I owe my knowledge of the word pellucid to the well-known etymologist Edgar Rice Burroughs. Joyce taught me parallax and pyx, among many others. I credit my Latin teacher, Miss Chambers, with parvanimity and pulchritude. If we are fortunate, memories come with footnotes, so we know who to thank. In the September issue of New English Review, Theodore Dalrymple is grateful that bookstores and old books have turned his mind into “a pot pourri of obscure, miscellaneous and seemingly disconnected information”:
“. . . over the years I have learned to trust to a kind of instinct as to what will one day, even years later, assume a great significance for me. The obscure suddenly becomes highly apposite, and I congratulate myself on my unconscious faculty of foresight.”
Memory is at once voluntary and involuntary, and it can be trained and disciplined, but seldom with unquestioned obedience. Dalrymple goes on to demonstrate (de-, “entirely” + monstrare, “to point out, show”: Thank you, Miss Chambers) that the essence of a good essay is purposeful digression, which is not the same as self-indulgent meandering. Ideas, like words, possess occult connections, and the essayist learns to welcome and enjoy such convergences. A good essay is seldom strictly linear, less like Spinoza than Pascal. Along the way in “Stung by Anthropomorphization,” Dalrymple visits Vera Hegi, mass behavior in the Soviet Union, the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory, animal and human psychology, Dr. Kinsey, death by bee sting, and suicide. Since Montaigne, the best essays have been written by minds well-stocked with learning, experience and memories.