Essayism Musiland


It was Robert Musil in ‘The Man Without Qualities’ who propounded ‘Essayism’ as the necessary modern mode of thought.

IT WAS ROBERT MUSIL in The Man Without Qualities who propounded ‘Essayism’ as the necessary modern mode of thought. Essayism is characterised by an aversion to the axiomatic, a deliberated provisionality, an acceptance of uncertainty, an openness to the possibilities of intellectual adventure and discovery which Musil liked to call ‘possibilitarian’. In the face of the ruin or ossification of so many axiomatic schemata, so many ideologies, Musil asks, what is there left to us but provisionality, that testing of theory and practice which is conveyed by the word ‘essay’?

An essay means an attempt or a trial; having a go at something with the available intellectual equipment and the current knowledge. Built into its etymology is the notion of uncertainty, the endless seesawing possibilities of proof and disproof. An essay is a testing; its lexical doublet ‘assay’ highlights this feature. To assay a metal is to test it; to seek to establish its quality, its molecular structure; its mettle. To find out if it’s got the right stuff. Now Montaigne used the word essais to describe his own provisional and exploratory forays into whatever subject happened to have caught his attention most recently, and Francis Bacon followed this up in 1597 by using Essays as the title of his book. Ben Jonson gave us essayist in 1609.

But as for ‘essayism’, this word is used largely negatively in the nineteenth century, where it originates. It seems to signify something to do with the cant of current opinion, particularly the urbane prattle of the periodical press. It is to be deprecated. Musil’s retrieval of this abusive word is intended as a redemptive manoeuvre, though ‘essayism’ was not always regarded with favour by his contemporaries. Vladimir Nabokov accused Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus of ‘super-essayism’, by which he meant that the fictional narrative of that novel was constantly diverted into extended meditations on various topics like polyphony, diabolism, or whatever. The implication of Nabokov’s use of this term is that such indulgence in the essayistic mode is really not the business of fiction, which should stay with the narrative, if it knows what’s good for it. An equivalent term these days in regard to literature would be ‘info-dump’, where the writer appears determined to insert a large amount of material which has no necessary relevance to the narrative, even though it might well be a matter of obsessive interest to him.

The argument for the defence might be this. The essay is frequently the monadic unit of original and exploratory thought. Most full-length books, examined closely, will show that they are built out of essay-length units, even biographies, where the continuity between the units can be provided by the external agency of chronology. Most novels are episodic to some degree or another. They are called novels, not books of short stories, simply because the units are joined together with convincing narrative cohesion, and the characterised protagonists remain constant. Even a great deal of poetry will show itself to be essayistic, which is to say that it makes an intellectual journey in regard to a certain subject or congeries of subjects, and brings as much intellectual energy to bear on the matter as language and form allow. We see this admitted occasionally, say in the title of Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’. But we can look at Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell as an essay, an exploratory examination of the inter-dependence of the powers of good and evil in the year 1790, seen through the anode and cathode of an electrical circuit called morality.

Moby-Dick is super-essayistic in Nabokov’s usage, but then so is much of Shakespeare. What is pressed forward, in terms of dramatic action, when Ulysses delivers his grand speech on order in Troilus and Cressida? What is happening here is not the forwarding of the action, the progression of the plot, but a weighing-up of options; philosophical, even metaphysical options. The English and French form of essay take us back to the Latin exagium, which involved a trial of weight; a weighing-up, a testing-out. What we call, when the matter is not too grave or urgent, giving it a whirl. So as to see if we can try to find out what’s what.

In one sense Musil’s commitment to essayism can be read as an intelligent response to the questions which Viennese culture was putting, not just to him but to the world, in the decades before the Great War.

NOW MUSIL WAS Viennese, and in one sense his commitment to essayism can be read as an intelligent response to the questions which Viennese culture was putting, not just to him but to the world, in the decades before the Great War. What were these questions? In architecture Adolf Loos regarded ornament as a crime; it had no function but deception, representing the historicist facade which pretends that one age is really another; that one age’s technology is really that of another. Everything in a building should be functional, he argued. Le Corbusier would follow him up on this, when he described a building as a machine for living in. Wittgenstein was in the process of formulating something similar in philosophy. So much of what passed for philosophical discourse he thought of as mere prattle, about as much use as that succession of decorative frontages around the Viennese Ringstrasse that so enraged Loos. What is it possible to say, and what are the viable means of saying it? He answered that question in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published shortly after the war. Meanwhile Arnold Schoenberg was stripping down music to its essentials, which did not necessarily include any commitment to tonality. The twelve-tone system is effectively a mathematisation of musical composition; all sentiment can be excluded as a form of unwanted melodic nostalgia.

