It lived and died on Grub Street

Brian Dillon, Essayism

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 152pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781910695418

reviewed by Dan Barrow

The essay began – notoriously – as a denizen of the scrap-bin of literature. Montaigne called his efforts, which established the form in European writing, a collection merely of 'tentative attempts' at philosophy, focused on his self, 'a topic so frivolous and so vain' as to waste the reader's time. Addison and Steele's pieces for the Tatler and Spectator were commercial products, dashed off to fill column inches. Samuel Johnson's alternately wandering and stentorian essays for The Idler were scribbled, sometimes in the half-hour before the last post, to keep himself from starvation. The term – this is 'a cliché in critical and journalistic chatter about the form', Brian Dillon opines – derives from the French essayer, ‘to try’; the historical meanings the OED records include ‘A trial, testing, proof; experiment’, ‘An attempt, endeavour’, ‘A rough copy; a first draft’ and ‘an irregular, undigested piece’, according to Johnson.

The history of the essay is one without any of the elements Walter Benjamin pointed to as part of the culture of auratic art: no masterpieces, geniuses or eternal values. Even the pieces that might be thought of as forming a canon of the essay – the works at the heart of Joan Didion's cult, like 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' and 'The White Album', would be good examples – are flawed and provisional, studded with barely subverted clichés, close to the gauche or flippant, but fused into a single differentiated and brittle unity. It cannot pretend to anything resembling the orderly self-closure of classical art, but still longs for it as a distant, ironised ideal. (As it happens, I hate many of the denizens of anthologies of 'classic essays', and don't really care for some of those in Dillon's own canon. It happens.)

If Dillon hardly mentions any of this in Essayism it’s because the book is hardly about essays at all. Among the topics that he addresses in the book's short sections – most less than five pages long – are lists, fragments, memoirs, freelancing, Robert Burton's gargantuan voyage through ontological illness The Anatomy of Melancholy, aphorisms, Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, and his own history of familial grief and depression. Thus Essayism essays formally its own topic – not the essay but a mode of being essayistic: ‘tentative and hypothetical, and yet is also a habit of thinking, writing and living that has definite boundaries… the sense of a genre suspended between its impulses to hazard or adventure and to achieved form, aesthetic integrity.’

Thus what he calls ‘a kind of aggregate feeling about the essay. . . Aggregate, as if dredged up by the bucketload from a gravel pit, or flung together out of waste products, pulverized and repurposed.’ Essayism flows through the forms of the genres Dillon writes about, and absorbs them, after the passing of their historic moment, into the modes and voices the essay can use. If for many critical theorists of modern literature style was the individual and uniting signature that illuminated the fragmentation and disenchantment of experience, essayistic style, in its moment-to-moment breakdown and reconstitution, was where it would receive its most stringent test. As Adorno recognised, the impurity of the essay – neither science nor philosophy nor art – was its strength, giving the lie both to po-faced positivism and an aestheticism divorced from knowledge and the social.

Style has a somewhat different value for Dillon. He admits that, ‘Pushed to say what I value, what I love, in essays and essayists, I sometimes think it is nothing but style.’ But style as it's examined in the form of essayism is deeply subjective: it is what he is ‘stupidly, ruinously susceptible’ to. ‘What exactly do I mean, even, by “style”?’ he asks. ‘Perhaps it is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy access of admiration, a crush.’ Like the definition of ‘obscenity’ in the Lady Chatterley case, style – the substance that ‘you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness’ – can't be defined, but you know it when you see it. (Dillon half-apologises at the book's opening for a tendency for ‘what used to be called formalism, or dismissed as aestheticism’, but it contains hardly any formal analysis of the dry academic type, only the gush of the jobbing book critic.)

