More on the essay

Many thanks to those of you who suggested essay collections in response to yesterday’s post. You all reminded me of some of my favorite works and gave me quite a few names I hadn’t heard of. My to-be-read list is now that much longer.

I decided to take a look at the Introduction to Phillip Lopate’s collection The Art of the Personal Essay and was reminded of how great the intro is and how wonderful essays are. Here are a few quotations:

The essay form as a whole has long been associated with an experimental method. This idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writings. To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed. The experimental association also derives from the other fountainhead of the essay, Francis Bacon, and his stress on the empirical inductive method, so useful to the development of the physical sciences.

There is something heroic in the essay’s gesture of striking out toward the unknown, not only without a map but without certainty that there is anything worthy to be found. One would like to think that the personal essay represents a kind of basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy.


The self-consciousness and self-reflection that essay writing demands cannot help but have an influence on the personal essayist’s life. Montaigne confessed at one point that “in modelling this figure upon myself, I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape. Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” Thus the writing of personal essays not only monitors the self but helps it gel. The essay is an enactment of the creation of the self.

In the final analysis, the personal essay represents a mode of being. It points a way for the self to function with relative freedom in an uncertain world. Skeptical yet gyroscopically poised, undeceived but finally tolerant of flaws and inconsistencies, this mode of being suits the modern existential situation, which Montaigne first diagnosed. His recognition that human beings were surrounded by darkness, with nothing particularly solid to cling to, led to a philosophical acceptance that one had to make oneself up from moment to moment.

Still, we must not make excessive claims. The essay is not, for the most part, philosophy; nor is it yet science. How seriously ought we to take its claims of being experimental? It lacks the rigor of a laboratory experiement; it does not hold on to its hypotheses long enough to prove them. But it is what it is: a mode of inquiry, another way of getting at the truth.

It strikes me, upon reading this, that blogging can be very much like writing personal essays. Can’t writing a blog be a mode of inquiry? Can’t it be experimental, maybe even more so than a personal essay? It is like a personal essay in the sense that the writer can try out ideas, experiment with ideas, create and shape the self like Lopate says an essay can, and it is unlike the personal essay in the way it can be communal, a group form of inquiry, or, at least, a form of inquiry that allows input from others. What else is a blog, but a way of making oneself up from moment to moment?

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