The virtues of the essay
[This is a fairly long essay about the, er, essay. If you want it in a downloadable and printable form, go here.]
My first stint in journalism was as an intern at Tatler magazine. It was in 2000, just after university, when I was suffering from acute social anxiety. Tatler magazine is not a great place to work if you are suffering from acute social anxiety. One day, as I was walking with the other intern down to the mail room to pick up some stationary, I told her I wanted to write features, like my hero Tom Wolfe. ‘You know, like the New Journalism of the 1960s?’ She had not heard of the New Journalism of the 1960s.
Tom Wolfe’s concept of New Journalism was that the 1950s, 60s and 70s saw a decline in the quality of fiction, and a rise in the quality of non-fiction and long-form journalism, by the likes of Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Michael Herr, Joan Didion and Wolfe himself. It was this sort of journalism that made me want to be a journalist.
My first proper job in journalism was with a financial magazine called Euromoney, where I worked for three years. I once tried to write a long first-person New Journalism-style feature about a privatization scandal in Budapest. My editor thought I’d gone insane. I was told to re-write it in the third-person, pronto. In my free time, I tried my hand at writing a drugs memoir, but I couldn’t really remember anything and what I could remember wasn’t as funny as I remembered it.
New journalism barely existed in the Nineties and Noughties in the UK. With the exception of the LRB and the TLS, British newspapers and magazines hardly ever commissioned anything longer than 1000 words. Even Prospect, set up to revive the essay, rarely published anything over 2000 words. A few rare talents managed to keep that sort of first person essay alive: Jon Ronson, Geoff Dyer, Alain de Botton, Will Self, Tom Hodgkinson, John Lanchester, Hanif Kureshi and others.
In the last two years, the literary scene has got very excited about the return of the literary essay and the rise of ‘long-form journalism’. There are technological reasons for this. The internet has, through blogs and social networking sites, made essayists of us all. The first e-book ever published was Thomas De Quincey’s 19th century essay, Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts. The rise of sites like TED and Intelligence Squared also led to the video essay or monologue form for the presentation of ideas, which in turn led to the rise of online essays through Kindle Shorts. The net also allowed a greater audience for the radio essay, like This American Life. By 2011, the essay had become an object of widespread celebration in literary circles, with academic conferences dedicated to its revival, and new publishers dedicating themselves exclusively to the genre.
The revival of the essay found its champion in David Shields’ 2010 manifesto, Reality Hunger. Shields announced that he’d lost the urge to read novels, and instead was far more interested in the literary essay, which melted down the clumsy settings of the novel (plot, narrative, character) and instead gave us the diamond moments of consciousness, subjectivity and meaning. He presents the essay as mix-tape, mashing up other people’s ideas with your own rapping over the top. The ideas and quotations are split into brief paragraphs which give his ideas the appearance of profound significance.
By common consensus, the greatest essayist of this golden age of the essay is Geoff Dyer. He is celebrated by Shields’ manifesto, and talks about the essay with Shields here. He was the closing speaker at the recent Queen Mary University conference on the essay. He also provides the last essay published by Notting Hill Editions, which purports to give us the whole history of the essay, from Cicero to Dyer.
I’ve only recently come across Dyer’s works, and just read his weird, funny, druggy take on self-help literature, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered; and his weird, funny, druggy take on academic criticism about DH Lawrence: Out of Sheer Rage. He is a stunningly good writer, maybe the best English writer working today, with the ability to describe and make funny the peculiarities and perversities of his own flickering, flip-flopping, flaneuring consciousness on its hapless adventures around the world. In his work, we see the individual consciousness breaking free of all traditions and obligations, and then regretting it.
The essay is engaged with the tradition and the idea of self-help. It shows the self reflecting on itself, engaging with its obsessions, compulsions, epiphanies and self-destructive tendencies. It explores self-writing as a therapeutic exercise (or not).
The classical age of the essay: Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, Augustine. The individual consciousness emerging from the tribe, exploring its own inner world, not for the sake of it, but in order to join it to a tradition of belief: Stoicism, Platonism or Christianity. Making the self a part of the Logos. The exploration of the self discovers, ultimately, the impersonality of the self. The self is a part of the Logos. To get closer to your ultimate self you absorb others’ words, make them part of your narrative. The end of the essay is the discovery of God.
