Throughout its half-millennium history, the essay has proved inseparable from dialogue.
Defined as “trials” or “tests” or “attempts,” “essays” keep their distance from the information they would discover. Were the truth about their topics close at hand, the explorations that they undertake would seem superfluous. In dialogue, similarly, diverse interlocutors probe opposing opinions while keeping consensus at bay. To divide essays from dialogue would be then to separate the genre from the dramatic foundations of its defining qualities. Without dialogue, the open rhetorical space of the essay would contract into solid treatises and preacherly monologues. Our contemporary stereotype of the essay as a brash, confident, opinionated, and didactic form should be moderated by an understanding of the fact that almost all essayists, at one time or another, have cast works in dialogic form, made ample use of dialogic elements, or presented themselves as conversationalists.
Buoyed by the renewal of learning during the Renaissance, but befuddled by the resulting wealth of information, the early essayists reconciled ancient authority with modern skepticism by conversing with rather than simply citing the sages of old.
Montaigne, a founder of the modern essay genre, creates the illusion of a conversation among the ancients by juxtaposing disparate extracts from their unrelated works and deeds: Plutarch goes further, asserting that to appear to excel in such unnecessary accomplishments is to bear witness against yourself of time ill-spent on leisure and study which ought to be better spent on things more necessary and more useful. So Philip, King of Macedonia, when he heard his son Alexander the Great singing of a feast and rivaling the best musicians, remarked: “Are you not ashamed of singing so well?”…A king should be able to reply like Iphicrates did to the ambassador who was haranguing him with invectives: “[I am] None of these,” he replied. “But I am the one who can lead them all.”
In classical antiquity, dialogue was a trademark of skepticism, especially of that of the Platonic and Pyrrhic schools. Such mock conversations permitted moderns like Montaigne to tighten this longstanding link between doubt and discussion. Moderns could confirm their skepticism by crediting ancient authorities even while counterpointing differences in ancient opinion.
Britain’s Francis Bacon emulated Montaigne’s method. Although Bacon’s Essayes (1597, 1612, 1625) seldom take an overtly dialogic form, they proceed from, and work within, a conversable environment. The famous prelude to Bacon’s “Of Truth”—“What is Truth, said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer”—is a conclusion to a prior conversation. Pilate has just finished elaborating on the topic of truth with some unknown Judaean colleague, closing his discussion with dialogic inconclusivity. Bacon, indeed, could be described as an unacknowledged master of aborted conversations, for many of his essays begin with tacit conversational referents. Interrupted offstage discussions lead into dislocated mock conversations comprised of decontextualized quotations. Bacon’s simulated discussions replicate the mixed uncertainty and optimism of early empiricism.
As an essayist and empirical scientist, Bacon faced an abundance of new experimental and philological evidence, but had at his disposal only the most provisional, “inductive” methods with which to organize it. Vigorous use of dialogue about diverse discoveries was one robust way of raising a temporary canopy over a circus of seeming contradictions.
Many early essayists applied the dialogic method to religious controversies, of which the later Renaissance never ran short. Essayists on religious topics affected the confidence that comes from zeal, yet the dialogic character of their discourses discloses all the uncertainties and instabilities that riddled the secular lucubrations of Bacon and Montaigne. Doubt-wracked John Donne bolstered his essays on theology with authoritative Scriptural quotations, yet he showed a marked preference for excerpts of a dialogic rather than definitive tone:
In the Morning ye shall see the glory of God, (sayes Moses to them) for, he hath heard your grudging against him. And again, At evening shall the Lord give you flesh; for the Lord hath heard your murmuring. They murmur’d for water, saying, What shall we drink?… When they saw it [Manna] they said to one another, it is Man, for they wist not what it was…(Essayes in Divinity, 1651)
People talk, God listens, Israelites say things to one another. Conversations pack and pile together in close quarters. God himself drops in on conversations.
The density and compactness that distinguish the early essay interact in later eras with the openendedness of conversation. Bacon’s brevia cannot compare quantitatively with John Locke’s colossal Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), yet Locke’s encyclopedia of Restoration epistemology is less a unified work than a baroque array of essayistic conversations. The famous (and comical) case of Prince Maurice’s rational (and dialogical) Brazilian parrot, who bantered with the best of wits, is one of hundreds of miniature discussions. As scrupulous Locke explained, “I set down the words of this worthy dialogue [with the parrot] in French, just as prince Maurice said them to me.”
Locke was not the only Restoration researcher to construct agglutinative essays from multiple recorded conversations. John Dryden, the author of Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), Lady Margaret Cavendish, and Henry More were only a few of the more notable practitioners of this art.
The inflationary tendencies of the Lockean essay joined with the didactical powers of the Baconian anecdote to propel the doubt-driven essay of the Renaissance toward the comicalinstructive essays of the Addisonian era. Early 18th-century periodical essayists used extended dialogues to teach the proper application of abstractions rather than merely to undercut scholastic generalities. Dialogue in early periodical essays advanced Lockean empiricism, for it showed not only the content of an idea or theory, but also the character and motivations of its advocates. Such dialogue compressed a range of invisible psychological and moral factors into palpable form. The result was a jolly, optimistic skepticism that balanced hard facts and clear ideas against peculiar personalities and private agendas. Joseph Addison relied on dialogue to popularize neoclassical critical ideas while also satirizing their overzealous advocates, and proposing milder manifestos:
In short, sir, (says he), the author [of the comedy under discussion] has not observed a single unity in his whole play; the scene shifts in every dialogue; the villain has hurried me up and down at such a rate, that I am tired off my legs… For my part, (says she), I never knew a play that was written up to your rules…I must confess …I laughed very heartily at the last new comedy which you found so much fault with…Madam (says he), there are such people in the world as Rapin, Dacier, and others that ought to have spoiled your mirth…I must confess, (continued she), I would not be troubled with so fine a judgment as yours is; for I find you feel more vexation in a bad comedy, than I do in a deep tragedy …
(Tatler no. 165, 1710)
Extended essay sequences like those in the Tatler or the Spectator expanded this comical, empirical, and above all dialogical enterprise. Sequenced essays permit the examination of numerous related phenomena from countless viewpoints in an infinity of settings. The serial technique was taken to the outer limits by the buoyant Lord Shaftesbury, whose gargantuan essay collection Cbaracteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711, revised 1714) overflows with nonstop dialogues written from every conceivable viewpoint, from St. Paul’s to the dung heap’s. Later in the 18th century, letterwriting essayists like Philip Dormer Stanhope, the Earl of Chesterfield, interspersed reams of instructive epistles with comic re-creations of cocktail conversations. Repeated satiric dialogues tested the social and psychological limits of essayistic advice. Even the dour objectivist Samuel Johnson capitulated to the delights of serialized dialogic essays, with many of the essays in the Rambler, the Idler, and the Adventurer being comprised completely of dialogue, juxtaposed letters, or simulated conversation. And the trajectory that leads from the melancholy to the comic essay bisects the career of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge is most often remembered for such sober (albeit Shaftesburian) projects as his Biographia Literaria (1817); but his most voluminous contributions came in the genre of the tart political essay, sometimes sounding like a highly serious version of coffee house Addison.
From our post-Hegelian perspective, we want to see Romantic essayists as capacious, organic, monumental, and full of grandeur. In fact, they relied on the same sort of conversational snippets as did their Augustan predecessors. William Hazlitt, the unremitting author of 21 immense volumes, could conjure up sublimities concerning just four lines of conversation from Shakespeare:
The character of Cleopatra is a masterpiece…The luxurious pomp and gorgeous extravagance of the Egyptian queen are displayed in all their force and lustre, as well as the irregular grandeur of the soul of Mark Antony. Take only the first four lines that they speak as an example of the regal style of love-making.
Cleopatra. If it be love indeed, tell me how much? Antony. There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d. Cleopatra. I’ll set a bourn how far to be belov’d. Antony. Then must thou needs find out new heav’n, new earth.
As a mode of contrast, dialogue compares characters and views. In Hazlitt’s consideration, it compares fragmentary utterances with immense conceptions. Hazlitt’s metaphysical extrapolation of essayistic patter received a personal touch from Charles Lamb, who entered into simulated conversations with earlier authors hoping that he himself could give voice to a kind of transcendental shock at the inadequacy of their conceptions:
“We read the Paradise Lost as a task,” says Dr. Johnson. Nay, rather as a celestial recreation, of which the dullard mind is not at all hours alike recipient.
“Nobody ever wished it longer,” nor the moon rounder, he might have added.
Why, ‘tis the perfectness and completeness of it which makes us imagine that not a line could be added to it, or diminished from it, with advantage. Would we have a cubit added to the stature of the Medicean Venus? Do we wish her taller?
Later in the 19th century, the satiric superman Thomas Carlyle continued this practice of turning intended meanings inside-out in order to evoke shattered images of sublimity.
Carlyle even suggested that Sir Walter Scott’s physical maladies constituted a kind of corporeal conversation with Nature. “A vigorous health seems to have been given by Nature; yet, as if Nature had said withal, ‘Let it be a health to express itself by mind, not body,’ a lameness is added in childhood.” In Carlyle’s twisted world, bad health is dialogically if not dialectically essential to writing good essays.
Wandering wits like Carlyle travel in and around the interstices between individual speakers and impersonal ideas—between quoted speakers, unscrolling essays, and immense conceptions. In earlier times, the confrontation with these rhetorical and epistemological instabilities drove Coleridge to drugs and Montaigne to his tower. In the 20th century, it has produced a darkly erudite, amusingly insufficient climax to the essay tradition: morosely entertaining fragments on the complexities and directionlessness of postmodernity. The collapse of essayistic openness is exemplified by the urbanely essayistic chit-chat of T.S.Eliot (e.g. in “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” 1928):
B.… But the questions which he [Dryden] discussed are not out of date.
E. The Unities of Place and Time, for instance. Dryden gives what is the
soundest and most commonsense view for his time and place. But the Unities have for me, at least, a perpetual fascination. I believe they will be found highly desirable for the drama of the future. For one thing, we want more concentration. All plays are now much too long. I never go to the theatre, because I hate to hurry over my dinner, and I dislike to dine early. A continuous hour and a half of intense interest is what we need. No intervals, no chocolatesellers or ignoble trays. The Unities do make for intensity, as does verse rhythm.
A. You think we need stronger stimulants, in a shorter space of time, to get the same exaltation out of the theatre that a sensitive contemporary may be supposed to have got out of a tragedy by Shakespeare or even out of one by Dryden.
E. And meanwhile let us drink another glass of port to the memory of John Dryden.
Deeply if unwillingly immersed in the contradictions and self-consciousness that characterize the modern and contemporary eras, essayists like Eliot have looped themselves into a dialogue about former dialogues, into wryly repetitive essays about past essays about the future of dramatic poesy. Eliot and his successors have anticipated the dislocation of essaydialogues into serialized television debates about future views of what happened in the past or about past anticipations of future retrospectives. They have captured that strange combination of optimism and despair, certainty and turbulence, that makes essays dialogues rather than declamations.
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Wilson, Kenneth J., Incomplete Fictions: The Formations of English Renaissance
Dialogue, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1985
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