1. Montaigne, The 16th and 17th Centuries
It is in 16th-century France, with the Essais (1580, 1588; Essays) of Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), that the essay had its origins. One of his basic tenets was to write extensively about himself. Autobiography had already been established as an acceptable form in Renaissance Italy and the acceptance of the individual self as subject matter was already affirmed when his Essais appeared on the scene (Peter Burke, 1981). Yet the Essais are not exactly autobiographical in nature, and Montaigne may not have known these autobiographical works when he began writing. As for the existence of short prose pieces on a variety of topics, Burke has this to say: “The idea of publishing a discursive treatment of different subjects within the covers of a single volume was not new in Montaigne’s day.” These collections were called “miscellanies” or “discourses,” the latter being a “revival of the Greek diatribe, which may be defined as the short treatment of a moral theme, written in a vivid, immediate, and humorous way so that the reader has the sense of listening to the author.” Montaigne knew, and was inspired by, Plutarch’s Moralia, a collection of such diatribes; he also knew the French translation of the Spanish author Pedro Mexía’s Silva de varia lección (1544; The Forest; or, Collection of Histories), discourses which deal with many of his own subjects; and the Adagia (1500) and Apophthegmes (1531) of Erasmus, an important precursor as an adversary of Ciceronian discourse. Other proto-essay forms that influenced him, especially from classical antiquity (in addition to Plutarch), were Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, Horace’s verse epistles, and Plato’s Dialogues. But in the end Montaigne’s originality is unassailable. No one, as he rightly acknowledged, had ever written a work exactly like his Essais.
For Montaigne, his essais were less a literary form created by a self-conscious artist than “attempts” (the original meaning of the word) at “trying himself” in writing against a great number of challenges, with the practical goal of living more wisely. The complete title of his work is in fact Essais de Michel de Montaigne, or “Self-testings of Michel de Montaigne.” Donald Frame (1969) points out that Montaigne’s title was used “to designate not a genre but a procedure for exploring and revealing the self.” Some of the features of the Essais were unique to their author and scarcely imitable by future essayists: the central role of his friend Étienne de La Boétie (1530–63) in their inspiration; the extensive and highly original use of quotations, especially from classical authors; the disguising of his heterodox opinions by means of misleading titles given to individual essays; the abundant additions he made from one edition to the next, rendering the definitive text a palimpsest of meanings; the profound skepticism (that of a Catholic fideist) concerning the possibility of attaining certain truth outside of Christian revelation, a skepticism embodied in the very form of his essays. On the other hand, many features of the Essais were to remain genetically imprinted, so to speak, in the future essay of many lands: the highlighting of the “self” as both subject and point of view, more precisely the “observing self” (Graham Good, 1988), open to reflection on an endless variety of subjects; the tendency to reflect on the essay itself as subject matter (“Others write about various subjects; Montaigne writes about writing itself,” observed Marie de Gournay in her preface to the 1595 edition of the Essais); the fortuitous association of ideas and apparent randomness of form, resulting in a kind of artful disorder; and finally, the foregoing of the definitive expression of thought in favor of the expression of thought, so to speak, “in process.”
Montaigne is a rare example in literary history: the inventor of a literary type whose mastery of the type has remained unexcelled. The Greek tragedians met their match in Shakespeare; Aristophanes and Plautus met theirs in Molière; Cervantes met his in later novelists. “The perfection of any artistic form is rarely achieved by its first inventor. To this rule Montaigne is the great and marvelous exception” (Aldous Huxley, preface to Collected Essays, 1960). Having said this, however, one must also recognize that he left the field open for many types of essays that he could hardly have envisioned, such as the periodical essay, and for essayistic features that would be absorbed into what we might call “disguised essays” in all their various forms.
The development of the essay in France in the late 16th and 17th centuries largely coincides with the story of how the Essais were received and the extent of their influence, a story that has been told by such Montaigne scholars as Frame, Pierre Villey, Alan Boase, and Ian Winter. In the 1580s his example encouraged the vogue of discours and even a few direct imitations of his essay form. His influence reached abroad to Italy, Spain, and England. English followers, unlike their French counterparts, who were shy about adopting a title that seemed to be Montaigne’s private property, eagerly borrowed the title. The most famous of these was Francis Bacon, who in his Essayes (1597, 1612, 1625) brilliantly reinvented the form along lines quite different from Montaigne’s. In France, with changes in taste and the advent of the literary movement known as “classicism,” a sharp dichotomy occurred in Montaigne’s reception: on the one hand, his thought as moralist, skeptic, and promoter of the ideal of gentlemanly cultivation (l’honnêteté) was highly respected; on the other, his literary form (or what appeared to be formlessness) as well as his archaic, often coarse language and his abundance of personal detail were frowned upon. (This duality in the reception of his work would continue well into the 18th century.) Few were the writers who admired his whole project and imitated his form. One such was Pierre de L’Estoile (1546–1611) in his RegistreJournal (1606), whose title echoes the master’s view of his essays as being the “register” of his experiences. The well-intentioned Pierre Charron (1541–1603) showed how little he understood Montaigne’s originality as an essayist by publishing De la sagesse (1601; Of Wisdom), the first of what would be a long line of reductions of the Essais to a compendium of systematic thought. The jurist Étienne Pasquier (1529–1615) thought the Essais could be improved upon by eliminating a quarter of the text, cutting out all the self-descriptions!
