by The Editors
It’s not unreasonable to assume, as many do, that the halls of academia are the natural home of the essay as a literary medium. But that’s not entirely true. Certainly many academics are prolific essayists, their extramural output consumed by a broad and diverse readership beyond the narrow audience of peers upon whose approval their employment depends. But the scholarly journals in which these people’s careers are made are rarely amenable to publishing work that strays beyond a strict set of fixed requirements – regarding style, structure, content, and so on. Despite the historical centrality of the essay in the development of modern academia, there is, paradoxically, woven into the fabric of the academy, a distinct aversion to the essay as a literary form. Indeed, its elasticity as a medium – and arguably also its intrinsic modesty (essayer: ‘to attempt’, or ‘try out’) – could even be said to place it inherently at odds with the world of the professional scholar, with whose role comes the expectation that they should be dealing in conclusions, authoritative statements of truth, rather than mere ‘attempts’.
The dominant mindset in the social sciences insists that the production of such statements demands a particular way of thinking. From Day 1, students are cajoled into adopting a scientific, almost legalistic approach based on a positivistic, conceptual, structured mode of thought concerned with objectivity, definition and order, and which proceeds through the development of an argument. “Make your case” is the foundational mantra in a process of instruction that teaches us to organise and articulate our thoughts as if addressing a courtroom. Any proposition brought to our readers’ attention must be supported by evidence and authority, assessed by reference to the established, the new judged against the yardstick of the old. Once thusly judged and found to be sufficiently deferential to all that has gone before, it may be assimilated into the canon, added to the reports of cases argued and determined in the court of peer review as the judgment of a court is integrated into a body of common law. And so the cycle continues, until the substance at the core of a discipline is that which has been most thoroughly and comprehensively drained of its juices: literally, ‘disciplined’.
A way of thinking that discards and disparages anything not strictly relevant to the judicial function demands a corresponding mode of expression, a way of writing in which words are corralled into singularity of meaning, denuded of their generativity, stripped of their imaginal potential and their power to move the reader and to stir feeling, memory and emotion.
For those disciplines whose very purpose is to try to understand the workings of human society, this presents something of a contradiction. On the one hand, social scientists are always ready to trot out the familiar axiom that the social world is a living ‘object’ – fluid, dynamic, multifaceted and in constant mutation – and that it is therefore wrong to approach it as a dispassionate observer looking at a static or completed entity. And yet on the other hand, a residual fixation on scientific rigour more often than not leads these very same people to do exactly that, falling back into a mechanical way of thinking and writing about their subject deliberately designed to separate out individual pieces of the world and systematically drain them of their colour, richness and ambiguity: a mode of critique fundamentally rooted in the urge to separate.
Think about how much of the language around the scientific method, with its obsession with categorising and distinguishing, is based on the metaphor of cutting: a scholar is said to possess a sharp mind. We cut through a mass of evidence. An analysis is incisive. Definitions foster precision. And so on and so forth. Everything is based on separation (all rooted in the fundamental separation of subjective and objective, observer and observed), the implicit assumption being that the best way to understand the world around us is by separating out its constituent parts. A mechanical conception of reality then, mirrored by a mechanical thought process, and in turn, mechanical ways of expressing it.
Henry David Thoreau once said that no definition of poetry is sufficient unless it is itself poetry. What he meant was that nothing can be grasped in its quality of ‘being alive’ without adopting an intellectual posture in harmony with the object of study: a complicity or intimacy between the observer and the phenomenon being observed. As Michel Maffesoli remarked in an essay published on this site a few years ago, the positivist rejection of anything incompatible with what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “a priori of objectifying distance” leads to a refusal of such intimacy, instead opting for an approach that attempts to understand phenomena by submitting them a priori to abstract and instrumental reason and thus forcing them to conform in one way or another to the prejudices of the observer.
This mode of inquiry is underpinned by what C.G. Jung referred to as ‘directed thought’: a quasi-legalistic process whereby thoughts are ‘directed’ through purely rational and conceptual frameworks. Against directed thinking, Jung juxtaposed ‘non-directed’ or ‘archaic’ thinking. Where the former “produces innovations and adaptations, copies reality, and tries to act upon it”, the latter “sets free subjective tendencies”. Whereas directed thought “operates with speech elements for the purpose of communication, and is difficult and exhausting”, archaic thought is “effortless, working spontaneously, with the contents ready to hand, and guided by unconscious motives.” Where directed thought tends to be slow, lumbering and unwieldy, archaic thinking is associative: image piles upon image, feeling upon feeling; ideas swell and undulate of their own motion. What is valued is the free flow of the process, and the sense of immersion in a drama not entirely of one’s own making. It is this kind of thinking, Jung argues, that provides “the means to releasing creative forces and contents”.
