高级阅读 | Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body

An essay is a thing of the imagination. If there is information in an essay, it is by-the-by(随便一说), and if there is an opinion, one need not trust it for the long run(长期来看). A genuine essay rarely has an educational, polemical(好辩的;好争论的;挑起论战的), or sociopolitical(社会政治的) use; it is the movement of a free mind at play. Though it is written in prose, it is closer in kind to poetry than to any other form. Like a poem, a genuine essay is made of language and character and mood and temperament(性情、性格) and pluck(不怕危险困难的精神) and chance.

I speak of a "genuine" essay because fakes abound. Here the old-fashioned term poetaster(打油诗人,蹩脚诗人) may apply, if only obliquely(倾斜地;转弯抹角地). As the poetaster is to the poet -- a lesser aspirant(有抱负的人,野心家) -- so the average article is to the essay: a look-alike knockoff guaranteed not to wear well. An article is often gossip. An essay is reflection and insight. An article often has the temporary advantage of social heat -- what's hot out there right now. An essay's heat is interior. An article can be timely, topical, engaged in the issues and personalities of the moment; it is likely to be stale(陈腐的,不新鲜的) within the month. In five years it may have acquired the quaint(古雅的) aura(气质,氛围) of a rotary phone(转盘电话). An article is usually Siamese-twinned(连体双胞胎) to its date of birth. An essay defies its date of birth -- and ours, too. (A necessary caveat(警告,提醒): some genuine essays are popularly called "articles" -- but this is no more than an idle, though persistent, habit of speech. What's in a name? The ephemeral(短暂的,瞬间的) is the ephemeral. The enduring is the enduring.)

A small historical experiment. Who are the classic essayists who come at once to mind? Montaigne(蒙田,法国作家), obviously. Among the nineteenth-century English masters, the long row of Hazlitt, Lamb, De Quincey, Stevenson, Carlyle, Ruskin, Newman, Martineau, Arnold. Of the Americans, Emerson. Nowadays, admittedly, these are read only by specialists and literature majors, and by the latter only under compulsion(被迫的). However accurate this observation, it is irrelevant to the experiment, which has to do with beginnings and their disclosures(披露,公开). Here, then, are some introductory passages:

注:米歇尔·德·蒙田(法语:Michel de Montaigne,姓又译蒙泰涅;1533年2月28日-1592年9月13日)是法国在北方文艺复兴时期最有标志性的哲学家,以《随笔集》(Essais)三卷留名后世。《随笔集》在西方文学史上占有重要地位,作者另辟新径,不避谦疑大谈自己,开卷即说:“吾书之素材无他,即吾人也。”

One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.
--William Hazlitt, "On Going a Journey"

To go into solitude(独处,隐居), a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"

. . . I have often been asked, how I first came to be a regular opium-eater(吞食鸦片烟的人); and have suffered, very unjustly, in the opinion of my acquaintance, from being reputed to have brought upon myself all the sufferings which I shall have to record, by a long course of indulgence(放纵,沉溺) in this practice purely for the sake of creating an artificial state of pleasurable excitement. This, however, is a misrepresentation(歪曲,误传) of my case.
--Thomas De Quincey, "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater"

The human species, according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow, and the men who lend.
--Charles Lamb, "The Two Races of Men"

I saw two hareems(为一个雄性动物所控制的许多雌性动物;闺房里的妻妾群) in the East; and it would be wrong to pass them over in an account of my travels; though the subject is as little agreeable as any I can have to treat. I cannot now think of the two mornings thus employed without a heaviness of heart greater than I have ever brought away from Deaf and Dumb Schools(聋哑学校), Lunatic Asylums(精神病院,疯人院), or even Prisons.
--Harriet Martineau, "The Hareem"

The future of poetry is immense(巨大的,无边无际的), because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer(确信的;可靠的;必定的) and surer stay. There is not a creed(信条) which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma(教条,教理;武断的意见) which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve.... But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion.
-- Matthew Arnold, "The Study of Poetry"

The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy(忧郁的,使人悲伤的 ) in their consequences, that the thing stands alone in man's experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. Sometimes it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug(暴徒;恶棍;刺客); sometimes it lays a regular siege(正攻法) and creeps(悄悄地缓慢行进) upon their citadel(城堡;大本营;避难处) during a score of years(二十年后). And when the business is done, there is sore havoc(大混乱,大破坏) made in other people's lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary friendships hung together.
--Robert Louis Stevenson, "Aes Triplex"

It is recorded of some people, as of Alexander the Great, that their sweat, in consequence of some rare and extraordinary constitution, emitted a sweet odour, the cause of which Plutarch(普鲁塔克,古希腊历史学家) and others investigated. But the nature of most bodies is the opposite, and at their best they are free from smell. Even the purest breath has nothing more excellent than to be without offensive odour, like that of very healthy children.
-- Michel de Montaigne, "Of Smells"

What might such a little anthology(诗、文、曲、画等的选集) of beginnings reveal? First, that language differs from one era to the next: archaism(拟古主义) intrudes, if only in punctuation and cadence(节奏;韵律;抑扬顿挫). Second, that splendid minds may contradict each other (outdoors, Hazlitt never feels alone; Emerson urges others to go outdoors in order to feel alone). Third, that the theme of an essay can be anything under the sun, however trivial(无关紧要的) (the smell of sweat) or crushing(毁灭性的) (the thought that we must die). Fourth, that the essay is a consistently recognizable and venerable(庄严的,值得尊敬的;珍贵的) -- or call it ancient -- form. In English, Addison and Steele in the eighteenth century, Bacon and Browne in the seventeenth, Lyly in the sixteenth, Bede in the eighth. And what of the biblical Koheleth (Ecclesiastes)(传道书), who may be the oldest essayist reflecting on one of the oldest subjects -- world-weariness?

SO the essay is ancient and various; but this is a commonplace(老生常谈;司空见惯的事;普通的东西). Something else, more striking yet, catches our attention -- the essay's power. By "power" I mean precisely the capacity to do what force always does: coerce assent(强迫同意). Never mind that the shape and inclination of any essay is against coercion or suasion(说服,劝告), or that the essay neither proposes nor purposes to get us to think like its author -- at least not overtly(明显地;公开地,公然地). If an essay has a "motive," it is linked more to happenstance(意外事件,偶然事件) and opportunity than to the driven will. A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire(教条主义的;空谈理论的) tract(短文) or a propaganda effort or a broadside(猛烈抨击). Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and Emile Zola's "J'Accuse ... !" are heroic landmark writings; but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades(街垒; 路障); it is a stroll through someone's mazy mind. This is not to say that no essayist has ever been intent on making a moral argument, however obliquely -- George Orwell is a case in point(恰当的例子). At the end of the day the essay turns out to be a force for agreement. It co-opts(由现会员选举;指派) agreement; it courts(追求,企求;招致,导致) agreement; it seduces agreement. For the brief hour we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction. And this will occur even if we are intrinsically(本质地;内在地;固有地) roused to resistance.

To illustrate: I may not be persuaded by Emersonianism as an ideology, but Emerson -- his voice, his language, his music -- persuades me. When we look for words of praise, not for nothing do we speak of "commanding" or "compelling" prose. If I am a skeptical rationalist(理性主义者,唯理主义者) or an advanced biochemist, I may regard (or discard) the idea of the soul as no better than a puff of warm vapor. But here is Emerson on the soul: "When it breathes through [man's] intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love." And then -- well, I am in thrall(受奴役,束缚着); I am possessed(疯狂的;着魔的); I believe.

The novel has its own claims on surrender. It suspends our participation in the society we ordinarily live in, so that for the time we are reading, we forget it utterly. But the essay does not allow us to forget our usual sensations and opinions. It does something even more potent(强有力的,有权势的;有说服力的): it makes us deny them. The authority of a masterly essayist -- the authority of sublime(绝妙的; 令人崇敬的) language and intimate(亲密的;深刻的,精通的) observation -- is absolute. When I am with Hazlitt, I know no greater companion than nature. When I am with Emerson, I know no greater solitude than nature.

And what is oddest about the essay's power to lure us into its lair is how it goes about this work. We feel it when a political journalist comes after us with a point of view -- we feel it the way the cat is wary of the dog. A polemic(猛烈抨击,辩护) is a herald, complete with feathered hat and trumpet. A tract can be a trap. Certain magazine articles have the scent of so much per word. What is indisputable is that all of these are more or less in the position of a lepidopterist(鳞翅目昆虫学者) with his net: they mean to catch and skewer. They are focused on prey -- us. The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.

Or else, though still not having us in mind (unless as an embodiment of common folly), it is not self-centered at all. When I was a child, I discovered in the public library a book that enchanted(使迷惑;施魔法) me then, and the idea of which has enchanted me for life. I have no recollection of either the title or the writer -- and anyhow, very young readers rarely take note of authors; stories are simply and magically there. The characters include, as I remember them, three or four children and a delightful relation who is a storyteller, and the scheme is this: each child calls out a story element, most often an object, and the storyteller gathers up whatever is supplied (blue boots, a river, a fairy, a pencil box) and makes out of these random, unlikely, and disparate offerings a tale both logical and surprising. An essay, it seems to me, may be similarly constructed -- if so deliberate a term applies. The essayist, let us say, unexpectedly stumbles over a pair of old blue boots in a corner of the garage, and this reminds her of when she last wore them -- twenty years ago, on a trip to Paris, where on the bank of the Seine she stopped to watch an old fellow sketching, with a box of colored pencils at his side. The pencil wiggling over his sheet is a grayish pink, which reflects the threads of sunset pulling westward in the sky, like the reins of a fairy cart ... and so on. The mind meanders(漫步), slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.

In the same way Montaigne, when contemplating the unpleasantness of sweat, ends with the pure breath of children. Stevenson, starting out with mortality, speaks first of ambush, then of war, and finally of a displaced pin. No one is freer than the essayist -- free to leap out in any direction, to hop from thought to thought, to begin with the finish and finish with the middle, or to eschew(避免;避开;远避) beginning and end and keep only a middle. The marvel is that out of this apparent causelessness(无原因的,无缘无故的;无正当理由的,没有根据的), out of this scattering of idiosyncratic(特质的;特殊的;异质的) seeing and telling, a coherent world is made. It is coherent because, after all, an essayist must be an artist, and every artist, whatever the means, arrives at a sound and singular imaginative frame -- call it, on a minor scale, a cosmogony.

INTO this frame, this work of art, we tumble like tar babies, and are held fast. What holds us there? The authority of a voice, yes; the pleasure -- sometimes the anxiety -- of a new idea, an untried angle, a snatch of reminiscence, bliss displayed or shock conveyed. An essay can be the product of intellect or memory, lightheartedness or gloom, well-being or disgruntlement. But always we sense a certain quietude, on occasion a kind of detachment. Rage and revenge, I think, belong to fiction. The essay is cooler than that. Because it so often engages in acts of memory, and despite its gladder or more antic incarnations, the essay is by and large a serene or melancholic form. It mimics that low electric hum, which sometimes rises to resemble actual speech, that all human beings carry inside their heads -- a vibration, garrulous if somewhat indistinct, that never leaves us while we are awake. It is the hum of perpetual noticing: the configuration of someone's eyelid or tooth, the veins on a hand, a wisp of string caught on a twig; some words your fourth-grade teacher said, so long ago, about the rain; the look of an awning, a sidewalk, a bit of cheese left on a plate. All day long this inescapable hum drums on, recalling one thing and another, and pointing out this and this and this. Legend has it that Titus, Emperor of Rome, went mad because of the buzzing of a gnat that made her home in his ear; and presumably the gnat, flying out into the great world and then returning to her nest, whispered what she had seen and felt and learned there. But an essayist is more resourceful than an Emperor, and can be relieved of this interior noise, if only for the time required to record its murmurings. To seize the hum and set it down for others to hear is the essayist's genius.

