20 November, 2017Issue 3535.6The Essay

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Form follows Dysfunction

Nicolas Liney

Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions
138 pp.








The literary essay has always seemed to provoke bemusement and self-doubt in its authors. “What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head”, the self-professedly indolent Yoshida Tenko mused. Michel de Montaigne also excoriated himself in equal measures of self-deprecation, exclaiming “how often and perhaps how stupidly have I extended my book to make it speak of itself!” Both statements are fitting articulations of the doubt and panic that accrue as deadlines loom dangerously nearer and the scrapheap grows higher.

The anxiety of the essayist lies not least in the form’s amorphous nature. Composed of fragments and aphorisms, sporadic and digressive, the essay eludes conventional definition, invariably understood as a personal collocation of disparate themes, motifs and conceits. While this might suggest freedom from the strictures of form and genre – just consult, briefly, Adorno’s ‘Essay as Form’ (1984) at the same time, it requires complete dependence on a personality, the literary ‘I’ that lends meaning and centrality to the essay. William Gass recognised this peculiar elision of self, style and substance: “the hero of the essay is the author in the act of thinking things out, feeling and finding a way; it is the mind in the marvels and miseries of its making, in the work of the imagination, the search for form”. If we talk about the essay, it will naturally involve some level of discussion about the essayist.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism is a compact, lyrical and insightful reflection on essay-writing, not so much on “the practice merely of the form, but an attitude to the form”—the state of ‘being’ essayistic. He explores this relationship between essayist and essay, and particularly between himself, his personal history, and his own essays. Dillon, a formidably versatile writer and professor at the Royal College of Arts, contributes to a growing body of criticism that scrutinises the essay, a reaction to its growing popularity and diversification in recent years. Celebrated essayists such as Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine have introduced us to the poignancies of the ‘lyric essay’, while John D’Agata’s metatextual abuse of objective fact has arguably given rise to the MFA’s latest brand of dubious specialization, ‘creative non-fiction’. This increasing prominence, and problematisation, of the essay has perhaps further obscured any clear sense of its poetics, prompting a redress of the fundamental questions of what, exactly, the essay is and does.

Dillon’s exploration covers all the conventional topoi, and does so self-consciously: the obligatory nod to Montaigne and the well-trod archaeology of the verb essayer—‘to try’ (“a cliché in critical and journalistic chatter about form”); the exaltation of the fragmentary and incomplete; the rejection of deductive logic; the tentative construction of a canon, of sorts—Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag. But this is a preliminary and perfunctory excursus. Dillon acknowledges this: “I know too well how that particular essay on essays gets written”.  Instead, he focuses on “what used to be called formalism, or dismissed as aestheticism”. Indeed, Essayism could easily have been retitled ‘Stylism’, something that is admitted to, unreservedly, early on: “I am stupidly, ruinously susceptible to a certain artifice at the levels of structure, syntax and sound”. Style, at its most fundamental potency, is what binds the essayist and essay together, balancing in equipoise “form and texture, rescued from chaos”.

This elevation of the aesthetic is an almost heretical notion in a world of object-oriented and hermeneutic-centred criticism, but one that is vitally important for Dillon’s conception of the essay. It is through the acrobatics of style that the components of an essay are corralled, contained and conferred, but, more crucially, it is through style that the Weltanschauung of the essayist can be revealed. It is quickly made clear that we will be talking about the minutiae of essay-writing, scouring an array of belletrist essayists for examples of chiasmus, parataxis, aphorism, metaphor, and the formal qualities of layout, especially the list (beloved by Georges Perec). There are close, playful readings of Elizabeth Hardwick’s comma placement, of Gass’ “immoderately euphonic” assonance and alliteration, and a masterful examination of Cyril Connolly’s pert aphorisms and epigrams (“an adept, and addict, of minor modes”), and the ways in which these elements are employed and manipulated to bind, structure and give meaning to the essay.