If 17th-century authors tended to avoid the use of the title essai for their short prose pieces, preferring to call them discours, dissertations, réflexions, considerations, traités, etc., the usage did catch hold of calling long prose explorations of a given subject essais.
A precedent existed for this in the 16th century, in the political work of Montaigne’s friend, La Boétie, his Discours de la servitude volontaire (1548; A Discourse of Voluntary Servitude), which Montaigne himself describes as having been written “by way of essay” “par manière d’essai.” Great momentum was given to this use of the title by the philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), who describes his Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method) as being “essais de cette méthode.” “Trials of” evolved into “Essays on,” in such later works as the Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756–63; Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations) by Voltaire.
Before surveying the leading 17th-century essayists the essay should be considered in its relation to classical literary doctrine and to a form of resistance to this doctrine, namely, the defense of the literary rights of fragmentary and discontinuous prose. The ideal of French classicism had as its basic principles: imitation (more exactly, emulation) of the Greco-Roman “ancients”; the assignment of the forms (mostly verse) inherited from them to a hierarchy of genres; selectivity in choice of matter; impersonality; and highly polished, well-structured form. Obviously the essay had no place in this canon: its creator was less than a century old; it was all-inclusive in subject matter, defiantly personal, embedded in personal circumstances, loosely structured, open-ended, and closer to the process of thinking itself than to any finished product of thought. But the essay’s exclusion, like the novel’s, from the realm of consecrated literary forms meant that, like the novel, it had no need to conform to the strictures governing such “higher” forms as epic, tragic, comic, or satirical verse and could develop with perfect freedom. Perhaps even more significantly—as has been shown in the pioneer study by Jean Lafond and others, Les Formes brèves de la prose et le discours discontinu (XVIe-XVIIe siècles) (1984; Brief prose forms and discontinuous discourse in the 16th and 17th centuries)— Montaigne’s essays figure prominently in the assault against classical doctrine by partisans of prose forms marked by brevity, fragmentariness, and discontinuity.
Traditional rhetoric, deriving in great part from oratory, favored well-rounded, selfcontained discourse of a certain amplitude with a beginning, a middle, and an end; it dismissed short prose forms such as maxims as being materials for a literary work rather than a true literary work. Montaigne, an enemy of rhetoric, especially of the Ciceronian style, based his writing not on an oratorical but on a conversational model and defended both discontinuity and the relative autonomy of each fragmentary member (“chaque lopin” was his term) of his discourse. He was thus a pioneer in what Lafond, apropos of La Rochefoucauld (1613–80), calls strikingly “the aesthetics of the unfinished” (“l’esthétique de l’inachevèment”), a concept that was to have important repercussions in the Romantic and post-Romantic eras. The Réflexions; ou, Sentences et maximes morales (1665; popularly known as Maximes) of La Rochefoucauld are too brief to qualify as true essays; but both he and Jean de La Bruyère (1645–96), with his Les Caractères ou moeurs de ce siècle (1688; Characters, or the Manners of the Age), made literary history by boldly defying classical doctrine and claiming for their fragmentary discourse true literary stature.
Among 17th-century essayists who have been relegated by posterity to minor status are François de La Mothe le Vayer (1588–1672), whose loosely constructed self-examination and confession, Prose chagrine (1661; Distressed prose), is directly imitative of the Essais; Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1597–1654), an important figure in the evolution of classical French prose whose Dissertations critiques (1657) are ambiguous in their attitude toward Montaigne, deploring the Essais’s “lack of construction” but admitting, in a famous phrase, the charm of their digressions: “Montaigne does not always know where he is going [but] when he casts aside something good it is usually to find something better”; and Antoine Gombaud de Méré (1607–84), friend of Balzac and of Pascal (he exerted a marked influence on Pascal’s concept of the esprit de finesse), whose essays and letters, published posthumously (OEuvres posthumes, 1700), reveal imitations of Montaigne’s essay form (Alan Boase, 1935).