The Renaissance and early modern age of the essay: Montaigne, Pascal, Bacon, Cardano. The self working itself free of the tradition of Catholicism, exploring its own originality. The Renaissance essayist looks back to the classical age, and feels themselves part of the classical tradition, but also something different, new, original. Cardano: ‘“Some have committed themselves to writing as they think they ought to be, like Antoninus [Marcus Aurelius]...But I prefer to do service to truth.”
The Enlightenment age of the essay: Johnson, Addison, Hazlitt, Rousseau. The self as urban voyeur, spectator, listener, gossip (particularly Addison). Or the self as self-exposing freak-show (particularly Rousseau). The Romantic celebration of the self as a unique snowflake, in all its perversity and histrionic peculiarity. Rousseau: ‘I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man myself. Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, I am at least different.”
The Aesthetic age of the essay: Thomas De Quincey, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Walter Benjamin. The intellectual as dandy or flaneur. There are no traditions, only the self parading its originality and the exquisite beauty of its sensations and the wit of its epigrams.
There are two main traditions in the genre of the essay. Those essayists looking for a tradition to support the self and connect it to society (Carlyle, Emerson, Arnold, Orwell, Berger). Or the essayist simply savouring the individual self’s exquisite observations and sensations (Walter Pater).
When all traditions and rules are broken, all one has left are sensations. There is no longer any foundation for the self, no framework, no rule. Self-regarding scepticism was radical for Montaigne and Pascal in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 21st century, it’s just self-indulgent. We don’t need to free ourselves from traditions. We need to find ones we can accept.
What is the intellectual’s relationship to their society? Do they have anything of value to say to their society, as Herzen, Belinsky and Orwell thought, or are they talking to a small Bloomsbury-esque coterie of aesthetes? Are they merely striking poses?
Rousseau bequeathed us the Romantic self, that flapping, flouncy, florid, bangle-shaking, swooning, shrieking, self-admiring, posing, petulant, grotesque creature, freed of all ties, freed of all conventions, freed of all genres, freed of all traditions, freed of everything except the necessity to talk about itself. The Romantic self explores its own discontent, indeed, makes an art of it, without ever really challenging it, because that might involve some work, it might involve following some sort of rule or - heaven forbid - tradition, and the Romantic self’s only rule is ‘always be true to myself’.
The classical essayists were deeply engaged in their politics: think of Seneca, Cicero, Aurelius. The modern essayist is a flaneur, disconnected from their community while ghoulishly observing it. Is there a more pointless figure than the flaneur, or any more ridiculous movement that psychogeography? Both emerge from a weakness of will, an inability to engage with society, a pessimism about one’s ability to change it or influence it, a pessimism therefore about the role of the intellectual, a profound sense of one’s own ridiculousness, and yet also a smug pride in the exquisite refinement of one’s powers of observation, even if these powers are, ultimately, pointless.
An assay, in chemistry, is the analysis of an ore or drug to draw conclusions about its components. Subject for future PhD: the essayist on drugs, as Baconian self-experimenter: De Quincey, Benjamin, Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Will Self, Geoff Dyer.
Subject for future phd: the essayist and sport. Hazlitt’s The Fight, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton on The Rumble in the Jungle, Hemingway on bull-fighting, Roland Barthes on wrestling, Nick Hornby on Arsenal, David Shields on Ichiro. The stoned intellectual, the urban flaneur, has no obvious social role, so goes to watch a game. They put all their intellectual and artistic effort into trying to persuade themselves that this game is a thing of truly great significance. They try to come down to level of the public to get the public’s attention (hey, I’m just a regular guy, I can talk sports) while really celebrating not the sport but your own exquisite powers of observation - aren’t I amazing, I can even make wrestling interesting!
TS Eliot’s Prufrock is the perfect expression of the intellectual as nervous flaneur. But the reason TS Eliot was greater than this, both as poet and essayist, was he moved beyond
the flim-flanning of Prufrock, and managed to engage with his society, and to re-connect his society to a cultural tradition. He created or re-found a tradition for individual consciousness. That took both genius and discipline, which is precisely what other flaneur-essayists lacked. They left us only testaments to their own lack of discipline, their melancholia, the ruins of their selves reflected in the ruins of their work: The Arcade Project, the sequel to De Quincey’s Confessions that never happened, Dyer's film about the ruins of antiquity that he never completed.
