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The art of living essayistically

The most fascinating parts of Dillon's essays on the essay are about how the genre embodies a different form from the literary.


When essays are mentioned, there are the classics many think of – Montaigne, Woolf, Emerson – but is it not possible to think of a more comprehensive essayism? Brian Dillon's little book on the essay is a poignant little matter, deeply rooted in the essay as a brief forsøk, but even more strongly rooted in an ambition to think beyond literary. Many of the leading essays on the essay try to find something general about this genre, but it is the particularity of the essay, that which breaks with the general, that characterizes the essayist, says Dillon, and perhaps quotes the very best essay on the essay: Theodor Adornos The essay as a form.

The essay as a list. One of the pages of Dillon's reflections that interests me most – and which sets him apart from most essay theorists – is the link between lister and the essay. The essay, he writes, is a way of charting what he wants; what he desires or has not yet understood. In this way, the essay can be regarded as a way of storing its curiosity or desire. The art of the essay – which may be its essence – becomes juxtaposed and narrative when presented as a process. The course, as such, is the very binding substance in the list-making: the way the author takes through the constituents of the list, ultimately constitutes the form of the narrative whole.

Dillon corresponds in this way to the art writer Jerry Salz, who says that "writing is a way of finding out what I really think." You may well be in possession of all the constituents, but the totality of them and the connection between them first occurs when you write through the list inventory, with the written essay's suggested route as a guideline.

A tale of risk. The essay is also, explains Dillon, a low-threshold thinker who can bring out hidden treasures. Since the purpose is not to perform optimally, but rather without obligation and openly; To narrow a case (or multiple cases) from multiple sides based on the method of approach and the policy of the subjective interest, the fear of dumbing down or saying something unwise will be considerably less than otherwise. The risk of thinking, because you want to be compared to everyone else who has previously thought about the same, is adjusted along the way of writing through a systematic wonder and naive discoverability that overcomes the requirement to be smart (or smartest).

It is du who thinks in the essay, that is from experience and thought unfolding: You are not the voice of history or tradition-heavy learning. 

If we think of academia, where we would like to know all other literature on the subject being rewritten, the essay is freely presented – there is no obstacle to being a scholar, but whether you want to write about peace of mind without being familiar with Seneca, who wrote the paradigmatic text of antiquity on the subject, it is not a glove, either. It is du who thinks in the essay, that is from experience and thought unfolding: You are not the voice of history or tradition-heavy learning. Therefore, there is also a striking ease in the essay, according to Dillon, which can lift us beyond what we would normally be able to present or think – simply because, if we follow essayism's demand for freedom, we think without fear of others (or our own) judgment.

Dillon certainly follows her own creed here – he swings around one topic after another, and then jumps on, over and over again. Some would certainly consider this superficial, but this ease, this brief touch, is also uplifting for the reader: it draws us into the author's fascination circle without loosing us down with reflection.

Dillon quotes perhaps the very best essay on the essay: Theodor Adornos The essay as a form.

The Alliances of Essayism. Which brings us to the perhaps most important element of the ease of essayism. Because even if the writer can touch anything, and fiddle and tail fearlessly around with the pen, it is at the same time a responsibility to the reader. We must join in the journey, we too. Not as writers – at least not in the first place – but as walkers in the landscape the essayist has drawn. If we are to think in the end of the places he takes us to, we must self become essayists in the head, yes, we must self continue the walk.

Dillon describes the essay's juxtaposition of themes and textual excursions with friezes: figures on a surface that remain dead, unless the viewer adds their own narrative. Or, more precisely, if not the reader, recount what he is told: “Because there is not exactly a frieze with disconnected cells in question; something or someone must connect the released elements. ”This one some er you, that is, the reader. Again: the ease of essayism is a freedom for the writer, but at the same time implies a responsibility for the reader. This creates an alliance between the writer and the reader, because if the text can function as something more than text – as something we can learn from, as a paradigmatic form – the reader must take the challenge to form the alliance essay always offers reader.

A way of life. "The essence of the essay is not about filtering out the eternal of the passing; rather, it will make it transient forever. ”Dillon's way of thinking the essay not only has to do with writing, but with mild. To seize the trivial and seemingly insignificant – but especially the whim or the unfounded experiment – revolves around a philosophy of life, where established knowledge must always be adjusted and tested through play and spontaneity. We will come no way if we only remain by our reading, linked to what we can. We must rather, suggests Dillon, let us think about what we encounter on our way. This is how we can find a way of life in the form of the essay, an ethics rather than a literary genre.

The ease of essayism is a freedom for the writer, but at the same time implies a responsibility for the reader.

For an essay is not just an essay, a text, but a marker of an alliance: a contract between reader and author who has the text as a medium, but transcends – if we really get something out of it – the text itself. This is where Dillon excels – when he uses the essay to break out of the literary essay form. When he uses this form to find other liberating forms – ethical, philosophical, life-technical – that the essay nevertheless helps to enrich, develop or serve as a model for.

Isn't that true, Dillon suggests, that the basic ethos of essay form is also a way of life, a way of life, a way of thinking, a practical philosophy?

At least I'm convinced.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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