Thursday, May 30, 2013

The William Hazlitt Essay Prize and Christy Wampole's "The Essayification of Everything"

Notting Hill Editions announces the William Hazlitt Essay Prize, "for the best essay in the English language, of between 2,000 and 8,000 words, published or unpublished, on any subject." It requires an entry fee of £10, due August 1, 2013. While you're there you might also check out the Essay Library, a mostly free collection of the 100 greatest essays, with links to full text or books as available.

& Christy Wampole's "The Essayification of Everything," an excellent little essay on the resurgent and timely popularity of the essay in the New York Times. She writes:
I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment “the essayification of everything.”
Certainly worth the attention of anyone that follows the essay (or Essay Daily).

Monday, May 27, 2013

Joy Castro on Margery Latimer’s “The New Freedom”: A Manifesto of the Modernist as a Young Woman

A Manifesto of the Modernist as a Young Woman 

I first read American modernist Margery Latimer (1899-1932) in my twenties, when I was working on my Ph.D. in literature. Researching her husband, Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, I stumbled across Latimer’s work and immediately fell in love with her gorgeous, weird, difficult fiction. Abandoning my sensible plan to write a dissertation on canonical modernists, I devoted myself to Latimer’s novels and short stories, and I never looked back.
     Manifestoes of modernism abound—futurist manifestoes, surrealist manifestoes, dadaist manifestoes—but scholars have found almost no modernist manifestoes authored by women, so I was stunned to discover Latimer’s flash essay “The New Freedom.” Published in The Reviewer in 1924 and a mere two pages long, “The New Freedom” offers a quirky call to rebellion. Playful and witty, Latimer’s essay nonetheless carves a serious way forward for a young writer who went on to publish in the same high modernist venues as Faulkner, Stein, and Joyce. Perhaps most importantly for a young female writer determined to break ground, it genders the conflict between old and new, casting women as potential literary progenitors.
     Latimer’s modest proposal for the new writing opens wittily, its form echoing its content: “Everyone knows the sort of person who tells you to break up your thoughts with commas and semicolons instead of periods. And who bewails the ignorance of modern writers.” It then goes on to code its call for rebellion in gendered terms: “But have you met the man who sends out waving roars from defiant lips because you have murdered a word? You must meet him. Then you will want to keep on murdering words. It will become your favorite pastime.” Latimer casts literary convention as a cranky man who bellows and roars his authority, a tyrannical traditionalist of the English language who “wants you to wilt but you must not.” She urges experimental writers to ignore the polite, conventional inhibitions of their “lovely white soul[s]” (anticipating Daisy Buchanan’s mockery of her “white girlhood” in The Great Gatsby a year later) and to take heart, for “you are contributing to the race of words and he is only repeating. So you are more important than he is.”
     To say, “you are more important than he is,” in the early years of the twentieth century was to make a bold claim, because while Latimer portrays literary convention as male, her emphasis on reproduction as a metaphor for literary creativity, together with her use of second-person address, opens space to construct her reader—that is, the fellow experimental writer—as potentially female. She depicts literary traditionalists as controlling eugenicists: “Now you are free to add to the race of words as rapidly as you please. . . . Don’t let anyone stop you! Down with birth control!” Resisting controls of all sorts, Latimer’s essay encourages young writers like herself to ignore the dictates of convention and create fresh forms.
     In Latimer’s extended metaphor, the word is made flesh, and it is flesh with a mind of its own, infused with the possibility of change: “If you have ever watched a word put on its hat and walk down your tongue out into the world you will always want it to do as it pleases. . . . And now your words will make their own streets and cities and worlds.” Latimer’s essay offers a liberatory vision of literature, inflected with the utopian courage of the new. “Here,” promises her narrator, “is ecstasy.”
     “The New Freedom” broke fresh ground. Five years would pass before Virginia Woolf would publish—again employing the essay form—the most famous feminist literary manifesto we have, A Room of One’s Own. Yet Latimer’s essay anticipates core issues of Woolf’s work, such as affirming innovation in the face of old patriarchal forms of linguistic and literary authority.
     Latimer wrote against long odds. She was neither wealthy nor pedigreed; she struggled financially, supporting herself with clerical work and review-writing; she was an outspoken white anti-racist who first lived with Jewish poet and noir novelist Kenneth Fearing and then provoked a nationwide anti-miscegenation scandal by marrying Jean Toomer. Despite comparisons to D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield by contemporary reviewers, her reputation has largely disappeared since her early death in childbirth.
     Yet in “The New Freedom,” she offered a bold script for experimental writers to follow: “One word that I create myself is worth more to me than all the others that have previously been created.”
     As a young woman, using the medium of the very short essay, Latimer imagined her way forward into a future of literary achievement. “The New Freedom” provides the invention of possibility, complicating our notions of modernism, women’s literature, and American literary history.


Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir and the collection of essays Island of Bones, as well as the literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home. Her edited collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, will appear in September from University of Nebraska Press. She teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Follow her on Twitter at @_JoyCastro. [website]

And if you're interested in her longer essay on Latimer that appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, here's a link to a pdf via Castro's website.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Margot Singer on Relics, Alchemy, and Primo Levi’s “Chromium”

Primo Levi’s essay “Chromium,” from The Periodic Table (1975), begins with a dinner party: “The entrée was fish, but the wine was red.” Why does white wine go best with fish? Nobody can say. “Old man Cometto added that life is full of customs whose roots can no longer be traced: the color of sugar paper, the buttoning from different sides for men and women, the shape of a gondola’s prow….” These questions set the essay in motion. What other things do we do habitually, blindly, unthinkingly, for reasons that have been forgotten or are obsolete?
     The essay proceeds, associatively, to examine other sorts of senseless relics: outdated metaphors in language, the coccyx bone (“the remains of a vanished tail”). The industrial chemists seated around the dinner table tell stories. Levi recalls a manufacturing formula that stipulated adding a slice of onion to boiling linseed oil—once a crude temperature gauge, now a pointless step. Old man Cometto tells of a factory that made varnish from phenolic resins using the same unnecessarily toxic process once required for insoluble copal gums. Bruni mentions a baffling recipe for anti-rust paint that called for ammonium chloride, an ingredient “much more apt to corrode iron than preserve it from rust.” Why did no one question these nonsensical practices? We are talking here about fascist and post-fascist Italy, of course—but most organizations operate the same way. No one was willing to challenge accepted practice, to speak up.
     The remainder of “Chromium” is part detective story, part memoir. Levi, it turns out, was the one responsible, twenty years earlier, for introducing the mysterious ammonium chloride to the formula for anti-rust paint. Working as a chemist in Bruni’s factory in the mid-1940s, right after the war, Levi was charged with determining what had caused a fatal “livering” of the paint. The factory yard was piled high with rejected orange blocks of gelatinous, liver-like paint—the result, Levi eventually determined, of a simple transcription error in the formula, the substitution of “23” for “2 or 3” drops of reagent added to the chromate. The chemical analyst, the laboratory chief, the technical director, and the general director of the factory had all signed off on a long string of dubious lab tests showing that the chromate was too basic without ever questioning the results. The antidote was ammonium chloride, and twenty years later, the stocks of too-basic chromate long since used up, the now-useless additive was still being mixed into the formula, for reasons no one could recall.
     I love this idea of the useless vestiges we carry with us—in language, in our bodies, in our daily work—detached from reason, decoupled from memory. I love the way the essay’s layers of story and images accumulate, resonate, connect. I love the way the scientific details blossom into metaphor, an investigation into a faulty chemical formula uncovering so much more than the causes of “livered” paint. Almost in passing, Levi links his quest to solve the mystery of the paint to two other significant events: his falling in love with the woman who would become his wife, and the writing of his first book, Survival in Auschwitz (1947, tr. If This Is a Man). Speaking the truth about his past—like uncovering the true cause of the tainted chromate—becomes a vital act of resistance and survival. “I was ready,” Levi writes, “to challenge everything and everyone, in the same way that I had challenged and defeated Auschwitz and loneliness.” The ammonium chloride turns the jelly-like paint “fluid and smooth, completely normal, born again from its ashes like the Phoenix.” In the same way, Levi, too, is reborn from the ashes of Auschwitz in the act of asking why.
     Recently, I assigned “Chromium” to a class of undergraduate writers, and to my dismay, it was unanimously disliked. The students struggled to articulate or respond to its themes, although none could say exactly why. Perhaps they were put off by the scientific details, I thought, or by Levi’s complex periodic sentences, or by the fact that the narrative wasn’t packaged in short segments like many of the contemporary essays we read. But I wonder now whether the problem was less a matter of reading comprehension than a generational  gap. These are students, after all, who seem to want the formula, the recipe, to be told what they need to do to get an “A.” Few are accustomed to challenging received wisdom, to taking that kind of risk. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a generation so far removed from the Holocaust had a hard time making the connection between resisting compliance with a faulty formula and resisting fascism, between redeeming a batch of “livered” paint and redeeming a human life from the atrocities of the past.
     With The Periodic Table, Levi invented a new genre, a hybrid of science and literature, a blend of essay, allegory, fiction, memoir. Each of the book’s twenty-one chapters bears the name of an element: “Argon,” “Hydrogen,” “Zinc,” etc. (“Chromium” is the twelfth), each element evoking stories and memories of the past. Britain’s Royal Institution voted The Periodic Table the “best science book ever written.” It is surely the first (and only) work of literature to take the form of (to borrow Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s term) a “hermit crab,” the periodic table a kind of “protective shell.” Levi half-jokingly called Mendeleev’s table of elements a “poem”; as he explained to Gabriel Motola in a Paris Review interview (published posthumously in 1995): “You have lines, every one ending with a kind of element, like a rhyme.… there is something really poetic about science and chemistry in understanding matter.” Levi’s great alchemy is to transform the elements of the material world into poetry, into metaphor, into art.
     The Periodic Table is a beautiful and ultimately profoundly life-affirming book. But “Chromium” ends with an image not of remembrance but of forgetfulness and futility. “My ammonium chloride,” Levi writes, “twin of a happy love and a liberating book, by now completely useless and probably a bit harmful, is religiously ground into the chromate anti-rust paint on the shore of that lake and nobody knows why anymore.” Levi died in 1987, after falling, or jumping, from the third floor landing of the circular staircase in the apartment building in which he had lived since he was born. No one knows exactly what happened in that stairwell, on that day, but we do know that Levi worried that the lessons of the Holocaust would be forgotten, and struggled terribly with the burden of remembering and bearing witness to the past. And so I hope that someday my students will again pick up “Chromium”—perhaps having forgotten why or when they’d read it, back in college, long before—and in the reading bring the memory of Primo Levi and his wisdom and the goodness of his heart fully and magically back to life.