In the modern essayist, with honorable exceptions, there is no longer any search for tradition, or sense of work on the self, merely the attempt to maintain the attention of the public with ever more freakish posturing and salacious revelations. The flipside of the Addisonian essay as urban voyeurism is the Rousseau-esque essay as self-exposure in the court of public opinion. The modern craze for misery memoirs like Prozac Nation or James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Redemption through the audience’s attention and approval. The public confessional. There is nothing radical or counter-cultural about this. The moment when it was brave to ‘go public’ with a tale of your personal neurosis has long passed. If this is the best our culture can do, then Kerry Katona deserves to be made poet laureate.
The difference between DH Lawrence and Geoff Dyer is that Lawrence searched all his life for a philosophy, tradition or way of life to redeem himself and his society. Dyer’s ambitions are far, far more modest, his sense of the intellectual is also far more modest. In fact, his sense of the intellectual, of himself, is ridiculous. The intellectual has no role in his society, other than contemplating his own exquisite and exquisitely ridiculous sensations. He frees himself from his society, lives in self-imposed exile, like a 50-year-old Prince Hal hanging out in Goa.
‘I’m never happy doing what I’m doing. Isn’t that interesting, isn’t that funny?’ Well, to an extent.
Dyer’s relationship to institutions: Marxism and the working class, the church, academia, England. Always a moving away from them, an unwillingness to be a member of any club who will have him. Attacking those institutions, yet also wanting their respect, wanting to be respected for creating ‘solid’, ‘respectable’ work.
Dyer attacks conventional forms like the academic book. But because he is so contrarian, so individualistic, he ignores the virtues of being within an institution or a tradition. Academic work is peer-reviewed. It has to follow certain virtues, certain disciplines, such as accuracy, intellectual rigour, fairness, accreditation. Likewise, traditional reportage has to follow certain virtues: accuracy, balance, fairness, intense research, honesty, and the abnegation of the self to the story.
Dyer follows Hunter S Thompson, the great egoist of journalism, who could never find anything more interesting in a story than himself and his own desires. All interest in the outside world - in history, in politics, in science, in anything - becomes blocked by the Romantic self, bloated to ever-more grotesque proportions, sucking everything in like a giant amoeba, leering at us and winking.
The question of truth in the essay. Does it matter if you make stuff up? Shields, in Reality Hunger, insists we’re always making things up, and that the essay is more exciting than the novel precisely because it blurs the distinction between reality and fiction, and makes the reader guess: what is real, what is really happening? So what if James Frey makes stuff up?
But Frey only really made things up about his own life. What if you’re writing about other people and their lives? Would it matter if Truman Capote made stuff up about the murder case from In Cold Blood? If Jon Ronson made up quotes about real people in his books? If Geoff Dyer wildly misquoted DH Lawrence? If David Pease made up quotes by Brian Clough in The Damned United? If Freud made up stuff about Dora? If Johann Hari made up quotes or stole other people’s quotes to make his articles look more lively?
Yes, it matters. It’s about adhering to certain virtues as a writer, and having respect for the reality of your subject matter, and for your readers.
It goes back to the idea of the essay as self-help. How honest are you with yourself, and with your readers? Are you simply describing your self in all its peculiarities, or are you trying not just to describe the self, but to see if you can change it? Are you describing your despair, or making love to it? Are you turning despair into a fashion item?
Despair as literary style: WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn. For all the work's undoubted beauty, the author never seriously challenges their own despair, which reduces their moral authority to pronounce on the world. They dedicate themselves to the perfection of the work. They detach the aesthetic from the ascetic - work on the art from work on the self. Rather than work on the self, they celebrate its dissolution in exquisite literary style, and then tell us that dissolution is the truth of the world, there is nothing else but entropy and failure.
Geoff Dyer on John Berger: “People talk a lot about the Yeatsian distinction between the perfection of the man or the perfection of the work. For Berger, improving himself as a human being was part of the process of improving the work.”
Your relationship to your self defines your relationship to society. What do you have to say to your society? What of worth do you have to teach? What can you bring back from your inner explorations for your society?
Seneca: ‘There is no time for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?"