Stretching What I Think of as an Essay

What is an essay?  I heard a few descriptions at a reading of essays from The Lost Origins of the Essay edited by John D’Agata a few weeks ago at REDCAT.

  • An essay is both a verb and a noun because the writer figures out what she thinks as she writes.
  • An essay is a quarrel with the writer’s self or the world.
  • The essay is the reverse of redemption narrative because it doesn’t answer questions, it’s an ongoing argument and asks more questions.
  • It’s a work of art that can change the reader’s perception of self or other people.
  • The essay might not have any function at all.
  • Finally, quoting D’Agata from the book, “I think the essay is a antidote to the stagnancy of writing because the essay tries to replicate the activity of the mind . . . the essay is the equivalent of a mind in rumination, performing as if improvisationally the reception of new ideas, the discovery of unknowns, the encounter with the “other.”

I bought this compilation at Bookshop Santa Cruz last summer as a counter point to the essays in Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay.  The Lost Origins of the Essay is a doorstop compilation of essays from across time and all over the world (other than the United States) that one speaker described as an argument that the essay is a vehicle for art.  The four essays I heard read certainly supported the case for artistic writing:

From 1957 – “Tisanes” by Ana Hatherly are vignettes, some a paragraph, others a sentence.  To date, Hatherly, a Portugal writer, has written 463 Tisanes, approximately a third of them are translated and 15 of those are published.  The provide a flurry of images interwoven with questions and observations that left me contemplative and quiet.

From 1500 B.C.E. – “Dialogue of Pessimism” by Ennatum of Akkad is a conversation between a master and slave wherein the master instructs the slave to an action, the slave instantly agrees in such a Continue reading