Margot Singer is the co-editor, with Nicole Walker, of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) and the author of the short story collection The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007). Her essays and fiction have appeared, most recently, in the New Ohio Review, The Normal School, Conjunctions, and The Kenyon Review. She holds the Dominick Consolo endowed professorship at Denison University, where she directs the creative writing program and the Reynolds Young Writers Workshop.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Paul Lisicky on The Fugue, Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother, DFW, and the Resistance to the One Thing

1. Rainy night, windy night. Subway Platform, A Train, 59th Street, Columbus Circle. Four bearded young men huddle by the turnstiles, lift their horns and begin to play Bach. Four melodies, four tones fill the tunnel at once. My eye fix on the tracks, on the junk down there. A little rat runs through the junk. Like everyone else on the platform, I pretend I’m not a struck tuning fork. That’s what the city exacts of us. We’re already dreaming into the thing we’re on the way to: workout, hookup, business deal, drink, dinner, that meeting with an editor. And yet something important is going on here. I know it, I suspect the men and women beside me know it. It’s our secret. This isn’t just music, but a village. Four voices in conversation, mimicking, talking back to one another. Sometimes in sync, sometimes in argument. I think there is something beautiful moving among them, between them. The sounds lean into one another. They lift us above the trash. The one light of my train is coming up the tunnel. Soon the village will be taken down into the noise of it, but that’s all right: that’s a part of the pact. Perhaps the playing (and listening) wouldn’t be so animated if there weren’t some shared awareness of interruption. And then it occurs to me: this might not just be a village we’re listening to but something nearer, inside us. It’s the sound of consciousness, the song of the human brain thinking four different things at once.

