburgh Companion to the Essay, eds Aquilina, Cowser, and Wallack (Edinburgh, 2022).
- György Lukács, The Soul as Form.
- Adorno, ‘Essay as Form’, 36.
- Anon., ‘Upon Nothing’, in Yorick’s Meditations upon Various Interesting and Important Subjects (1760), 3.
- William Cornwallis, Essayes of Certaine Paradoxes (London, 1616), sig. G2r.
- Matthew Bevis, ‘In Search of Distraction’, Poetry Magazine, 1 November 2017, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/144656/in-search-of-distraction, accessed 8 March 2022.
- Blanchfield, Proxies, viii. See Cynthia Ozick, ‘She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body’, in Quarrel and Quandary (2000).
- T.V.F. Brogan, ‘Rhyme’, in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, eds Preminger and Brogan (Princeton, 1993), 1060. Thank you to Myko Balbuena for help in chasing down this recalcitrant reference.
- Ozick, ‘She’, 184.
- John Berger, ‘Field’, in About Looking (1980; London, 2009), 199-205.
- Timothy Harrison, ‘Personhood and Impersonal Feeling in Montaigne’s “De l’exercitation”’, Modern Philology 114/2 (2016), 219-42, here 221.
- OED s.v. leave, n.2.
- Blanchfield, Proxies, 65-70.