“An essay is a walk, an excursion, not a business trip.”
The only itinerary the best essays heed is serendipity. Route and destination are plotted by the GPS of sensibility, not a thesis. Unplanned is not the same as aimless. The seasoned traveler trusts his feet and never hurries to get home and go to bed. Call it creative dawdling. Joseph Epstein titled his 1992 essay collection A Line Out for a Walk. In his “Note on the Title,” Epstein identifies his source as Paul Klee and says: “A subject is all the familiar essayist needs. Character, point of view, observation, past reading, these he has, or ought to have, in his kit.”
The quote at the top was written by Michael Hamburger (1924-2007), a German-born English poet I know as the translator of Paul Celan and a character in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. You’ll find it in “An Essay on the Essay,” collected in Testimonies: Selected Shorter Prose 1950-1987 (Carcanet, 1989). Here, Hamburger extends his walking metaphor:
“. . .this essay passes over a certain field—but with no intention of surveying it. This field will not be ploughed or cultivated. It will remain a meadow, wild. One walker is interested in wildflowers, another in the view, a third collects insects. Hunting butterflies is permitted—everything except the intentions of surveyors, farmers, speculators.”
And yet he describes the essay as “an outmoded genre,” but promptly seems to reverse himself by adding, parenthetically: “(`Form’ is what I almost wrote, but the essay is not a form, has no form; it is a game that creates its own rules.)” Only a confident essayist can casually, without apology, contradict himself and continue walking along. Consistency is an overrated virtue, after all (another essayist said something like that). The fun of essays (reading them, writing them) is their mingled sense of security and surprise. It’s never enough merely to drift like a rudderless boat. Johnson titled The Rambler well. Hamburger writes:
“The essay is not a form, but a style above all. Its individualism distinguishes it from pure, absolute or autonomous art. The point of an essay, like its justification and its style, always lies in the author’s personality and always leads back to it.”
And yet, style alone is insufficient if by style we mean poeticisms and attitudinizing. An essay can have its genesis in something as mundane as journalism, fiction, a blog post or a book review. “The spirit of essay-writing,” Hamburger says, “walks on irresistibly, even over the corpse of the essay, and is glimpsed now here, now there, in novels, stories, poems or articles, from time to time in the very parkland of philosophy, formidably walled and strictly guarded though it may seem, the parkland from which it escaped centuries ago to wander about in the wild meadow. . . somewhere or other the spirit of essay-writing is walking on; and no one knows where it will turn up. Perhaps in the essay again, one day?” Hamburger’s prognostication was at least half right. He was writing in 1964. The subsequent half-century would give us Guy Davenport, Joseph Epstein, Theodore Dalrymple, Cynthia Ozick, Oliver Sacks and a few others.