2. Simultaneity: the dream of getting that on the page. The composer has counterpoint. Or more typically: harmony. In pop music, bass line, drum, keyboard, vocal, etc. Many layers in the simplest piece of music, but in writing? One voice at a time, the tyranny of the singular. Not that words aren’t freighted with multiple associations, not that we don’t have puns, rhymes. But how does one begin to write consciousness on the page? Virginia Woolf made use of parentheses. David Foster Wallace tried the foot note. As D.T. Max says, the foot note was D.F.W.’s way to capture “all the caveats, micro-thoughts, meta-moments, of [the] hyperactive mind.” But all that leaping about, all those gaps in time between taking in the primary text and its subordinates. It doesn’t exactly happen with the grace of the fugue, even if there is something oddly stimulating about being wrenched back and forth between two tracks. It’s a little like being in the hands of a taxing trainer, who tells you to do ten lunges, ten chin ups, ten lunges again.

3. On pages 22-23 of Alison Bechdel’s book-length graphic essay Are You My Mother we have tables of romantic attachments, tables of therapists. A drawing of a young mother inside a circle, cigarette poised between fingertips. Boxed interpretations of D.W. Winnicott’s theories of the mother-infant relationship. A graphic representation of an exchange between the speaker and her therapist. Graphics at some (comic) odds with the fraught content of the exchange. A boxed statement concerning the “involuntary torrent of words and images” that came to Virginia Woolf in the writing of Mrs. Dalloway. Somehow these two pages manage to be orderly, meaningful, orchestrated. We’re given space to process this material. But graphics set their own terms, and we’re once again shunted back to the limitations of mere words.

4. ANONYMOUS: “A fugue is a piece of music in which the voices come in one after another and the audience go out one after another.”

5. MICHEL FOUCAULT, Of Other Spaces, 1967: “The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the side-by-side, of the dispersed...of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.”

6. I have a short attention span. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like an idiot, but I’ll risk it anyway. By that I mean a sensitivity to too-much-ness. The door swings open; too much light comes in with that flood. My eyes hurt. My brain aches. I need to pull the door closed before I can open it up again. Open-close-open-close-open: that’s the story of perception to me. Which is another way of saying the story of reading, writing.
     But that’s only half of what I’m struggling to say. I think my resistance might be to the One Thing. In my imagination the One Thing can loom like a Giant telling me to think this way, not that. The Giant prevents multiple viewpoints, The Giant ignores the fact that there are other truths, other colors, other sexualities: in-betweenness, paradox, ambivalence. The Giant can only see what’s in front of him. I need to look to the left and right of the Giant’s big feet. I need the village. I need the space between oncoming trains in order to hear the music in the tunnel.

7. No surprise we perceive in short bursts given the flood that’s coming toward us: 30 percent more information than 30 years ago. DFW anticipated it himself, from years back, when he talked of footnotes: “They might make the primary text an easier read while...[mimicking] the information flood and data-triage I expect would be an even bigger part of US life fifteen years hence.”

8. My best friend has brain cancer. My mother has dementia. Though they are decades apart in age, they share some of the same symptoms at the end, a loss of tact, a tendency to mash one layer of time into the next. They die within weeks of each other, one at the beginning of the summer, one at the end. The deaths of our beloveds are to be expected in every life, but I’m stunned by these losses, especially by the loss of my friend, who is unexpectedly easier to miss than my mom, who was gone long ago. In the months after her death, I start to write a book about her. She would love a book about her--a love song of sorts--even though it feels like hell to do it. I don’t want to say my friend is dead, I don’t want to say: the world is dangerous, brutal now, ugly. I want to write about joy. I try my best to represent my friend in emblems--”moments of being,” as Virginia Woolf would call them-- but the emblems aren’t enough. They’re not the whole story. The whole story is: a climate out of whack, rising water, a tsunami, an uncapped oil well slopping beaches, mangroves. Dolphins dead in the marshes. What’s outside the body is also inside, which is why the book must move back and forth between two tracks. The structure doesn’t quite resound with the simultaneity of the horn players but I’m once again dealing with the fact that words aren’t wind.

