A Ring of Echoes

Thomas Karshan & Kathryn Murphy (eds.), On Essays: Montaigne to the Present

Oxford University Press, 400pp, £75.00, ISBN 9780198707868

reviewed by Erin McFadyen

In their introduction to On Essays: Montaigne to the Present, author-editors Kathryn Murphy and Thomas Karshan invoke the voice of the American poet and essayist Rachel Blau du Plessis, who writes on the essay from the perspective of a practitioner. ‘Given,’ as Blau du Plessis puts it, ‘that the essay is all margin, marginalia, and interstitial writing, it rearranges, compounds, enfolds, and erodes the notion of the centre in textually fruitful ways.’ Blau du Plessis asks where the voice — and the hand — of the author might go in the act of essaying, given that so much of the essay is citation, reference, and gesturing outwards. In Murphy’s and Karshan’s act of prosopopoeia, here, the contribution that this volume makes to the field of scholarship on the essay is, at once, both explained and enacted.

Single-authored volumes on the essay — as a genre, a mode, an attitude — have flowed thick and fast in recent times from both university and trade presses. We might trace this line of work, I think, from Claire de Obaldia’s The Essayistic Spirit in the mid-90s through to Brian Dillon’s earnest, self-reflexive Essayism in 2017 — and onwards, on doubt. These have followed in the wake of increased public awareness of the essay as a form, and of essay collections — which itself has been cultivated by a number of big-name essay collections released by major publishing houses (4th Estate’s Joan Didion collection, Let me Tell You What I Mean, Penguin’s release of Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror with Random House come to mind), and perhaps also by the rise of the personal essay as a mode of internet-writing. This is to say that the field of study on the essay, like the form itself in most accounts, teems; it spills over in multiplicity, speaks plurally, and delights in digression, rather than working to tell a single history which ends in some firm ‘conclusion.’

So, too, does this edition itself resist univocality. Its contributions work from multiple historically-located conceptions of the essay, for a start. Though Murphy and Karshan concede, in their introductory statement, that most histories of the essay begin with Montaigne, Warren Boutcher’s ‘The Montaignian Essay and Authored Miscellanies,’ for one, makes a compelling case for a longer, broader history. Boutcher contends that ‘what has perhaps been lost in contemporary criticism is a sense of how the essay [is] embedded…in a much broader European tradition of various and miscellaneous writing that long preceded Montaigne, that included him, and that continued long after him.’ His story is that the British essay of this time developed in response not only to Montaigne, but to a longer tradition of ‘miscellaneous’ writing and knowledge-transmission. For Boutcher, this tradition begins in antiquity, with Juvenal, Horace, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Aelian’s medley of stories about animals. It is transmitted through the European Renaissance as ‘a heterogenous, occasional, spontaneous, irregular form of writing attributable to a single, authorial ‘miscellanist’, and then is expressed by Montaigne and those who took (and take) up his gauntlet. And, yet, Murphy and Karshan also include amongst their volume a great many contributions which foreground Montaigne’s position as the usual ‘founding figure’ for the essay. There is, emphatically, no particular version of the essay’s history which is favoured in the volume as a whole — which is to say, in Boutcher’s terms, that the collection itself works in the essayistic tradition, more like a ‘registry’ in its random assortedness than a systematic encyclopaedia.

One chapter which emphasises the foundational role of Montaigne, contra Boutcher, is Murphy’s own contribution, ‘Of Sticks and Stones: The Essay, Experience, and Experiment.’ In it, Murphy tells a story about the essay’s engagement with the immediacy of felt experience. In telling this story, she also gives a beautiful, original counter-argument to Adorno’s oft-cited formulation of the essay as, in Murphy’s words, the ‘locus of resistance to science and enlightenment.’ Aligning the interest of Montaigne, and the English-language inheritors of his tradition, in the experiential with the intellectual climate of their times, Murphy contends that ‘it is no accident that [this writing] arises at the same time as philosophical empiricism, nor that Francis Bacon was both the first to publish ‘essays’ in print in England, and the originator of experimental science.’ This perspective, like several others in the book, radically revises our most pervasive accounts of the essay’s genesis and development. Adorno’s vision of the essay is a central point in so many undergraduate courses and anthologies. Murphy’s counter-formulation is compelling and convincing — and, thus, might signal some radical revisions to the way we teach and think about essays in the coming years.