And there was little enough sentiment in the painting of Egon Schiele, who wished to paint the driven body in the throes of its torments and neurotic compulsions. Meanwhile Otto Wagner had been simplifying architectural motifs in his own way, not as ruthlessly as Adolf Loos, but with a clear sense that we should not treat columns and pilasters as though they had a structural significance, when they clearly did not. In this, Wagner was continuing the architectural themes and perceptions of Sir John Soane in England a century before. The classical orders are to be treated as vestiges, ghosts of an originary principle, to be incised on the surface of the building. They allude to an ideal type of symmetric proportion; they do not support a roof.

And then we have Sigmund Freud. Whatever one’s judgement of Freud today, he was attempting to get to the heart of the psyche and its essential mechanisms. In the best essayistic manner, he made all seeming axioms provisional while he explored the matter at hand; nothing was taboo to his investigation. As Loos wanted to get to the heart of architecture, and Schiele wanted to paint the human creature as it really was, without protective clothing or disguises, and Wittgenstein wanted to ask only true philosophical questions which permitted meaningful answers, so Freud wanted to ask the most searching questions of the functioning psyche: what did it want, how did it try to get it, what strategies did it resort to when obstructed? Between drive and repression the historic psyche constructs itself. Freud’s wife Marthe fretted that he had become in all but name a pornographer, since the Unconscious does not acknowledge morality, only desire.

Another way of saying this is that Musil was born into the world of Modernism. He must try as best he can to make sense of it, which is what he does through his alter ego, Ulrich. It is in this Viennese milieu that Musil formulates and elaborates his belief in essayism. He is most explicit on the subject in Chapter Sixty-Two of The Man Without Qualities. There Ulrich informs us of the welcome return into the intellectual world of uncertainty, contingency, the unknown and the potentially unknowable.

Signifier and signified become problematical when Rimbaud writes ‘Le Bateau Ivre’; nothing Baudelaire ever wrote so severs the sign from its expected referent. Even in Baudelaire’s masterpiece, ‘Le Voyage’, the desperate journeyers still stay fixed inside a nautical lexis of secure meaning, however synaesthetic its symbolic implications. It is the journey itself that becomes metaphoric, a figuring of how we flee ennui in pursuit of the experientally new. What Rimbaud’s poem announces is a severance between sign and context which presages the dislocated world of Surrealism. The correspondences may still be there, but they have become deranged. This is an entirely new mood. The bedroom turns itself inside out and moves into the street. Dreams are now directing the traffic.

The essayistic is an inherently uncertain mode; it is a trying and a testing, rather than an assertion of any axiomatic truths.

MUSIL’S HERO AND alter-ego Ulrich calls essayism ‘the return of uncertainty’, and he welcomes it. The essayistic is an inherently uncertain mode; it is a trying and a testing, rather than an assertion of any axiomatic truths. Pope’s Essay on Man, despite its frequent pomposity and grandiloquence, is tolerable precisely because it is an essay, not a catechism. Ulrich takes this further, into the existential realm, by the procedure he calls ‘living hypothetically’. Completion, in life or thought, appears to him illusory; a closure where closer observation and more honest appraisal would demand opening. Every day, every moment, and every thought – all are cast in the provisional mood. To act as though any item of life or thought is charged with plenary significance, as if it could complete itself and then sign its own QED, is a betrayal. We are effectively building a metaphysical cathedral on sand, and the tide is bringing the waves towards us, even as we give the last elegiac wipe to our trowel.

