Essayism by Brian Dillon

As can be seen by the pictures I’ve shared of my Fitzcarraldos, I had a number of choices for our fortnight of reading; and I thought I had settled on the ones I would tackle during the event. However, despite being thoroughly involved in “This Little Art” (as well as polyreading “Fandango” alongside it), for some reason I was suddenly hit by the urge to pick up another of my pending Fitzcarraldos. The book in question is “Essayism” by Brian Dillon, and not only did I start dipping, I actually finished it in record time… 😀

Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is currently UK editor of Cabinet magazine as well as teaching at the Royal College of Art, London. “Essayism” was his first Fitzcarraldo, but he’s written a number of books, myriad articles and curated exhibitions; and rather excitingly has a new book out this year. However, on to “Essayism” itself.

The book is, obviously, about essays, and the latter is a form of writing of which I’m becoming increasingly fond. I have all manner of essay collections lying about in Mount TBR and I’m often drawn to them as opposed to fiction. Maybe it’s the shorter form – manageable in the shorter chunks of reading time I often have nowadays. Whatever it is, the older I get, the more I want to read them! And Brian Dillon seems to be inordinately fond of the form too; he’s a regular practitioner, and his book is something of an extended meditation on the essay format, as well as a celebration of some of its best practitioners.

Oddly, though, it seems that the essay is hard to define, perhaps because it can encompass so much. Is there a set length? A set style? A preferred range of subjects? It seems not, as many of the examples covered by Dillon demonstrate. The authors he cites are wide-ranging, from Sir Thomas Browne through Montaigne, Woolf, Benjamin, Perec and up to more modern practitioners like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. All of these writers have a very individual style and take on the essay form, yet all produce stimulating and fascinating pieces of writing which change the way you think about the world around you.

The essay, which in essence wants to wander, may pursue its adventure by the paradoxical means of an ordered stasis: all its elements arranged as if in a cabinet of curiosities, an elaborate microcosm that freezes in an image some version of the world outside the collection.

However, the book is not simply a contemplation of the essay in its multifarious forms; woven into Dillon’s narrative is a moving autobiographical strand, where he relates the effect that writers and writing have had on him at pivotal points in his life, as well as while negotiating a breakdown. Dillon lost both of his parents at a fairly young age, and close together; and much of his life seems to have been marked by depression, an afflication with which his mother also suffered. As someone who always turns to the written word as a necessary coping mechanism at times of deep stress, this element of the book particularly resonated.

And actually there were *so* many aspects of “Essayism” which resonated; the eye-opening effect of Paul Morley and Ian Penman’s writing in the NME of the 1980s; the soaring beauty of Virginia Woolf’s prose; and yes, that man again – Roland Barthes is a regular thread in the book, an author to whom Dillon keeps returning and one who seems to be constantly turning up in *my* line of sight.

I think what I wanted from writing – from Barthes in particular but others too – was a passage out of the dismal place in which I found myself in my mid-teens, but also some assurance that the world could not only be recast in words but had been made of language in the first place.

The unread white cover Fitzcarraldos at the start of this reading event….

One of the most interesting elements of Dillon’s dissection of the essay was the concept of these as fragments – anything from the works of Adorno to the idea of the list-as-essay (exemplified perhaps by Perec’s very wonderful “An Attempt at Exhausting a Space in Paris”). But what struck me most, I think, whilst reading this excellent book was how the essay reflects so much the personality of the author; and I realised I’m often looking for some kind of connection with an author when I read, a tendency which is more pronounced in the shorter form of the essay.

Essays, ancient and modern, can seem precious in their self-presentation, like things too well made ever to be handled. Touch them however they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing, and the essay reveals itself to have been less compact and smooth than thought, but instead unbounded and mobile, a form with ambitions to be unformed.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I read “Essayism” in the middle of also reading “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs; and interestingly, my response to each of these books was enhanced by reading the other. There are threads that connect them both, which I hope will become clear when I get to “Art”; however, I suspect I’ll only scratch the surface of this pair of remarkable works.

Anyway; “Essayism” turned out to be a quite marvellous and involving read; thought-provoking, moving, absorbing and, very dangerously, with a reading list in the back! (I *have* fortunately read quite of a few of the books suggested). I was reminded occasionally of Simon Critchley’s writings, with a similar mix of personal and meditative as featured here, though Dillon’s voice is very individual and his exploration of the essay quite fascinating. I’m very glad some kind of force impelled me to pick this one up for the #Fitzcarraldofortnight, and I suspect I may have to track down his other title from the publisher… ;D