Sunday, August 09, 2009

`Yet They Are the Best I Can Do'

I’ve been mulling over how Frank Wilson contrasts Hazlitt and Montaigne, and while my loyalties remain split between the two great essayists, I think Frank is correct in his conclusions:

“Montaigne wrote in order to explore his mind in search of truth. Hazlitt wrote to expound the truth he thought he had arrived at. He has nothing of Montaigne's easy temper and tolerance. He tends to be a wise guy. He never was a wise man.”

All true, and Frank doesn’t even address Hazlitt’s ridiculous politics, but I still admire the man who could write “The Indian Jugglers,” among other things, including these lines:

“What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do.”

This is less humility than Hazlitt’s histrionic false modesty (“a wise guy,” says Frank), but he’s being true to the etymological spirit of the essay as an attempt not necessarily successful. A good essay seems genuinely experimental, never dogmatic, shadowed by the writer and his effort to write it. While I prefer fiction to be somehow finished and self-contained (but for exceptions like Tristram Shandy), in essays I’m fond of a writer showing his hand, allowing the writing of the text to become part of its texture.

On Saturday we took the boys to a Cub Scout model-rocket launch. The site was a vast, flat, treeless park. Across the field, hobbyists were flying radio-controlled airplanes that buzzed like hornets and swooped like swallows. The scouts’ rockets were fueled by a fertilizer-like mixture and ignited with a battery charge. They whistled to an altitude of about 500 feet and drifted back on parachutes. I was bored in about two minutes so I walked to the edge of the field and discovered the hedgerow was mostly blackberry brambles, an old, woody growth with stalks two inches across at the base. Despite our dry summer, the thorny branches were heavy with fruit.

At first I ate what I picked, staining my lips and fingers magenta, then I searched the car for a container and found the fluorescent-orange traffic cones we had used at a bike rodeo two weeks ago. These are the small models – dunce caps for chimps – and I filled four of them. Back home they overflowed our colander – four quarts or more of free, tart-sweet blackberries, more than $15 worth at the grocery. I’m coming back next week with baskets and want to explore the overgrown apple orchard beyond. In Wild Fruits, Thoreau says the blackberry crop reaches its height in Concord around August 18. He writes:

“Surely the high blackberry is the finest berry that we have – whether we find their great masses of shining black fruit, mixed with red and green [that is, unripe berries], bent over amid the sweet fern and sumac on sunny hillsides, or growing more rankly and with larger fruit in low ground and by rich roadsides….they are perfectly fresh, black, and shining, ready to drop, with a spirited juice. Who will pretend that, plucked and eaten there, they are the same with those offered at the tea table? These are among the berries that are eaten by men.”

As I write, my fingers are still stained, seeds are stuck between my teeth and an e-mail has just arrived from Nige:

“So much rain here this summer that the berries and all other fruits are very plump and swollen - I had some Kentish cherries this week that were as large as small plums. And today, on Bookham Common, the blackberries positively voluptuous. I ate quite a few, but had nothing with me to collect them in, sadly (and no one else was picking - such a waste). Besides, I was there principally for the butterflies…”

This damned discursiveness is the essayist’s curse. I favor the elasticity of the form, stitched together, however inadequately, with sound, sensibility and happy serendipity. “Yet they are the best I can do.”


Anonymous said...

Nice and subtle chime between 'discursiveness' and 'curse' - exactly the kind of stitching that makes for good order.

Eric Thomson said...

Another chime which suggests itself is 'essay' and '(a)stray', given the number of discourse words that are metaphors of veering from a path,'diverge', 'deviate', 'digress' among them. De Quincey was a notorious practitioner of often aimless but beguiling vagrancy in his essays, a good example being Charles Lamb (1848), where he orbits his subject for three or four pages then is off on a tangent, the first of which just happens to be a long pot-to-kettle-like diatribe on Hazlitt as essayist.

Frank Wilson said...

I also admire Hazlitt's last words: "Well, I have had a happy life."