Why an essay, though? The succeeding paragraphs of an essay, Ulrich thinks, explore an issue from different sides. They represent a perspectival adventure. As a mode of enquiry, it is tentative, even aspectival. It is (most importantly) happy to contradict itself when necessary; its own starting-point might well end up being gainsaid during its unpredictable progress. We are exploring possibilities; not asserting dogma. And our progress is the itinerary of a butterfly, not the straight line between two coordinates of a crow. Ulrich relates this to a way of thinking involving fields and constellations, not singular entities with isolable identities. The notion of ‘field of force’ takes him back to Michael Faraday, and the use of the word constellation links him up with Musil’s German contemporary, Walter Benjamin. Georges Braque insisted, to himself as much as to anyone else: ‘There are no things; only relations between things.’ And A. N. Whitehead said frequently during the 1920s that the biggest illusion modern thought had created for itself was the notion that there had ever been any single meaningful ‘thing’. Things are only meaningful in relation to one another, in the field or network of meaning in which they find themselves. The note of C Natural can be the tonic for the key of C Major; it can also be the third of the key of A Minor. Its meaning depends entirely upon its placement. The meaning of everything depends entirely upon its placement, its siting within a constellation. David Bohm believed that using nouns to describe so-called elementary particles was a mistake; it gave the wrong impression; it was the wrong form of linguistic representation. Verbs would be truer descriptively. It would be more accurate to say ‘to electron’ than to say ‘an electron’. Our nominal obsessiveness represents a kind of intellectual possessiveness, which misrepresents nature. We wish to circumscribe the reality and hold it in place. This could be why Yahweh, when asked who he is in Exodus, replies ‘I am that I am’, which in its Hebrew form is the most verbal construction possible. Don’t attempt to circumscribe my immense activity, since I am all verb, and cannot be reduced to the status of one of your tame nouns, crouching in its lexical cage. My meaning cannot be thus contained. The circumscriptions of your nouns are too small to contain the immensity of my verbal, ceaselessly dynamic being.

So essayism accepts the provisionality of all thought; and so, we might add, does science, wherever it is effective. Musil’s narrative is continually interrupted by essays on any number of subjects. In this it resembles Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the book which drew from Vladimir Nabokov the criticism of engaging in super-essayism. Between Ulrich’s belief that the only meaningful mode of thought is essayism, and Nabokov’s belief that essays should know where they belong, and not go cuckoo-nesting inside fictional narratives, we seemingly confront not a dilemma, but a choice.

In the wider sense which we are using here, Picasso and Braque were two of the greatest exponents of essayism of the twentieth century: they rendered vision itself provisional.

In the wider sense which we are using here, Picasso and Braque were two of the greatest exponents of essayism of the twentieth century: they rendered vision itself provisional. They parenthesized the notion of reality, in order to investigate its visual construction. They were looking at how we look. They demolished perspectival constructionism, in order to permit us to examine the way in which we construct our visions out of the raw visual data. The great paintings of Cubism amounted to a form of apperception: we are seeing ourselves seeing. We watch ourselves constructing a visual world, and become vividly aware of the conventions we employ to do so. We are seeing not merely an accomplished image, but the itinerary of perception and representation.

The figure of Wittgenstein hovers about here, like a presiding spirit. And Wittgenstein can be seen to stand in for what has come to be called ‘the linguistic turn’. Initially Wittgenstein sought an entirely logical use of language, employing the picture theory. Each statement embodied in its form a truth about what was the case. This was his accomplishment in the Tractatus. His subsequent work permitted language its own logic, the logic of usage exhibited by specific ‘forms of life’. Language was not a translation of logic through lexis; it was the expression of the way in which we live with, and refer to, each other and the world we inhabit. You must approach the meaning through the specificities of language; you must not assume a separable meaning, which then merely translates itself into language. There is not a meaning separable from, or prior to, linguistic usage. The meaning of a word, said Wittgenstein, is its use in the language. Samuel Johnson had come to a similar conclusion when he published his great Dictionary in 1755. We do not express our meanings in language; we discover our meanings through language. We are linguistic creatures and are as dependent on language ‘to mean’ as we are on the world’s atmosphere to breathe.

Borges was entirely an essayist, in Musil’s sense, even when he was writing fiction. He never wrote fiction that wasn’t essay-length. He frequently wrote fictional accounts of larger fictions, books in fact, that had never existed in the first place, except inside his own texts. All his writing takes the form of critique. In one of his masterpieces, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius’, he critiques the building of a new world, the re-creation of reality. You have to re-write the books, re-organize the metaphysics, establish ground-breaking epistemologies. Borges was writing this story during the years of Nazism, whose ambition was precisely to so restructure reality that any alternative versions were rendered not merely defunct, but illegal.

In essayism we find a concentrated discourse, a mode of heightened and compressed perception, in which language is required to be as luminously economic as it is in poetry.