9. MICHAEL HAMMER, What’s in a Name... Fugue: “In a few seconds, this voice will be joined by a second voice, imitating it, at what we call a fifth higher....Now, it is one of the secrets of fugue writing that you have to know the best way to bring in that second voice--exactly as the first, or by ‘fudging’ it a little. There are rules for that, too. Then, after a brief bit of ‘connective tissue’ we arrive back in the original key, and a third voice enters, again with the subject. If there are four, or five, voices (Bach once wrote one with six!) the same thing happens with their entrances, alternating between the original notes and five notes up from the first. The whole section is called the subject area. During the arrival of the additional voices, the old ones keep on ‘singing’ but they do not have to keep to any particular tunes, because the newly arrived ones are not going to keep imitating them. It is only the subject that is important....When all the voice entrancing has been accomplished, they all begin to dance around according to the inspiration of the composer. This more optional section is usually referred to as an episode, as in ‘I’m having an episode, and if you don’t go away I may have another one.’”

10. What else could I do? If I had a stack of transparencies I’d print one passage per page, hold them up to the light, so you could see each text burning into the next.


Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and Unbuilt Projects. His work has appeared in The Awl, Fence, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Tin House, Unstuck, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction and nonfiction in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden. A new nonfiction book, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Steven Church on Lia Purpura's "There Are Things Awry Here"

From Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Fall 2012

Lia Purpura’s 2011 Best American Essays contribution, “There Are Things Awry Here,” begins with Purpura’s encounter with a Tuscaloosa, Alabama big box shopping center and her observation that this place, “feels like nowhere, is so without character that the character I am hardly registers,” a sentiment that many readers can understand; but what separates Purpura from the average observer or writer is the way she responds, the way she sees and thinks about this everyday landscape. She says, “I’ll get to work, in the only way I know how:” and what follows that colon is signature Purpura. In an essayistic “walk” around the perimeter, she processes everything through her own idiosyncratic lens and logic; the driver of a Chemlawn truck becomes a “proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery;” a man on a riding mower becomes a, “rancher coming over a rise, backlit and stiff, sure hands on the reins, eye for the dips that would wreck a fetlock; and a “farm woman, her shawl held against the wind,” becomes in reality a woman, “juggling bags and pining her name tag.” The existential sadness of this landscape is conveyed through the failure of both her imagined and then the true history of the place to speak, to live and breathe beyond the parking lots and big box stores and land that “babbled the way all useless things babble—fuzzy bees with felt smiles, bejeweled and baubly plaques for occasions.”

Though it’s not always easy to follow the leaps of her mind, it’s always fun and rewarding—sort of like you’ve joined an Olympic caliber mental gymnastics class. Part of the fun is Purpura’s ability to let the reader in on the project, to be conscious of her essay as essay, and to invite the reader along for her walks without it seeming condescending or patronizing. In nearly every piece, she’ll tell you, usually early on exactly what the project is, even if it seems impossibly complicated. She tells you the target, the “about” in her essays, and then she dares you to follow her flight there. She explains the origins of “There Are Things Awry Here,” by saying, “When the land would not speak and my characters failed, when the land was muffled and my characters stock, this piece was born,” and we see how, when a fairly common, everyday subject—the wrongness of a suburban shopping mall--is approached with such artistic grace, the artificial boundaries between poetry and nonfiction cease to matter much. What matters ultimately is the way that Purpura’s mind goes to work; and it is work to explore a landscape so deeply, so thoughtfully and so uniquely, work that is a pleasure and inspiration to witness.

The essays in her new book, Rough Likeness—whether the subject is woodworking, a postcard, the beauty of shit, or the bothersome descriptor, “gunmetal”--make sense in addition to making lyrical sound. They don’t really look like poems, but they probably sound like poems; and what matters most is that each essay indulges in the unique subjective and delightful weirdness of Purpura’s consciousness. Her honesty of intention inspires trust in her as a guide. Her voice commands authority and attention; and we are happy to follow her deeply and darkly into the meaning of one particular moment. At times it seems like it would be difficult to be Lia Purpura, as if she is afflicted with meaning-making, with this kind of obsessive, microscopic dissection of the everyday. I imagine that she takes very long walks.