Thus essayistic style becomes, in its desperate dialectical tension of ‘[f]orm and texture rescued from chaos’, a form of phenomenology. In perhaps his toughest and most multilayered writing since 2005's In The Dark Room, Dillon relates this aspirational yearning for style to his own history of depression. His mother, he relates, who was afflicted with the disease for years, died of cancer when he was 16, his father a few years later. Modern proponents of the essayistic – Lester Bangs, Didion, Susan Sontag, Barthes – came to his attention through the music-paper writings of Paul Morley and Ian Penman he devoured in those days, resources that he treated ‘as if they promised an escape route from the unexamined horror that had overtaken my family.’ The essayistic embodied a way of gathering coherence from the ‘disaster’ of mortality and illimitable misery and terror without resorting to cliché, through style's ‘obliquity’. This unstable coherence, Dillon suggests at one point, is that of the figural or metaphorical – the capacity of writing to translate things from one state to another – and acts as a definition of the essay's self-consciousness: to not discover a piece of writing's ‘guiding metaphor’, he suggests, is to ‘have failed as it were to write while writing.’ Such coherence finds its apogee in Barthes' mature style beginning with A Lover's Discourse (1975), darting forward with elliptical and aphoristic sentences then just as quickly stepping back with qualification and parenthetical additions. Camera Lucida (1980), written after the death of Barthes' own mother, is the example in which Dillon's drama plays out most starkly. Its unbalanced two-part structure and uneven style resolves into a meditation on the ‘guiding metaphor’ of photography's apertures and light as a wound in time, the punctum, which begins to seem – here perhaps is the subtext of Dillon's appreciation – like an image of essayism itself, dragging wounding details out of the morass of mere facts.

The counterpoint to this consoling coherence is essayism as formal disintegration or ‘dispersal’. That is, the presence of undifferentiated contingency or restless formal fragmentation, not organised by what Nietzsche, writing of Wagner, called ‘the lie of the great style.’ He gives the example of Virginia Woolf's On Being Ill, which ends with an amazing rhetorical swerve into the void, turning to the work of ‘mediocre biographer’ Augustus Hare as merely a piece of the writer's everyday life – ‘the sort of thing one might have read in bed with flu in 1925’ – that nonetheless provides a great image of grief. In a fine, judicious account, he identifies a similar logic in Cyril Connolly's underrated masterwork of self-pity, The Unquiet Grave. Connolly collects quotations from the reading he uses as a procrastination tool, staggering from one overripe aphorism or bleak dérive to another like a flâneur past his prime. In the sentences of Elizabeth Hardwick he finds the kind of deviation and crack-up that Walter Benjamin describes as marking great style (this is Dillon's paraphrase): ‘those in which the whole having been perfectly composed and polished, some element has been botched or excised.’ Thus essayism holds out the image of the self not as some composed, unitary voice, or, to connect it with the experience of depression, as a lonely, suffering individual. The authorial self is not the clichéd figure that so often occupies the central place in the essay – especially in the recent revival of the 'personal essay', memorialised in the vocation of Hannah in Girls – but ‘a cloud of dust or a congregation of fragments’ that blows across the flat surface of the text.

The only problem with these often original and insightful analyses is that, apart from the background of Dillon's life as a son and writer, they're largely free of context and historicisation. The great innovations of the essay form occurred in the context of its own mass production. It never benefited from the kind of (sometimes illusory) aesthetic autonomy achieved by the novel or modernist poetry. It lived and died on Grub Street. This was, Adorno claimed, the source of its power to estrange the culture from which it cannot take its distance: ‘the essay immerses itself in cultural phenomena as in a second nature, a second immediacy, in order through persistence to remove the illusion of immediacy.’ It's very hard to recognise the essayistic values Dillon champions in much of the chaff that drifts across our timelines day to day, whether in the guise of ‘longreads’ or unabashed ‘essays’. And Dillon's value judgements in setting out his canon must have some relation to the externally imposed value distinctions of the culture industry. Common sense says that you're more likely to find good or memorable essays in The New Yorker or NYRB, say, than Hazlitt or The Week, but, as Adorno writes of the car market, this superiority ‘nevertheless itself proceeds from an overall plan which artfully equips the former with better, the latter with worse’ style and ideas; ‘only minor rearrangements in production would be needed’ to turn Zadie Smith, say, into Thomas Friedman.

Essayism, in its formal omnivorousness and fierce self-reflexivity, must have some relation – perhaps even one of negativity – to this surrounding context, but Dillon gives no idea of what it might be. His commitment to subjective judgement is in some ways admirable, but if, as he seems to suggest, the essay is the form in which individuality is at once produced and opened up, then some account of the outside to essayistic subjectivity is surely essential. Nonetheless, Essayism is at its best lithe, dark and a lot smarter than most writing on ‘the essay’ (whatever that term means now).