In essayism we find a concentrated discourse, a mode of heightened and compressed perception, in which language is required to be as luminously economic as it is in poetry. If essayism finds itself within a larger philosophic system, it automatically queries its architectonic credentials. We can see here what brings together work as radically different in other ways as Kierkegaard, W. G. Sebald, Guy Davenport and Robert Bringhurst. The segment of the world being examined has been rendered provisional, defamiliarized by the withdrawal of certainties.

What had happened with Rimbaud was a severing of the secure link between the sign and its world of referentiality. This is a specifically modern form of essayism, a species of comprehensive intellectual and moral alienation, more ultimate (in terms of meaning, anyway) than death. Surrealism picks up this world of severance where Rimbaud left off. And it is possible that the most authentic inheritor of the vision of Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Rimbaud at the time of ‘Le Bateau Ivre’, and Surrealism in its heyday, was Bob Dylan. Between 1963 and 1966 Dylan might well have been the greatest protagonist of essayism on the planet. In songs like ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘Desolation Row’ he severs sign from expectation with a forensic exactitude and force which would surely have impressed André Breton. The Mr Jones of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ is informed verse by verse not only that his answers are the wrong answers, but that all his questions are the wrong ones too. He is domiciled in an antique world of meaning. He wishes to excise the question-marks from life, and thereby escape modernity. Language elucidates nothing for him; it merely further obfuscates the dingy mental fog he already inhabits. The songwriter is engaged here in a form of venturesome essayism; Mr Jones, however, looks upon this region of uncertainty as a guarantee of nothing but spiritual vertigo. All he wants is to be permitted an exit from all this dire confusion, and a return to the world of fixed certainties from which he set out before his fatal encounters. He wishes to escape the world of essayism, and the challenge of its endless uncertainties.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimeshas just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in January. A collection of the essays in this series is published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint. “Essayism and Modernity” appears as the introduction to that collection.


This Fortnightly Review article is filed under the following rubrics: Clues & Labyrinths, Psychology, Philosophy & Education.
Publication: Thursday, 29 May 2014, at 10:55.
Options: Archive for Alan Wall. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments here with the RSS feed. Post a comment or leave a trackback.


Book Title:


Brian Dillon

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Guideline Price:

For those of us elders who went to school under the old dispensation, nothing was more surely calculated to make us detest the essay form than that stout textbook of English prose forced on us as part of the general memory test that in those days passed for education.

The piece from that ponderous compendium everyone remembers is Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation upon Roast Pig – children are always interested in food – but how many years had to pass before it dawned on us that the likes of William Hazlitt and Robert Louis Stevenson were surpassingly fine writers?

For Dillon, essays and essayists achieve ‘a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be’

Stevenson and Hazlitt were masters of the essay form, but it is a question, of course, as to whether the essay is a form at all. Brian Dillon, in this wonderful, subtle and deceptively fragmentary little book, quotes Michael Hamburger from the dissident side: the essay “has no form: it is a game that creates its own rules”. Dillon himself is more affirmative, though ambiguously so; for him, essays and essayists achieve “a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be”.

He takes his title from a chapter – the 62nd, he notes; essaysists tend towards the finical – of Robert Musil’s behemoth of a novel, The Man without Qualities, in which the author accepts that etymologically the word “essay” suggests an attempt, but not in the sense that it may or may not fail. “Terms like true and false, wise and unwise, are especially inapplicable,” according to Musil, “and yet the essay is subject to laws that are not less strict for appearing to be delicate and ineffable.”

In the course of his enjoyably roundabout and light-fingered attempt at making some sort of classification of the subject of his book, Dillon quotes from an impressively wide range of sources – he is a deft picker-up of well-considered trifles – ranging from Sir Thomas Browne to Joan Didion, from Robert Burton to Virginia Woolf, from Montaigne, naturally, to Maeve Brennan, and many other disparate practitioners of the art.

All the passages he adduces are apposite and apt to his theme. Here, for instance, is the philosopher and Frankfurt Scholar Theodor Adorno, who with characteristic papal bullishness insists that “the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal”.