In “Two Experiments and Coda,” a winter walk, a penny, a nickel, and a feather found in the snow becomes a challenge, “everything in the space of a block will be picked up and kept, and by way of that decision, a synchronic study, some kind of picture will emerge;” and when I read this I am reminded why I love Purpura’s work so much. She reminds again and again that the world is full of meaning, that each moment is capable of beauty and depth, and that it’s our responsibility to find it. What matters is how we think about and process the things we see, hear, touch, smell and taste, the things we think about in any given moment. This is one of Purpura’s great talents as a writer, to make her essays and her books as much about how a writer sees or listens to the world as they are about any one particular subject.


Steven Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record. His essays have been published widely; recent work can be found here. He's a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Eric LeMay (Sort of) on Montaigne, Metaphor, and the Thatness of the Essay

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.
— Aristotle, Poetics (c. 322 BCE)

Details from the Title Page of Essais (Paris, 1588, Villey edition)
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

A metaphor is a brief similitude contracted into a single word; this word— being put in the place of another word, as if it were in its own place—conveys delight, but only when the resemblance is acknowledged; if there is no resemblance, it is condemned.

— Cicero, Of Oratory (55 BCE)

From Histoires prodigieuses les plus mémorables qui ayent esté observées, depuis la Nativité de Iesus Christ, iusques à nostre siècle:
Extraites de plusieurs fameux autheurs, Grecz, & Latins, sacrez & profanes

Pierre Boaistuau (Paris, 1560)

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish - a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

— George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

From Balet comique de la Royne, faict aux nopces de Monsieur le Duc de Joyeuse & madamoyselle de Vaudemont sa sœur. Par Baltasar de Beaujoyeulx, valet de chambre du Roy, & de la Royne sa mere
Jacques Patin (Paris, 1581)

[A] discourse which makes use of metaphor has the extraordinary power of redescribing reality. This is, I believe, the referential function of metaphorical statement .... If this analysis is sound, we should have to say that metaphor not only shatters the previous structures of our language, but also the previous structures of what we call reality. When we ask whether metaphorical language reaches reality, we presuppose that we already know what reality is. But if we assume that metaphor redescribes reality, we must then assume that this reality as redescribed is itself novel reality .... With metaphor we experience the metamorphosis of both language and reality."

— Paul Ricoeur, "Creativity in Language: Word, Polysemy, Metaphor" (1973)

Details from pages 69 and 70 of Book One of the Essais (Paris, 1588, Villey edition)
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

Considering the proceeding of a Painters worke I have; a desire hath possessed me to imitate him: He maketh choice of the most convenient place and middle of every wall, there to place a picture, laboured with all his skill and sufficiencie; and all voyde places about it, he filleth-up with antike Bostage or Crotesko [grotesque] works; which are fantastical pictures, having no grace, but in the varietie and strangenes of them. And what are these my compositions in truth, other than antique workes and monstrous bodies, patched and hurled up together of divers members, without any certain or well ordered figure, having neither order, dependencie, or proportion, but casual and framed by chaunce?

         Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne.
         A woman faire for parts superior,
         Ends in a fish for parts inferior.

Touching the second point I go as farre as my Painter, but for the other and better part I am farre behinde: for my sufficiency reacheth no so farre, as that I dare undertake, a rich, a polished, and according to true skill, and arte-like table.

— Montaigne, "Of Friendship" (trans. John Florio, 1603)

From "Petites Grotesques" (Paris, 1562)
Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau

Title Page of Essais (Paris, 1588, Villey edition)
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

While many expository analogues, as conventional opinion proposes, are casual and illustrative, some few seem more recurrent and, not illustrative, but constitutive: they yield the ground plan and essential structural elements of a literary theory, or of any theory . . . . There is a great deal of wisdom in the popular locution for "What is its nature?" namely: "What is it like?" We tend to describe the nature of something in similes and metaphors, and the vehicles of these recurrent figures, when analyzed, often turn out to be an implicit analogue through which we are viewing the object we describe.

— M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953)




Montaigne's marginalia on the Second Edition of the Essais (Paris, 1588, Bordeaux Copy)
for the Third Edition

Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this.

— Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (1945)


For other pieces sort of by Eric LeMay on the origin and nature of the essay, check out "Of Studies" and his collaboration with Scott Black, "On the Early English Essay: An Experimental Array."