If Murphy sketches out the essay’s interest in empiricism, Markman Ellis makes it methodologically significant in his own writing. Making a case for the relationship between The Spectator’s daily essaying and print newspaper culture in the 18th century (and, thus, to modernity and its material processes of mass production) Ellis makes it his business to actually sit down and read The Spectator in the rhythm in which it was published. ‘Beginning in March 2010,’ he writes, ‘more or less 299 years after The Spectator first appeared, I read one paper a day, Sundays excepted, until December 2011, with essay No 555, first published on 6 December 1712.’ This method of consumption, he finds, allows him to feel more clearly the ‘miscellany’ — an echo of Boutcher — of the editions, and their meandering course through topics related by chance or perhaps by nothing very much, at all.

A certain meandering, and a ring of echoes between constituent parts, might also describe the relation of each chapter to the others, in this edition. There is certainly a pleasure — and pleasure, contends Scott Black in his chapter, has often been the essay’s highest aim — in hearing the consonance between chapters, where you might least expect it. There’s an even sharper pleasure, perhaps, in hearing the slight dissonances. Though the chapters are, broadly speaking, arranged chronologically, each often seems to be also in a broader kind of conversation with those immediately surrounding it. The question of the essay’s epistemological slipperiness — its modulation between the facts of sensed experience and the imaginative, and its habit of placing fictional narrators in the real, social world within which it operates — is traced through the coffee-houses frequented by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (or their avatars), the ‘familiar’ essays of Charles Lamb, and as far as Claudia Rankine’s use of the second person. This commingling of the factive and fictional can also be heard in chapters taking on the coincidence of the essay and the novel in modern Anglophone literature, including Scott Black’s piece on Tristram Shandy, Michael Wood’s account of essayism in the contemporary British novel, and Bharat Tandon’s contention that the essayistic ‘offers novelists such as Eliot and Hardy a distinctive means of engaging with those broader aesthetic and cultural debates about knowledge and proof, belief and unbelief, which their novels both reflect and enact.’

The essay’s apparent torn-heartedness between the ‘retreat’ from cosmopolitan centres and an embrace of intense urban sociality ripples through diverse contributions from Ophelia Field and Gregory Dart. It is also worked obliquely through Tom F. Wright’s figuration of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays as informed by ‘a triangular relationship between speaker, reader, and a wider audience often imagined as a crowd of listeners.’ I thought about ‘retreat’ — and the essay’s ambivalent insistence that one’s immediate surrounds might be the best grounding of a view — while reading the volume at my home in Sydney. I do wonder, as such, if the collection might also have included work on the essay in the literary culture of my own immediate surrounds. What of the essay in Australia — or in New Zealand, Canada? What of the essay in non-Anglophone cultures (like Montaigne’s)? In practice, of course, an anthology which included work to address every possible reader’s own context would look less like a thoughtful collection, and instead take a form more shapeless and without centre. Perhaps this would just be the internet. Perhaps, the essay is inexhaustible, and as such it may be right, in a way, that any collection on it should be limited in scope: Adorno has it, after all, that the essay ‘stops where it is finished, not where there is nothing left to say.’ This also leaves the door open for more writing in the margins of this collection itself: more essaying to come.

Karshan and Murphy don’t set it out as such explicitly, but the collection also implies a new horizon for what ‘essaying’ itself might be — a horizon hinted at in their introductory citation of Rachel Blau du Plessis. What happens on the microcosmic level of this citation is that the authors (three of them, perhaps, here) both sketch out a vision of the essay, and act out that same vision, at once. That is, they both say what it is to essay, and do that essaying, if we take this action to be something like speaking through accumulated citation. They speak of multiplicity, and they speak multiply; in a whirling, harmonic, pluralistic voice. With this in mind, I wonder in what respect Murphy and Karshan’s editorial practice may itself have been a kind of ‘essaying’: a process of citation, of ‘writing on’ and upon, of digression, association, and conversation both transhistorical and intensely particular.

Erin McFadyen is a writer and educator based between Sydney and the UK. She recently completed an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Cambridge, and her work can be found in publications including Running Dog, Art & Australia, Sudo Journal and Artist Profile, where she is currently Principal Writer.