“A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play. Though it is written in prose, it is closer in kind to poetry than to any other form. Like a poem, a genuine essay is made out of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance.”
As I write, it’s a little like camping. The movers arrived Tuesday with nine thousand pounds of stuff that hasn’t shared space under one roof in four years. My middle son’s desk holds the desktop computer and a tangle of cables and cords. After a day of lugging around boxes of books and canned goods, words come as a relaxing diversion.
“The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”
This room, my soon-to-be office/library, is a mazy mess. To reach the desk I navigate canyons of book-filled boxes. I'm stripping the tape from boxes I haven’t opened in more than nine months, hoping for an omen in the first book I see: C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
“The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.”
I flip at random through Cavafy: “I’ve looked on beauty so much / that my vision overflows with it.” That’s a thought that would never occur to me. I tend to think the world overflows with beauty, not my vision. I just pay attention.
“No one is freer than the essayist—free to leap out in any direction, to hop from thought to thought, to begin with the finish and finish with the middle, or to eschew beginning and end and keep only a middle. The marvel of it is that out of this apparent causelessness, out of this scattering of idiosyncratic seeing and telling, a coherent world is made. It is coherent because, after all, an essayist must be an artist, and every artist, whatever the means, arrives at a sound and singular imaginative frame—or call it, on a minor scale, a cosmogony.”
There’s no hurry to unpack so many books, though I’m anxious to reacquaint myself with many of them, like long-absent friends: Guy Davenport, all of Chekhov, the rest of Beckett, Herodotus, Liebling, Ben Jonson, Babel, La Rochefoucauld and the others. They’re stacked in the middle of the room, and the walls are lined with empty shelves – satisfying work, homecoming.
[The quoted passages are from Cynthia Ozick’s “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,” the best essay I know about essays, collected in Quarrel & Quandary, 2000.]