Friday, April 30, 2010

`Small Experiments'

While digging through the planner/student handbook of the seventh-grader I tutor twice a week, looking for assignments he had lost or hidden, I came across this writerly wisdom in a section titled “Tackling Essays” (can we, finally, declare a moratorium on sports metaphors?):

“An essay is basically a long, one-sided argument – without anyone arguing back or getting mad at you, of course. When you write an essay, you set out to make one single point about something. You’ll say what this point or argument is (that’s your thesis) in your introduction, and you’ll spend the rest of your essay explaining and supporting this one point.”

No wonder kids can’t write and don’t read. By this definition, essays, the most elastic, voluble and unplotted form, more closely resemble syllogisms than experiments. No longer attempts, as Montaigne suggested, they would aspire to become solutions. Essays reduced to “one single point” sound as humanly and linguistically compelling as quadratic equations. The most pleasureful essays (a favorite adjective of Dr. Johnson’s, defined in the Dictionary as “pleasant; delightful”) are quiet surprises from first word to last. To call an essay “experimental” ought to be redundant. Boswell reports in his Life:

“My readers will not be displeased at being told every slight circumstance of the manner in which Dr. Johnson contrived to amuse his solitary hours. He sometimes employed himself in chymistry, sometimes in watering and pruning a vine, sometimes in small experiments, at which those who may smile, should recollect that there are moments which admit of being soothed only by trifles.”

Essays are small experiments, at least in the hands of Johnson, Lamb, Chesterton and Guy Davenport. Perhaps I’m “soothed only by trifles” but they’re preferable to “long, one-sided argument[s],” which comes closer to describing most blogs.

1 comment:

Reed Sanders said...

This is nicely written but, we should note, does argue a consistent point from first paragraph to last. That's fine, I think - a legitimate style of essay. In other cases, essays are longer "experiments" in which the author somehow meanders in interesting ways, discovering something important along the way, like a squire traipsing through the countryside. I think the point is to teach our children that both these styles (and probably some others) are legitimate if artfully done. The real trick isn't teaching the essays, it's teaching the art.