Essays Have No Great Meaning; They Exist to Discover, Not Decree

Cape Times (South Africa), June 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Essays Have No Great Meaning; They Exist to Discover, Not Decree


No doubt, the first time you heard the word "essay" it was at school and, to varying degrees of discomfort, it was a part of the arsenal required for you to pass high school.

Learning a word at school often augurs badly for the concept it shorthands.

Although I didn't have a horror of writing essays - mine were confined to things mathematical - I didn't realise until very late in life that essays are a deeply satisfying way to spend reading time, on top of being an amusing way to learn new ways of looking. For the essay - though many things - has very special powers of observation, afforded it by its elastic form, and its tolerance of both heart and head in its discursions.

An essay is nothing at all like the things you had to do at school. And if you haven't read Normal Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, David Sedaris, Siri Hustvedt, David Wallace Foster, Joan Didion and Dave Eggers, then you won't know just how different the two types of "essay" are.

Oh, and Montaigne, of course. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Not, I admit, that I have read Montaigne's essays, but I am currently reading a book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live.

It is a biography of Montaigne, but approached by looking at the questions he asked and the answers he explored.

"Explored" - not "found". Because an essay exists to discover, not to decree.

Bakewell says Montaigne's essays "have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please with it".

Though some might find this too inconclusive, too fuzzy, his essays were a best-seller in his time and continue to be read 400 years later.

Montaigne is considered the father of the essay because that's what he called his work - a kind of writing that had not been seen before. …

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