One of the few 17th-century writers to use the title “Essays” was the Jansenist theologian, Pierre Nicole (1625–95), in his Essais de morale (1671; Moral Essays). Little attempt to imitate Montaigne here, either in form or (even less) in self-portraiture (Nicole would have agreed with Pascal that “the ‘I’ is detestable”—“le moi est haïssable”); the Montaignean tradition he is appealing to is that of the modest attempt to deal with a subject, in this instance Christian ethics, that is too vast to handle otherwise. In any case Nicole is a pale, minor essayist compared to the incomparably greater “essayists in disguise” (that is, who used other titles): Blaise Pascal (1623–62), Madame de Sévigné, La Bruyère, and, the most self-conscious essayist as well as the closest in inspiration to Montaigne, SaintÉvremond.
The unfinished apology for the Christian religion that is Pascal’s Pensées, first published in 1670, for obvious reasons figures prominently in the 17th-century debate about the literary fragment, but it also contains Pascal’s famous ridicule of Montaigne’s “silly project of depicting himself.” Pascal’s real claim as an essayist is found in his letters to a friend in the provinces and to Jesuit Fathers concerning matters of morality and politics, published under the pseudonym of “Louis de Montalte” and familiarly known as the Lettres provinciales (1656–57; The Provincial Letters). Here he gladly acknowledged his debt to Montaigne’s “insinuating” conversational style, the style coupe (“abrupt style”) inherited by way of Montaigne from Seneca. The essay as a public letter also harks back to Seneca, and we recall that Montaigne viewed his essays as letters to an ideal friend. The brilliant, highly original polemical masterpiece of The Provindal Letters foreshadows such 18th-century polemicists as Voltaire as well as the modern journalistic essay.
Madame de Sévigné (1626–96) also used the letter form: in her case, letters primarily to her daughter which were circulated privately before being first published posthumously in 1725 and then subsequently in much enlarged editions. The 19thcentury critic Sainte-Beuve wrote perceptively (in an essay from 1829) of what we would now call her “essayistic” qualities. He compared her humor to that of the English.
“As a rule,” he added, “she set down whatever sprang to her mind, and as many things as possible,” letting her pen “trot along” and “glide over” (a phrase reminiscent of Montaigne) an abundance of ideas. Of the two types of style he found predominant in the 17th century, the one “austere, polished, workedover, learned” (he cites Guez de Balzac’s prose) and the other “broad, loose, abundant…far freer, capricious and varied, without traditional method,” stemming from Montaigne, there is no doubt to which current Madame de Sévigné belonged, nor is it surprising to learn that Montaigne was among the authors she read daily.
La Bruyère’s Characters are in some ways strongly indebted to the Essais and in other ways very unlike them. At first glance the looseness of the overall structure governing the 16 chapters, the apparent absence of a premeditated plan, and the individual chapter titles (“Des ouvrages de l’esprit” [“On Works of the Mind”], “Du mérite personnel” [“On Personal Merit”], etc.) suggest Montaigne, whom La Bruyère admired, from whom he borrowed many thoughts, and of whose style he even wrote a pastiche. But since he belonged to a generation formed by classical doctrine and by the conventions of the polite salon society of his time (the littérature mondaine or worldly literature), he departs in significant ways from Montaigne and thus, like Pascal and Madame de Sévigné, “reinvents” the essay. He expressly “imitates” the ancients, by basing his Characters on those of the Greek philosopher and moralist Theophrastus, whose Characters he also translated and published together with his own. His respect for “impersonality” meant that direct self-portraiture in his essays is rare: when he speaks of himself it is under fictional names or as “le philosophe.” His highly polished and finely chiseled prose bears little resemblance to Montaigne’s. His chapters, unlike Montaigne’s, are broken up into numbered subdivisions, varying in length from a single sentence (often a maxim) or paragraph to two or three pages. His originality is to have renewed the essay as a collection of fragments, intermediary in form between the essays of Montaigne and the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. His originality also lies in his content. A perceptive, sometimes profound, sharply satirical commentator on the society of his time, his “world”—often surprisingly like our own—is a mini“human comedy,” limited in scope compared to the vast canvas of a Montaigne or a Sainte-Beuve but nevertheless the product of one of France’s greatest moralists, a sociologist avant la lettre. His influence was strong on 18th-century writers, especially on Marivaux the essayist, another “modern Theophrastus.” His relevance to 20th-century criticism, thanks to his genius as an “essayist of customs” (“essayiste d’usages”), has been recognized by the major 20thcentury critic and essayist, Roland Barthes, in his Essais critiques (1964; Critical
