Thursday, 29 June 2017

On Precision in the Essay

Subsequent to the previous post the editor of Essay Daily asks:
Hey Michael,

Craig here - I edit this series and am interested in your statement here, "I write this in the interests of precision which is a feature of the essay form". Is precision necessarily a feature of the essay form? I'm not so sure it is, at least not in many of the forms an essay may take.

Anyway, if you ever see this, I wonder if you might expand on this idea a bit.


Craig (Reinbold)

Hello Craig,
It is certainly a feature of the classical essay. I’m thinking here of Montaigne, Bacon, Johnson. They often attempt an analysis of some topic or a received opinion. Hazlitt asks himself - ‘what is skill really and how does it differ from art’. They want to clarify for themselves as much as for you.

Try Coleridge’s Essays in The Friend

Even the modern essay if a collection from 1922 can be called modern respects the overwhelming givenness of the fact and its lineaments. Augustine Birrell writing about Carlyle:
No one at all acquainted with his writings can fail to remember his almost excessive love of detail; his lively taste for facts, simply as facts.

There is a secular reverence in precision. It genuflects before the fact but if it stops there cannot inspire. Samuel Butler in his Ramblings in Cheapside considers the turtle and its defensive apparatus and concludes that he cannot really understand the beast until he consumes it but not having the half-crown to purchase it must move on: to metempsychosis.

Best Wishes,


skholiast said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ombhurbhuva said...

I haven’t read Berger but I will rectify that. Looking at his Wikipedia entry I see that he has quite a varied body of work. I associated him with just the famous ‘Ways of Seeing’ on the BBC.

I think of the essay as finding the cathedral in a side chapel or in a rubbed away foot of of Saint’s statue. Are there any Americans that work in that form that you would recommend?

skholiast said...

Reposting this comment (and deleting the original), (which will now seem strange because out-of-chronological order, but it hs to be done) because I accidentally omitted a "not" in the first sentence:

Precision is not opposed to a respect for deep, even ontological, messiness, or to the genuine acknowledgment of the limits of what can be made articulate; it is opposed to sloppiness, which is simply a lack of care for the matter at hand. One of the great masters of the essay form in modern letters says it very well:

"Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.... If a writer is not driven by a desire for the most demanding verbal precision, the true ambiguity of events escapes him."
-- John Berger, Credibility and Mystery

skholiast said...

Oh, and as to which Americans ... I take it you mean, aside from Emerson?

Yes. Among the recently departed, Guy Davenport. Among the living, Marilynne Robinson. For starters.