Unlike what we ordinarily call thinking, which, as Robert Sardello puts it, is “not thinking at all, but rather the stringing together of already completed thoughts”, Jung’s ‘archaic thought’ occurs through us. We might connect it to a particular Ancient deity, known to the Romans as Mercury, and to the Greeks as Hermes: god of the imagination, Hermes crosses boundaries, making connections which cast new light on both sides, sometimes in unexpected and fruitful ways. Indeed, whereas directed thought only engages with the world that we think, which is at the best of times only incidentally concerned with the world that we imagine and experience, imagination as directed by Hermes allows for a particular receptivity to chance finds made along the road that may ultimately feed into a deeper understanding of our subject.
From the point of view of Hermes, a form of interpretation and expression which fails to evoke the imagination or convey the reader into different states of being, instead merely restating what has already been written somewhere else in slightly different terms, is a low-grade one. Hermes, by contrast, as the messenger of the gods, patron of “rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens”, is able to make connections between phenomena and their archetypal roots.
The pliability of the essay as a literary medium makes it ideally suited to this endeavour, allowing for an internal logic and structure mirroring such a movement of thought and enabling the free play of devices typically spurned by academia as anathema to the objectifying distance traditionally upheld as the criterion of academic integrity: subjectivity, imagery, metaphor, and so on – devices that may not be conducive to “precision” or “incisiveness” in any formal sense, but which can nonetheless invoke a great deal of content in very few words. Feelings, atmospheres and emotions cannot be described in the colourless and undelightful prose of academia, but these are the very things that lie at the heart of the human experience. In contrast to all those ‘cutting’ words, proper to a science which seeks first and foremost to separate, cut, divide and define, poetic forms of expression, freeing the reader to think in images that foster an intimacy with the phenomenon being described, have a ‘reconnecting’ function. Communicating through rhythm, sound and emotion as well as by intellect, a poetic phrase or image conveys a kind of synaesthesia whereby multiple senses are brought into play all at once, and entire worlds conjured up in a few strokes.
For someone trained in academic writing, this can be an incredibly difficult mode of expression to get comfortable with. Indeed, uneasiness with this refusal of distance no doubt goes some way towards explaining why many academics resist the pull of the personal essay so forcefully. But it might equally be argued that it is precisely this very quality that makes the essay a mode of expression so well suited to the development of new ideas: breathing space for the articulation of a thought process paralleling that of its object; a supple impressionism that does not shy away from repetition – indeed, openly embraces it – each iteration like a brush-stroke contributing in its own way to the gradual perfection of the picture.
When Secessio came into being a little over a decade ago, it aspired to be a meeting place for these kinds of explorations: a collection of “attempts”, overlapping, complementary, mutually reinforcing, bleeding into one another, each emerging theme given new richness, a new layer, another nuance or a subtle difference in shade with each new brush stroke. Navigating the chaos that surrounds us, however we go about it, is, after all, a creative process: the unending endeavour to build (poiesis: ‘to create’) an understanding of the world. We are indeed, all of us, every day, moving through a reality that is fluid, ever evolving, and in constant mutation; a world which, as Sardello puts it, is “an ongoing creative action of soul, taking place rhythmically, in time with the rhythmic activity of heart that creates our bodies.” In his poem “Milton”, William Blake speaks of the “golden builders” of imagination who will never finish their work on “Golgonooza, the spiritual Four-fold London eternal, // In immense labours & sorrows, ever building, ever falling”. In “Jerusalem” he describes the work as “continually building & continually decaying desolate”. With these lines in mind, Kathleen Raine writes of “the archetype of the ever-present, never-realized pattern of the sancta civitas, the pattern of the ‘golden builders’ be they architects or poets, painters or musicians”. In this sense, the final cause of building – Aristotle’s “that-for-the-sake-of-which” what we are contributing to is constructed – is not so much the functional use of the end product, as interiority: life, in other words, as an endless series of attempts.