Dillon begins the book with a list of subjects, “almost all of which are real”, on which writers have written essays. He suspects, he tells us, that the essay “has a peculiar affinity with the list, its rigours and its pleasures”. One might raise an eyebrow at the notion of mere parataxis – “one damn thing after another” – as a provider of pleasure, but Dillon offers convincing instances, such as the exhaustingly comic catalogues perpetrated in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses – Joyce, who cheerfully acknowledged the weak inventiveness of his imagination, dearly loved a list – and that apotheosis of the catalogue, William Gass’s On Being Blue, one of that marvellous writer’s most marvellous and superbly wrought conceits.

Dillon is a strong admirer of Virginia Woolf as essayist, treasuring her ‘infinitesimal imagination, her rigorous feeling for what is hardly there at all’

Dillon is a strong admirer of Virginia Woolf as essayist – in which role, some of us would say, she was at her best – treasuring her “infinitesimal imagination, her rigorous feeling for what is hardly there at all”. A study could be made of “particles” in Woolf’s novels and essays, he observes, and goes on to relate a delightful anecdote about the husband of a friend of his, who studies cosmic dust at the South Pole. “Thirty thousand tonnes of extra-terrestrial material enters the earth’s atmosphere each year” – did you know that? – “in the form of irregularly shaped particles or cosmic spherules . . .” The scientist, Dillon’s friend told him, spent weeks studying under his microscope what he took for one such tiny speck of stardust, which seemed to consist of a material neither he nor any of his colleagues had encountered before. Then one day the object simply disappeared: “It had been an air bubble all along.”

Might dust, Dillon wonders, be “the founding metaphor by which to broach the unruly topic of the essay?” In an exquisite following passage, he worries that the metaphor will carry connotations of the essay as “antique and moribund”, a liminal form surviving only in classrooms and libraries: “Essays, ancient and modern, can seem precious in their self-presentation, like things too well made ever to be handled. Touch them however and they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing, and the essay reveals itself to have been less compact and smooth than thought, but instead unbounded and mobile, a form with ambitions to be unformed.”

Then, a few pages later, in a section headed “On consolation”, the book with a sudden but perfectly timed jolt veers off in an entirely unexpected direction, and, as is often the case with the essay, we discover that the author’s real subject is much more than it at first seemed – much more weighty, much more intricate, much more personal. “In the summer of 2015,” Dillon writes, “the life I had lived for a decade and a half came to an end.” Wisely, he offers few details of the calamity that befell him – a relationship of long standing was broken, followed by a long bout of suicidal depression, and a course of psychotherapy.

This chapter, not even four pages long, interrupts the elegant flow of the narrative – let us call it a narrative – like an anguished sob piercing through the subdued hubbub of a salon conversation. At first one is shocked, and unsure what to make of the brief outcry. Is the book we are reading no more than “a constellation of glittering motes” surrounding an all-too-solid object – that is, the author’s spiritual maladies?

What, he asks, might he mean by style? The answer he provides is at once an apologia for and a vindication of the book he is writing

Consternation deepens when we turn the page and find ourselves, in the chapter “On style”, back among the passionate civilities Dillon accustomed us to from the outset. Style, he surmises, is what he prizes most in the essay – and, we assume, in other forms of writing too. What on earth, we demand, has felicitous prose got to do with the emotional collapse described in the previous pages?

But ah. What, he asks, might he mean by style? The answer he provides, subtle to the point of slyness, is at once an apologia for and a vindication of the book he is writing, and eventually will have written. Perhaps his passion for style, he ventures, “is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy excess of admiration, a crush. On what? The very idea. Form and texture rescued from chaos, the precision and extravagance of it, the daring, in the end the distance, such as I think I could never attain. As much as in a person, in a body, as in prose: those who can keep it together. ‘I like your style’ means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness.”

There is much more to Essayism that has been essayed here. There are meditations on the aphorism – how can he characterise La Rochefoucauld’s maxims as “somewhat glib and static phrases”! – on the pain of watching his mother die young, on his years as what used to be called a “budding writer” in 1980s Dublin, and on, of course, the writers he most loves, who include Roland Barthes, EM Cioran – one wonders if he is aware of Cioran’s poisonous anti-Semitism when he was a young man in pre-war Romania – Cyril Connolly and WG Sebald. To borrow from one of Barthes’s titles, this is a lover’s discourse, the love object being writing, not only in the essay but in all its forms.

It is also a testament to the consolatory, even the healing, powers of art. And at the last, in its consciously diffident fashion – Dillon is a literary flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin – it is its own kind of self-made masterpiece.

  • John Banville’s latest work is Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *