It can be argued that a good conversation and a fine meal are fundamentally the same pleasure. Both require a decerning palate, an awareness of rules and customs, and an intellectually curious spirit. The mingling of foreign concepts with internal ecosystems, where new ideas are made both familiar and enjoyable through natural process, leading to a full enrichment of one’s inner being. And of course, they are elevated by the presence of good company. The overlap between the two is easy to see, but it is not singular. In truth the third, and perhaps strongest overlap of this particular pleasure is the Essay.
The Essay has already received favorable comparison to the pleasure of conversation. “These modern essays of ours may be compared to conversation… which is ever diverse… and which finds in the unending multiplicity of the of the world unending matter for discussion and contemplation.” (Klaus (1), 52) The conversational style of Essay has always been a natural form for it to take, and the most personally compelling to me, a bias I will freely admit. Though not every essay needs to be conversational, all essays are inevitably a conversation. A writer will take their experiences of the world, assemble them, and then present them to the prospective reader with commentary that can range from deliberate and guided to almost nonexistent, like a chef crafting a unique recipe. It’s then up to the reader to interpret what’s been served to them. This cannot be avoided, as the greatest conversational essays will not leave the reader any definitive answers to carelessly regurgitate without thought. The kind of playful disregard that carries a casual conversation or a bag of chips has no place in a worthy essay, even if the essay itself is playful. The concepts the writer presents must be consumed like fine dining, chewed on with thought and intent, then swallowed wholly and thoroughly digested, (or in the case of something unpalatable, discreetly spit out into the nearest wastebin). Through the process of digestion, the reader taking the ideas they have swallowed, breaking them down, and absorbing them into their intellectual ecosystem, the essay’s true potential is fulfilled. It’s through this interaction that the great pleasure at the heart of the essay reveals itself.
It could be argued that the fundamental lack of interactivity inherent to the medium of essay, prevents it from being purely conversational. However, this an argument essayists have already come to address. “It lacks the chief value of conversation, which is the alternative outlook, the reply. That cannot be helped. But I fancy the reader supplies this somewhat in his own mind, by the movements of appreciation or indignation with which he receives what is put before him.” (Klaus (1), 52) If an essay is written well, then the points it raises are so salient and unignorable that the reader has no choice but to engage with it. They so challenge their preconceptions and worldview that refusing to process and argue the points made is nothing short of the denial of reality. The conversation taking place is purely internal but is taken up with the utmost seriousness as to not disregard their own intelligence. In the same way we do not dismiss the process of analyzing flavor as we chew as mere self-indulgence, we cannot write off the internal conversation that comes from processing the essay as daydreaming.
Some would dispute that the key purpose of the essay is to fulfill this pleasure however. Though the essay is fundamentally subjective, some argue that an essay’s message should be fundamentally certain in nature. “The essay then, having persuasion for it’s object, states a proposition; it’s method is meditation; it is subjective rather than objective, critical rather than creative. It can never be a mere marshaling of facts; for it struggles… for truth; and truth is something one arrives at by the help of facts, not the facts themselves.” (Kalus (3), 63) An essay’s worth is determined chiefly through its nutritional value, as opposed to the strength of its flavor, though both are still essential. The inherent subjectivity of the medium cannot be erased, but Fullerton insists that this subjectivity must serve an authoritative and rational purpose. This is not an unreasonable position to take, to maintain a healthy mind and body, one has to be certain what they absorb into themselves is healthy in nature. Conceiving of the essay primarily in these terms however, takes the priority from the essay’s true strength. I can think of no stronger example then this passage from Birding While Black.
“Forty-five more seconds and I will be done. An ovenbird singing over there. A northern cardinal chipping. And human eyes on me. I can feel them watching. This last minute is taking forever. The little mutt is barking like it’s rabid. I don’t hear or see any birds in the last thirty seconds because I am watching the clock tick down. Time’s up! I collect my fears and drive the next half mile, on to stop number thirty-three.” (Lanham)
This passage, right at the very end of the essay, takes what was an otherwise fully formed and well though out conclusion, a veritable vegetable stew, and adding an exotic ingredient that recontextualizes the entire palate. It is a stark reminder that no matter the reassurances of our own experiences and those around us, the harsh truth of prejudice and the toll it takes on our psyche does not easily dissolve. In the greater context, by refusing to leave its argument airtight, it better reflects reality. Persuasion is ultimately a secondary objective. The flavor is the ultimate priority.
The strongest flavors are those that cannot be easily and adequately described by those who taste them. Likewise, the most compelling conversations in media and literature have always been those whose true meaning is not fully understood by its speakers. It is the given prerogative of the observer, (with perhaps ambiguous guidance from an abstraction such as a narrator), to determine what the real meaning, if any, is to be defined from the ambiguity of a natural conversation. This applies doubly to the Essay, in which the roles of observer and speaker become paradoxically entangled for the author. They must suitably distance themselves from their work while maintaining a sense of authenticity “The triumph is the triumph of style… that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.” (Klaus (2), 46) It’s only through a sufficient level of detachment can the author leave enough room for the reader’s input. And this detachment must be cultivated with the utmost care. This is perhaps the starkest difference between writing, and cooking. A chef, no matter how much they pander to a given palette, can always be assured that their ingredients will taste how they are expected. But words are not defined so solidly as food. A writer cannot be assured that their words will be received in the exact same way by anyone. Thus, there is no set formula for how to achieve detachment. It simply takes experience and self-awareness to achieve an intentional lack of attention.
Though this entire discussion has centered on the mutuality of food, conversation, and essays, in closing the manner in which essays outpace it’s predecessors must be emphasized: endurance. The memories of fine food and a fine conversation do not have the same capacity dor endurance as the memories of essays. This is because the memories of essays are always ongoing. “You have not finished with it because you have read it, any more then friendship is ended because it is time to part… we look back upon essay after essay by Mr. Beerbohm, knowing that, come September or May, we shall sit down with them and talk.” (Klaus (2), 46) All conversations, no matter how memorable, are fleeting. The essay however in spite, or rather because of it’s lack of an external partner, is never truly concluded. The reader, as they change over the years, will find themselves returning to it and having new things to say. A chef may be able to recreate a dish, but even to a changed palate, it will not be the same as the first taste. The essay however, remains the same no matter who reads it or when. That is the essence of the essay as a medium. An essay’s ultimate power is using the surface appeal of simple pleasures like meals and conversation as a means of communicating a soul’s inner depths. In this sense it’s elegance and power as a medium is unmatched.
In truth, this essay was very difficult to write, and given that even now I’m still uncertain whether I accomplished my goals, I hesitate to consider it finished. The main idea that captivated me was the food motif. I ended up stumbling into it by accident while first drafting the piece, and I thought it was so clever that I decided to make it the main motif of the entire piece. I already had the central idea of comparing the essay to conversation from the start, so it seemed natural to add a third element. In hindsight this may have been an overburden. At the very least I really enjoyed writing the bits talking about food and trying to tie them into the overall piece. The “The concepts the writer presents must be consumed like fine dining..” section I particularly enjoyed for its more comical tone, felt like I was really channeling Belloc there. I had to be much looser and more metaphorical, like the latter half of Essay on Virginia. I’m not sure it really worked to the same degree. Speaking of, part of me wishes I had quoted it directly, but by the time it felt relevant the essay was already long enough. That’s another element I held myself to that I’m uncertain about, the quotes. Integrating quotes has always been the hardest part of writing essays for me. I read something like Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s Quotation and Originality, I’m incredibly jealous of his ability to seamlessly weave quotes into his essay. I’m held back by the formal expectations drilled into me by the high-school essay. I feel like I have to fulfill a minimum quota rather then home in on what really engages me. Aside from all that though, I fundamentally just struggle to comment on the words of others as opposed to simply producing them myself. I do at the least very much enjoy what I decided to quote. I primarily chose my quotes and decided their relative location in the piece before I wrote anything else. Though it was certainly constricting writing this way, I will admit to also enjoying the challenge it presented. At the very least, using the quotes as a kind of roadmap to guide the construction of the rest of my piece made the work a lot easier to process. The hardest thing for me when writing has always been getting started. Honestly, I don’t mind it. I think it’s fine to spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re going to write to be sure it’s worth putting to paper. But there are things you can figure out about what you’re writing until you see it in action. That’s why I’m always pleased with finishing something, even if I’m unsatisfied with it. In a way, I’ve reflected this thinking through my view on the essay itself. Just as the essay presents an endless conversation, the process of growing as a writer is an eternal ongoing project. I hope at the very least, as a part of that project, this piece was engaging or revelatory to someone.
Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stucky-French: “Essayists on the Essay”, 2012
- Hilarie Belloc: “An Essay Upon Essays Upon Essays”, 1955 (51-54)
- Virginia Woolf: “The Modern Essay”, 1925 (44-47)
- Katharine Fullerton “An Essay on Essays”, 1935 (61-64)
J. Drew Lanham: “Birding While Black”, 2016