The Art of the Personal Essay (a book review)
Food is a tricky thing. When we see a feast laid out before us, we naturally want to dive in and enjoy. But we might not be ready for the repast. Items that look familiar–chicken, say–turn out to be goose or some other unexpected dish; How are the courses seasoned–with salt, pepper, cumin, humor, anger, or fantasy? And do we really have to eat it all now? Couldn’t we put aside the caviar, or at least the foie gras, for later?
RT has been munching his way gradually through The Art of the Personal Essay (ed. Philip Lopate). It is a rich, rich meal, with a wide variety of authors and subjects: Max Beerbohm, Mary McCarthy (on American Communism in the 1930s), Michel de Montaigne (on love), Robert Louis Stevenson (on marriage); and Virginia Woolf (on the streets of London at night), among others.
There is much to satisfy a bored palate here–and much to challenge even an enthusiastic digestion. So far, RT’s favorite piece is Mary McCarthy’s “My Confession,” a droll, cutting, learned, and at times diffident essay on the social realities of being an American intellectual in the 30s and facing up to the realities of Communism in Russia. To what shall RT compare it? A Parisian Steak et Frites, perhaps: filling, substantial, and with enough spice to keep the reader turning the pages. This essay reminds RT of how hard it can be to fight a social/political trend (especially as a young person) and how much America has changed during the intervening decades. It’s hard to imagine any wealthy society today giving itself over to the political and cultural debates of the Depression. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine intellectuals having anywhere near the clout they had at that time.
And RT had forgotten what it’s like to read Montaigne, whose essay, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” is widely regarded as the masterpiece of the greatest essayist who ever lived. This essay, which epitomizes MM’s technique, is a plea for tolerance and a learned questioning of philosophical certainty (& touches on RS only briefly). MM wanders, let’s his ideas take him where they will, and peppers his words liberally with classical quotations. There’s no question here: we’re looking at roast beef with potatoes and endives. Bring a very hungry stomach and probably several days to make your way through Montaigne’s writing. You will emerge a better person than when you started.
As Lopate points out in his introduction, there is a contrarian streak in essayists, a thoughtfulness, a self-deprecating humor, and a need to challenge the certainties and hysteria of the moment. The essay can therefore be looked on as the wisest of literary forms, the one that most clearly reflects our experience (both personal and historic) and the desire to make things better. It is the product of a the most constructive kind of a leisure, a leisure that is increasingly hard to find: an isolation and an eloquence turned to account (or an accounting of a life). A good essay challenges us in the gut, And yet it also sustains us. Maybe the advent of blogging will help turn the tide and spread the life of culture and the mind farther afield than possible before.
Thank you, Mr. Lopate! RT
Image: A portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592). WikiCmns; Public Domain.