And that’s how it’s done, Q.E.D., no thesis or “topic sentence,” and no further instructions necessary. Dr. Johnson refers to the writing of essays – “these petty compositions,” he calls them -- the least rule-bound of forms. Essays are the natural expression of a democratic age, at least in theory. Their voice is the opposite of institutional. The essayist’s prerequisites are a good memory and a vigorous way with words. Those hobbled by not knowing where the next word will come from ought to choose another form – say, greeting cards or software. Not that essays – to which I would add the better sort of blog posts – resemble automatic writing, that pipe dream of the surrealists. No, their form is ad hoc, connected by mortise and tenon, jury-rigged for the task at hand. In Letters I Never Mailed: Clues to a Life (1975; rev. ed., 2005), the composer Alec Wilder writes to his friend Harry Bouras:
“I am not against experiment. I am against moving out of the sacred grove of art into the anarchistic playpen of newness and nowness for their own sakes.
“I believe in direction, continuity, shape, communication, wit, sophistication, simplicity, order, honesty and taste.”
In his music, Wilder, like a deft jazz musician, mingles the discipline of formalism with the mind’s delight in improvisation. So too with Dr. Johnson, never the stolid neo-classical bully caricatured by his critics. The passage quoted at the top is from The Rambler #184, published on this date, Dec. 21, in 1751. Johnson’s larger subject is the role of chance in human affairs. But writing an essay, drawing as it does equally on discipline and seat-of-the-pants extemporization, is a scaled-down model for living a life.
“Every diversity of art or nature, every publick blessing or calamity, every domestick pain or gratification, every sally of caprice, blunder of absurdity, or stratagem of affectation, may supply matter to him whose only rule is to avoid uniformity. But it often happens, that the judgment is distracted with boundless multiplicity, the imagination ranges from one design to another, and the hours pass imperceptibly away, till the composition can be no longer delayed, and necessity enforces the use of those thoughts which then happen to be at hand.”
The operative word is “sally.’ In his Dictionary, Johnson defined “essay” as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.”