But essayistic flair has more pressing ramifications for Dillon than just the attractive curation of bon-mots. Just as literary style became something of a religious quality for Gustave Flaubert (or, perhaps, religion became a certain quality of style), so too does it retain something salvific and redemptive for Dillon, a force that comes from life experience, but also that which transforms and translates experience into ordered meaning and coherency. Dillon has no qualms in reflecting on his experiences of early bereavement, suicidal depression and medication, and the vicissitudes of relationships, which he refracts through the books and authors that provided consolation and direction along the way, from NME music journalism to Barthes’ Camera Lucida. While on the one hand this produces the effect of a Biographia Literaria jotted on the back of a medical prescription—William Styron and Julia Kristeva with Prozac—it also serves to draw convincing parallels between the language and stylistic elements of the essay and individual experience. Just as the essay dances between coherence and dispersal, all the while battling to avoid cliché, so too does the self, “a cloud of dust or congregation of fragments that may seem at certain points to cohere, to take shape, but will fly apart again without warning”. The task at hand is to collect and arrange the fragmentary, an echo of Augustine’s mandate to ‘gather up the fragments, so that they will not perish’ (colligite fragmenta, ne pereant).

If this seems a bit rich, well, at times it is—riding through Moorgate one morning, Dillon asks “is it overstating things to say that the sound of broken glass had become the soundtrack to my life?”—but fundamentally, it gives a delicate exploration of the construction of identity, both on and off the page, and the interaction between both. This is most acutely felt in Dillon’s own self-reflection, but there are amusing, vivid literary biographies of the essayists that he touches on: Cyril Connolly—a “phenomenal baby in a pram” according to V.S. Pritchett—was “a monster of sloth and self-regard” who bred malodorous lemurs and obsessed over failure, and transformed his laconic oral wit into compendia of aphorisms and adages, master of the “elegant, unruly form”. Susan Sontag’s diaries reveal coterminous anxieties about her personal, sexual and emotional life, and her literary persona and professional life, each bleeding into the other: “desire itself and the desire to write remain trammeled together all through the decades of her diarism”.  Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century physician, collector and writer, harboured a curiosity and mental acumen that could comfortably maneuver through magnetism, coral, crystallography and ballistics. He wrote essays that hovered between personal observation and scientific logic, manifesting in paratactic, list-like treatises, “an elaborate microcosm that freezes in an image some version of the world outside the collection.” These brief biographical sketches point out the importance of the writer’s life, not so much as a matter of subject or theme, but of method, style and praxis of transcription.

What of the essay itself, then? What Dillon is reluctant to address is the essay’s direct relationship to the cultural framework it exists within, or more specifically, its various modes of production, chiefly the magazine, periodical and review. Perhaps this lies outside the boundaries of his subject, but on the other hand, it ought to be unavoidable. Already in the 1930s Katherine Fullerton Gerould was decrying the “spectacle of old-line magazines betraying their literary habit, and stuffing us, month after month, with facts and figures,” and Philip Larkin in the 1980s lamented the “extinction” of the essay, a vestige of a past world that had “called for a plethora of dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies, all having to be filled”. Essay writing has always been tethered to a specific audience and medium, from magazines such as the Spectator and Idler to contemporary blog culture. Today, a large portion of literary audiences have migrated to the digital world, which has precipitated changes in form, style and literary self-presentation, tending towards the solipsistic and narcissistic, or as the publishers of Davy Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot (2004) put it more diplomatically, “in the tradition of David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley”, less the assemblage of the fragmentary than of caricatured memoir. Essayistic style itself adapts and evolves, as the aphorism’s relation to the tweet, for instance, shows. These are questions that Essayism prompts, but passes over. However, with so much literary energy embroiled in such enquiries, it is perhaps with a sigh of relief that they do remain unaddressed. Dillon’s Essayism is a quiet and forceful triumph, an attractive, smart defence of stylistic subjectivity and aestheticism, and its direct bearing on life, themes too often ignored or slighted in the wake of anaesthetizing theoretical frameworks.


Nicolas Liney is reading for a Dphil in Classics at Christ Church College.