The Power of an Essay

Why writing is an act of freedom.

The essay is a literary genre that has formally been around since the late 16th century.

Francis Bacon is considered to have popularized the style with his “brief, lively, humane and well-written” articles. Though reportedly, he borrowed heavily from Montaigne — who made a name for himself as the first European essayist by merging casual anecdotes and autobiography with intellectual insight — they both revolutionized the rhetorical writing and gave it a more recreational spin through an “attempt”(a derivative of essai in Old French) to contemplate their own thoughts. Both have later influenced generations of writers that have helped carry the genre forward.

Bacon’s essays cover a wide range of topics that aim to challenge the rational human mind. He is credited with promoting the idea of the “duality of truth”, succinctly summarised below:

“Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. “

He didn’t suggest conclusions, nor did he often find them. He wrote for the sake of writing, to explore its relationship with human thought.

Aldous Huxley has famously said,

“The essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”.

Aldous Huxley, photograph by Ullstein Bild / Getty

He provides an interesting three-poled frame of reference or worlds in which the essay may exist:

“The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”.

The objective, the factual, and the concrete particular: The essayists that write from this pole “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists of setting forth, passing judgment upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data”.

The abstract-universal: In this pole we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions, who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience.”

Huxley adds that the most satisfying essays

“…make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist.”

One common feature of the essay is that it is meant to keep possibilities open. It provides the freedom to circumvent rote and totalitarianism of thought. An essay has an almost infinite capacity to generate new ideas that are, at their best, radical. For most authors, the essay is the ultimate form of deep explorative scribbling on abstract subjects.

Take for example Susan Sontag’s On Photography. She was neither an art critic nor a professional photographer, yet critics consider it as the most influential book ever written on the medium. She merely unleashed her thoughts and called on the potency of photography to construct a more equitable society by reconsidering the people we photograph and how we depict them.

Susan Sontag, Jan. 11, 1964. (AP Photo)

Sontag gave the readers a reason to take photography seriously.

“…there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight provides a convenient illustration of an essay stretched far beyond its conventional form. Essentially conceived as the comedic rendering of current events it evolved into a highly explorative opinion piece that devoted fans worldwide find “more informative than the news”. So, why do they find it so appealing? By exploring a particular issue of interest in each episode it does not merely reproduce the events, but it transforms them. It’s meticulously fact-checked and reliable, provides critical assessment, takes the audience seriously and above all it’s comedic — it resonates with people.

Few readers would disagree that the essay is the best literary form with which to question traditional beliefs. Look at how American anthropologist David Graber frames his essay on neckties (conveniently entitled Dickheads) where he reconsiders the sociological and historical significance of the necktie.

“Couldn’t we say that a tie is really a symbolic displacement of the penis, only an intellectualized penis, dangling not from one’s crotch but from one’s head?”

David Graeber’s Dickheads — the paradox of the necktie resolved

Do we sense here a personal dislike of ties or does it provide an interesting anthropological take on man and power? Does it matter that modern men in positions of power almost universally wear dark suits and tie as opposed to the man in the 17th century whose attire was highly decorative? Is it merely a pointer or does it provide an answer?

Well, as Francis Bacon would say,

“We have to weigh and consider.”

It is where the power of the essay lays — it is meant to raise issues, question attitudes, examine solutions, and pose dilemmas, but not to provide answers.

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