It is a genius bound to leisure, and even to luxury, if luxury is measured in hours. The essay's limits can be found in its own reflective nature. Poems have been wrested from the inferno of catastrophe or war, and battlefield letters, too; these are the spontaneous bursts and burnings that danger excites. But the meditative(冥想的,沉思的;耽于默想的) temperateness of an essay requires a desk and a chair, a musing and a mooning, a connection to a civilized surround; even when the subject itself is a wilderness of lions and tigers, mulling(斟酌) is the way of it. An essay is a fireside thing, not a conflagration(大火;快速燃烧;突发;冲突) or a safari.

This may be why, when we ask who the essayists are, we discover that though novelists may now and then write essays, true essayists rarely write novels. Essayists are a species of metaphysician(精神疗法家,形而上学者): they are inquisitive(好奇的;好问的,爱打听的), and analytic(分析的;解析的;善于分析的), about the least grain of being. Novelists go about the strenuous(艰苦的,剧烈的) business of marrying and burying their people, or else they send them to sea, or to Africa, or at the least out of town. Essayists in their stillness ponder love and death. It is probably an illusion that men are essayists more often than women, especially since women's essays have in the past frequently assumed the form of unpublished correspondence. (Here I should, I suppose, add a note about maleness and femaleness as a literary issue -- what is popularly termed "gender," as if men and women were French or German tables and sofas. I should add such a note -- it is the fashion, or, rather, the current expectation or obligation -- but nothing useful can be said about any of it.) Essays are written by men. Essays are written by women. That is the long and the short of it. John Updike, in a genially confident discourse on maleness ("The Disposable Rocket"), takes the view -- though he admits to admixture -- that the "male sense of space must differ from that of the female, who has such interesting, active, and significant inner space. The space that interests men is outer." Except, let it be observed, when men write essays, since it is only inner space -- interesting, active, significant -- that can conceive and nourish the contemplative(沉思的;冥想的;默想的) essay. The "ideal female body," Updike adds, "curves around centers of repose," and no phrase could better describe the shape of the ideal essay -- yet women are no fitter as essayists than men. In promoting the felt salience of sex, Updike nevertheless drives home an essayist's point. Essays, unlike novels, emerge from the sensations of the self. Fiction creeps into foreign bodies: the novelist can inhabit not only a sex not his own but also beetles and noses and hunger artists and nomads and beasts. The essay is, as we say, personal.

And here is an irony. Though I have been intent on(专心致志于;抱定决心要实行) distinguishing the marrow(精华,精髓,核心) of the essay from the marrow of fiction, I confess that I have been trying all along, in a subliminal(潜在意识的;微小得难以察觉的) way, to speak of the essay as if it -- or she -- were a character in a novel or a play: moody, fickle, given to changing her clothes, or the subject, on a whim; sometimes obstinate, with a mind of her own, or hazy and light; never predictable. I mean for her to be dressed -- and addressed -- as we would Becky Sharp, or Ophelia, or Elizabeth Bennet, or Mrs. Ramsay, or Mrs. Wilcox, or even Hester Prynne. Put it that it is pointless to say (as I have done repeatedly, disliking it every time) "the essay," or "an essay." The essay -- an essay -- is not an abstraction; she may have recognizable contours, but she is highly colored and individuated; she is not a type. She is too fluid, too elusive, to be a category. She may be bold, she may be diffident, she may rely on beauty or cleverness, on eros or exotica. Whatever her story, she is the protagonist, the secret self's personification. When we knock on her door, she opens to us; she is a presence in the doorway; she leads us from room to room. Then why should we not call her "she"? She may be privately indifferent to us, but she is anything but unwelcoming. Above all, she is not a hidden principle or a thesis or a construct: she is there, a living voice. She takes us in.