In Defense of the Essay: Writing as Introspection


There’s a dissonance lurking between the essays I write and the literary bastion I’ve thought myself aspiring towards, a tension that pulls me back to the question: what am I writing, and why? But if writing is both the extension and exploration of myself I consider it to be, then the inquiry digs a grade deeper: what am I, and why? 

The impulse to literature is a topic that captivates; why do writers write? Susan Sontag, quoting Virginia Woolf, blames reading: 

“Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading…‘the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego’ [writes Virginia Woolf]. Unfortunately, we never do lose the ego, any more than we can step over our own feet. But that disembodied rapture, reading, is trancelike enough to make us feel ego-less. Like reading, rapturous reading, writing fiction — inhabiting other selves — feels like losing yourself, too.”

What of essay writing, then? Is it also a practice of losing oneself? Of rapture? No doubt, the digital age has diluted the genre, reducing literary quality to attention-grabbing, clicks, and entertainment. But it once occupied, and perhaps still does in its enclaves, an artistic and existential function on par with the “disembodied rapture” of reading and fiction writing. 

Originating with French philosopher Michel De Montaigne in the 16th century, the word “essay” derives from the French, essayer —  to try. Montaigne’s famous Essais were indeed born of reading, though they did not seek to eliminate nor offer reprieve from Montaigne’s self, ego. Rather, they took that very self up as both the subject and object of examination. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes of him: “Montaigne [puts] not self-satisfied understanding but a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.” They were essays — tries — of introspection, of deepening and unpacking his astonishment. Montaigne himself writes: 

“It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems. To follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.” 

If the undertaking’s aim is to follow, penetrate, and express a consciousness astonished at itself — another way of describing the sensation of wonder that gives rise to philosophy — then the essay is an attempt at giving this wonder flesh. An author’s many essays, then, are distinct works only superficially, reconciled by their subsurface project: capturing, as with fireflies in a jar, that driving astonishment buried deep within the folds of consciousness, inevitably flickering out when lured and enclosed.  

This understanding of the essay reconstitutes its rubric. Essays succeed not if they inform, certainly not if they’re clicked, but if they evoke. They’re at their best when transmitting not facts, but their inaugural impulse: the contemplation of oneself.

I too found myself writing essays as a result of reading. And I suppose Annie Dillard must be correct in noting of writers, “She is careful of what she reads, for that is what she will write”, because I came by way of philosophy, and it permeates everything I write. But isn’t it odd — especially with nonfiction — that it’s usually those who’ve read so voraciously that end up adding even more to the vast pile of things written? Wouldn’t one think that in reading widely, we’re more likely to discover that whatever we seek to say has already been said? Perhaps, but Dillard counters:

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” 

Though I do, in fact, find things written about my own peculiar fascinations, these discoveries never satisfy my desire to give them voice, they redouble my conviction. “Yes! I’m onto something here”, I think to myself in these moments. So essays are personal; they’re studies of one’s own astonishment. They bring forward elements of the self that previously existed solely in the formless whirl of internal experience, the motion of thoughts frantic enough to evade conscious perception. 

Marcel Proust also memorably writes of how rummaging through oneself impels creation: 

“What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.” (Swann’s Way)

self reflection

self reflection

This function of writing seeks, in Montaigne’s words, “to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings” of oneself. It tries to investigate the murky, cascading waters of what William James would later call the “stream of consciousness”. Used in this way, essays are a somewhat psychoanalytic practice towards self-knowledge. Like scientists, we take test tubes into the coursing stream, fill up samples, and study these immobilized fragments of ourselves. 

But if essays reveal us to ourselves, of what interest am I to you? I am my own problem, my own subject of study, why would I presume to drag you into it by making the subject of my essays these little isolated test tubes, writing as if asking for unwarranted attention, exclaiming: “Hey, look at this little bit of my totally idiosyncratic self.” 

Montaigne also felt this way. He warns readers in the preface of his Essays that it’s surely a waste of time for anyone else to read them:

“Reader, you have here an honest book … in writing it, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end. I have had no consideration at all either to your service or to my glory … Thus, reader, I myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason that you should employ your leisure upon so frivolous and vain a subject. Therefore farewell.”

True, this must be received with irony given that his Essays became so popular precisely because readers related to them so intimately. Emerson remarked that he could hardly tell where Montaigne ended and he himself began. But this isn’t always the case, the digital age features swaths of flat, self-aggrandizing essays. Perhaps useful for the author, but certainly not the reader. What’s the difference? Why are some essays profoundly moving, others narcissistic? Perhaps because in reading Montaigne, Emerson read himself. In reading a good essay, we must read ourselves.

Here we have both a better articulation of the essay’s function — plumbing the personal for the general — and, as I set aim for in the beginning, what it is about my manner of existing that culminates in essay writing. 

It’s what lies within my stream of consciousness that lifts my gaze from my own waters to the broader landscape, movement from the particular to the universal, that interests me, impels me to write. When I’m lucky enough to encounter such a moment, where some minutiae of my personal experience launches my thoughts into orbit, and I no longer think in reference to ‘I’, but exist in the disembodied rapture Sontag describes of reading, my first impulse afterwards is to write it down, how I got there, to capture it in a jar of words like the firefly. This is an admittedly possessive response to rapture; rather than enjoying it, letting it come and go as it pleases, I claw at its wake. I try — essay — to recreate it. Such is the task. 

This impulse to writing breaks, or rather evolves, from Montaigne and Proust in their psychoanalytic project of bringing our strewn selves to light. Rather than submerging in the steady flow of thoughts, the unseen currents of self, this motivation seeks to lift us from them. This impulse to writing is meditation. It asks what more there is to consciousness than the self who identifies with its ever-flowing stream of mental noise. It pursues the astonishment that shocks us right out of our narcissistic habits, ejecting us, as it were, from the stream to its banks to gaze upon the whole, where it comes from, where it goes, if there’s anything else to the mental environment than coursing thoughts.  

“…the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed…trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead, you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you must raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.” (Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Maybe I write to raise my sights. 

It’s likely that I’m romanticizing, perhaps as we all do when fishing for reasons of why we do what we do, justifying ourselves, our existence, and so on. In truth, this kind of writing, especially the nonfiction essay, is an after-the-fact account of life. It’s a scramble to recreate things, experiences, flashes of insight gone by. Here lies the tragedy of essays, of trying to articulate our own peculiar, existential astonishment: at least in my experience, the writer grows acutely aware as the end of the essay approaches that the whole project will inevitably miss its mark. 

Dillard, too, feels this way (perhaps I’m comforted by recurring agreements with such a giant of meditative literature. Still, “I’m onto something”, she makes me think, so I continue the hunt):  

“I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” (The Writing Life)

I must acquiesce to the fact that, even in the best of circumstances, the thing will die, imperfect. The whole of my astonishment will not be transmitted onto the page. It remains in my head like water refusing to be shaken from my ear. The firefly’s light fades in captivity. Despite my best attempts, I remain dissatisfied. The itch is not scratched. Indeed, the itch may be pathological, some kind of malcontent relationship with the present. But all is not lost; from this condition, the necessity for the next essay, the next attempt, is born. So I write. Even if the essay will not satisfy, perhaps it will — and recall this is the mark of a great essay — spread the itch to introspection.