The word Versuch, attempt or essay...thought's utopian vision of hitting the bullseye is united with consciousness of its own fallibility and provisional character.
--Theodor Adorno, "The Essay as Form"
"I'm looking for The Great Utopia. Do you still have it in stock?" "No, but we have The Rape of Utopia in stock."
--conversation overheard at Guggenheim Museum Shop
1. The poet Tina Darragh has written some of the shortest, best essays I know. Piet Mondrian could write one in a title: "The Arts and the Beauty of our Tangible Surroundings," "Down with Traditional Harmony!," "The Evolution of Humanity is the Evolution of Art." (1) The prose that follows is almost superfluous. On their own, the titles exert aphoristic power. An aphorism is a sudden essay. Darragh's book of what one could call poetic essays, a gain)(2)st the odds, contains formal experiments with a new kind of narrative poetry and ends with "three manifestos": "The Best of Intentions," "Error Message," "Don't Face Off the Fractals (Revisited)." I don't wish to be contentious, but they are not manifestos. They are riddled with interrogatives of the sort the manifesto can't tolerate. Each is three or four pages long and, like John Cage's essays, articulated in part by its spacing on the page. "The Best of Intentions" has this:
While following this line of questioning, I am consoled by the existence of the random function as an ordering principle. We think of "random" as "helter-skelter' but as a programming concept it is used to define parameters within which the direction of diversity is productive.
It's a matter of becoming accustomed to this new mode of organization.
If poetry can be thought of as having a role to play in our culture, one aspect of the job would be to make this random function--as a process, as an organizing agent--visible, tactile, part of our sense of the world. We know we can do it. (2)
The random function exercised by the writer's I reader's mind is the operating principle of the essay as form. One might ask how to understand forms whose pleasure it is to violate or exceed generic expectations. Perhaps the point is not understanding at all, at least not in the sense of grasping. Essays, like poems and philosophical meditations, should elude our grasp just because their business is to approach the liminal spectrum of near-unintelligibility--immediate experience complicating what we thought we knew. In this case, "to write" means to engage in a probative, speculative projection of the often surprising vectors of words as they graze the circumstances of ongoing life. "To read" means to live with the text over the real time of everyday life so it can enter into conversation with other life-projects. Forms that move the imagination out of bounds toward pungent transgressions, piquant unintelligibilities intrude into our tangible surroundings. They maintain an irritating presence, pleasurable or not, as radically unfinished thought. They give the reader real work to do. If the essay is a worthwhile wager it is about startling the mind into action when much is at stake and intelligibility is poor.
Which is to say, the best essay is a puzzle. What's a reader to think when in the course of reading Montaigne's "Of the Power of Imagination" ("A strong imagination creates the event," etc.) she comes upon a section on sexual impotence?
People are right to notice the unruly liberty of this member, obtruding so importunately when we have no use for it, and failing so importunately when we have the most use for it, and struggling for mastery so imperiously with our will, refusing with so much pride and obstinacy our solicitations, both mental and manual. (3)
Is Montaigne conflating penis and pen? For such flagrant erratics the term belles lettres is much too prim.
The history of opinion on the essay is as full of disgust as admiration. Samuel Johnson evokes gastrointestinal disorders gone to the head: "A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition." A century before, Francis Bacon had referred to his own essays as "dispersed meditations." Addison, of Spectator fame, remarked on "the Wildness of those Compositions that go by the Names of Essays." The Petit Larousse--keeper of Montaigne's langue if not his parole--denotes essais as first drafts or "titres de certains ouvrages qui ne pretendent pas epusier un sujet." Think of the degree to which prose styles with built-in grammars of persuasion service the pretense of exhausting the subject. If one avoids this pretense, if the subject is questionable or constantly shifting or densely complex, there is the risk of frustrating the reader who has been trained by the cultural marketplace to expect attractively packaged exhaustion. Every element of style is saying, Don't worry, there's nothing more to it than this. If this is called "essay," its a misnomer.
Despite increasingly efficient exhaustion, or perhaps in dialogue with it, the tradition of the exploratory essay thrives in its improbable universe. If in times of rampant fundamentalism complex thought is a political act, then the essay is at least a poethical wager. The most happily adulterated essays continue to enact attempts and experiments that promise less about outcome than about unexpected, often complicating possibilities noticed in the activity of exploration itself. I value the poethics of "wild" poet-essayists like Tina Darragh, Rosmarie Waldrop, Charles Bernstein, Leslie Scalapino as they, in conspiracy with their exigent and excessive times, reinvent the form to require collaboration with an ardent reader. Since a genre lives first in its composition and then in its realization by those who "perform" it (I take writing and reading to be equally performative acts), the essay text, like the poem, like the musical score, is nothing other than notations for performance. If the tentativeness implie d by the word "essay" is its primary identifying principle, its traces in the text embody the directed random function we call subjectivity.
Early readers of Montaigne noticed the subjective investment his essays enact and invite. Pascal wrote "It is not in Montaigne, but in myself that I find all that I see in him"; and Emerson, "It seemed to me as if I myself had written the book..." Montaigne's essaying was in fact of the nature of lively idiosyncratic, contingent, and digressive conversations with absent friends, a moving play of the senses, intertwining intellectual history and everyday life with rhetorical gestures (countless interrogatives, for example) implying the presence of an interlocutor. And the invention of this form was itself circumstantial. According to Donald Frame, Montaigne only started writing essays after the death of a close friend whose …