What is an Essay and Who is Montaigne?

[flickr id=”6895014994″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”]

My first class at Columbia was on a Monday night with Professor David Lazar. It was History of the Essay, a class that exposed me to everything from Montaigne to Anne Carson to Simone Weil and Roland Barthes. The class is designed to dig deep into the heart of an essay, to find out what it means to be an essayist and what it means to essay while writing.  The essay is most often considered the center of the nonfiction genre, the starting point for the field. The class allows students to survey a wide range of writers and voices associated with the history of the form.

What is an essay? An essay is not that thing that you write when responding to a book or at the end of a course. It is not a research paper, though you can include research. The essay is a journey into a writer’s mind, a writer thinking on the page, allowing the reader to travel alongside them. To essay stems from the French word, essai, which means, simply, “to try.” The essence of an essay is the trying. Georg Lukacs writes, “[The essay] is a judgment, but the essential, the value determining thing about it is not the verdict . . . but the process of the judgment.” The essay is about the process of the writer and, more specifically, their process of exploring a subject on the page. An essay then becomes, for me, a form in which the writer journeys toward a topic, toward an idea that has been nudging them. The essay unravels when a writer begins to record their thoughts and observations. An essay doesn’t know where it’s going, doesn’t know its end result. Oftentimes a writer begins with an idea of how an essay might turn out and writes themselves off the path that they intended to take, digressing and transitioning between topics. But, at the center of an essay is a driving question or an idea that the essayist wishes to uncover, to sift through.

[flickr id=”7041090667″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”false” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”]

History of the Essay begins with the Collected Works of Michel de Montaigne. Michel de Montaigne is basically the grandfather of the traditional essay. Montaigne is the Nonfiction writer’s base, or at least in this Nonfiction program, he is our base, our starting point. In his essay, “Of Books,” Michel de Montaigne requests that his readers respond “not to the matter,” but to “the shape” that he is giving his ideas. He is not as much concerned with the idea that the essay starts with (the matter), but the journey that the essay takes (the shape). His writing is a mixture of aphoristic bits, list and journals, all of which are used to construct and build upon a central idea within any given essay. Walter Benjamin, another essayist introduced to me during History of the Essay,  often walked around, taking notes and recording what he saw in the world around him. This lends to the idea that the essay is fragmented and disjointed, words pressing against each other to create meaning. Language, like the images that we see in the world around us, when pressed together can create contradiction. The essay, then, is a series of images, strewn together, threaded together, and collaged, aiming to simultaneously enhance an idea and contradict it.

So the essay is messy at times, doesn’t know where it is going, and aims “to try” to get somewhere, to some meaningful place. The History of the Essay and the texts introduced to me during the course of this class taught me just this, “to try,” to journey through my ideas, to digress, to be messy, and to allow my ideas to expand and contract and to expand again on the page. This is the essay. This is Nonfiction at its starting point, a little messy, a little contradictory, but going somewhere and always working toward, trying to get at a larger idea, trying to make sense of what it sees.