October 24, 2014 § 2 Comments
There’s been debate lately about how far into journalism the essay should be allowed to go, and what truths are made more apparent from a writer speaking personally and without detachment. In the introduction to Best American Essays 2014 (which will be published next week), John Jeremiah Sullivan traces the history of the term “essay” and points out the personal quality inherent in the both the word and the form:
…for if a book would be a true mirror, it must always reflect back in the direction from which it’s approached. [Montaigne] will leave not one but many doors open to his readers. You may enter him through his likable talkativeness, his confessional, conspiratorial intimacy (he remains one of the few writers in history to have possessed the balls to admit he had a small penis), through his learning, through the possibly unreattained depth of his psychological soundness, through the consolation he offers in times of sorrow—come whichever way you want, the door is there in the writing, and it’s there in the title. It could even be said that Montaigne comes to you. After all, we often write that Montaigne invented a form—and it’s true—but he did it by adapting others, one of which was the epistolary. For as long as there had been writing there had been books that are presented as a letter to someone, fictional or real, and under this guise, essayistic experiments were perpetrated. Montaigne makes a single bold edit. Instead of Dear Sebastien or whatever, it was Dear Reader. It was you.
Confessional, conspiratorial intimacy. Perhaps nothing ties us closer to the history of our form than that sense of secrets told, agonizing over whether someone will be hurt, deciding to tell anyway, sharing one’s own cracks and weaknesses in an attempt to balance the revelations. Dear Reader, Dear You: I drove impaired, I dated my teacher, I stalked my psychiatrist.
And if we’re asked, “Why do you need to share all that? Isn’t that too personal?” perhaps we can quote Montaigne, on the subject of his tiny manhood:
I hate to see it, for one poor inch of pitiful vigor which comes upon it but thrice a week, to strut and put itself in battle-array with as much eagerness as if there were in the belly a great and legitimate day’s work; a true flame of flax. And I wonder to see it so lively and throbbing and then in a moment so congealed and extinguished.
Maybe quote that one in French.