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The present lack of respect for the personal essay is not entirely undeserved; too many modern essays are thin, watery things written by self-absorbed sentimentalists, who inflict upon the reader a subgenre that Carl H. Klaus has termed “the malady essay.” Literary journals are infested with such rot, to the extent that they have replaced not only the Montaignian essay (a philosophical mediation upon a particular subject or theme), but the charming Beerbohmian or Orwellian essay in which the author begins with a small observation and ultimately reaches a larger understanding. Editors seem to favor essays that depict illness, sickness, disease, infection, and death over all other kinds. Not surprisingly the malady essay mirrors our whiny, I-feel-your-pain, tell-all, victimization culture. They may be therapeutic for the author-victim, but they are painful for the reader and certain death for the essay as a form. Editors who print malady essays assume we want to know the essayist in an intimate, overly personal way, genital warts and all, a role that has heretofore been assigned to the biography or confessional, not the personal essay. When Montaigne wrote "Of Drunkeness" he did not recount the many times he woke up in the Parisian gutter beside some fat whore. Au contraire. The Montaigne essay is an act of discovery, a meditation, containing not only what the essayist thinks, but what the greatest minds throughout history have thought on a particular subject.


Similarly, we pick up Mark Twain's essays not because we hope to read about the many tragic deaths in his unfortunate family--since we can all relate to death. Rather we read Mark because he is an expert at exposing sham, pretension, and hypocrisy, and because he was the greatest American humorist of the 19th century. (The one exception, his essay "Death of Jean"--the doleful reminiscence and grieving of a mournful father-- was meant as the last chapter of his autobiography, and not as a stand-alone essay. Such pieces as these are written more as a form of release for the author than as a pleasant diversion for the reader. Why editors print them, except out of sympathy, is a mystery on the order of the extinction of the dinosaurs.)


Unlike today’s malady essayists, the great personal essayist Max Beerbohm was an intensely private man working in a supposedly narcissistic trade, who knew how to write in the first-person without drawing constant attention to himself and his various difficulties, which may or may not have included two unconsummated marriages. According to his admirer Joseph Epstein: "His tact was consummate; and one has never grown less tired of a man who wrote so much in the first person, for he knew the difference, as he once told his wife, between 'offering himself humbly for the inspection of others' and pushing himself forward through egotism." Advice too many malady essayists have failed to heed.


A few years ago in the online magazine Slate, the eminent literary critics A.O. Scott and Sarah Kerr undertook to diagnose the current health of the essay. Kerr found the personal essay "operating well beneath his full capacity. He's not as robust or playful as he used to be…lately he's been clinging to known routines…[but] nothing that some exercise and a change of scenery couldn't cure." Drs. Kerr and Scott accused essayists Epstein, Anne Fadiman and Wendy Lesser of an unhealthy fixation on the past, an "idolatrous valuation of the past," and "a reluctance to break new ground." Both Scott and Kerr seemed to be holding to the curious belief that--as with fiction--the personal essay must constantly reinvent itself through experimentation with form and punctuation. This hasn't worked for fiction, and it doubtlessly won’t work with the essay. The essayist, in fact, profits immeasurably from looking over her shoulder at what the past masters have written and thought and applying it to today. That's what Mr. Epstein does so successfully, and that is why he is often called the heir to Montaigne. Scott and Kerr seem to suggest this is a bad thing.


Материала е изпратен от: Михаил Илиев




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