Saint-Évremond (1614–1703), the descendant of an aristocratic Norman family, a career soldier and courtier, was forced by his involvement in the disgrace of Fouquet to spend roughly the latter half of his very long life as a political exile, first in Holland and then, until his death, in England. Thus, as a “spectator of the Versailles era” (Jean Prévost, Tableau de la littéra-ture française de Corneille a Chénier, 1939) rather than a participant, he enjoyed something of the literary freedom that Montaigne had benefited from during his self-imposed exile in his provincial château. He wrote abundantly but published little during his lifetime. As with Montaigne, his aristocratic code prevented his acknowledging himself as an “author”; he was “the author in spite of himself” (Eugène Joliat, “L’Auteur malgré lui,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 1955). To such writers the essay was perfectly suited as a genre, and so it comes as no surprise that apart from some verse and a few plays he wrote mostly essays, which he preferred to call “dissertations,” “little treatises,” “discourses,” “reflections,” “considerations,” “eulogies,” “characters” (following Theophrastus), “letters,” or “portraits.” His longest and most ambitious essay was his “Reflexions sur les divers génies du peuple romain dans les divers temps de la République” (1662; Reflections on diverse characteristics of the Romans during various phases of the Republic), a pioneer historical work highly esteemed by Montesquieu and other 18th-century writers. But for the most part he wrote “little works” which he considered (at least this was his playful pose, a stance found in many essayists) “trifles,” “bagatelles,” even, in his most self-deprecating mood, “pieces of foolishness” (“sottises”), an attitude straight out of his fellow aristocrat, Montaigne.
Saint-Évremond, traditionally esteemed as a link in the history of ideas between the 17th-century free thought of the libertins and the 18th-century Enlightenment, or as a moralist and literary critic, deserves to be better known as an essayist. His affinities with Montaigne, the reading of whom gave him lifelong pleasure, are many, including: writing essentially in order to know himself better and to live more wisely; the concept of writing as “conversation prolonged in written form” (Maurice Wilmotte, Saint-Évremond critique littéraire, 1921), which he derived also from the “long instances of table talk” in Plutarch; and the habit of presenting his thoughts “without order as they come to my mind.” Morris Croll (1966) places him, with La Bruyère, among the enemies of Ciceronian rhetoric who followed Montaigne’s example in the practice of Senecan or “Attic” prose (the “style coupé” or “loose style”). On the other hand, his vocabulary is severely pruned of what the grammarians of his day considered the overabundance or excrescences of Montaigne’s, appearing austere beside the latter’s marvelous wealth of words. His style, concise, laconic, deceptively simple, much admired by Voltaire and Stendhal for its compressed allusiveness, innuendos, and ironic overtones, lacks Montaigne’s expansiveness and poetic quality. He is the least poetic of the great French essayists. Unlike Montaigne, he rarely writes directly of himself: to speak of oneself intimately and too long was deemed in bad taste by the polite salons he frequented. His breadth of subject matter, while impressive—history, politics, literature, language, music, psychology, morality, religion—seems restricted when placed beside Montaigne’s or Sainte-Beuve’s. Yet this “subdued Montaigne” (“un Montaigne adouci,” in Sainte- Beuve’s happy phrase) must be credited with revitalizing the essay as a form of studied or artful conversation on the part of the honnête homme. With Saint Évremond, writes Quentin Hope (1962), “a new intimacy and informality [begin] to appear in literary criticism. Like letter writing, it becomes an extension and outgrowth of the art of conversation.” As an essayist SaintÉvremond is important not only in himself but as a link between Montaigne and Addison (George Saintsbury, Collected Papers, 1924), and consequently, as we shall see, between Montaigne and the greatest 18th-century French essayist Marivaux, whose point of departure was the Spectator of Addison and Steele.
2. The 18th Century
The 18th century is marked by a profusion of essay types, some renewed from those already in existence and others relatively new. However, except as a title for longer works, essayists continue to be reluctant to call their short prose works essais, perhaps out of deference to Montaigne. As for the reception given to Montaigne himself, Maturin Dréano has shown in his exhaustive study, La Renommée de Montaigne en France au XVIIIe siècle, 1677–1802 (1952; Montaigne’s fame in the 18th century), how mixed this continued to be: defenses and imitations of his Essais were juxtaposed with bowdlerized versions, compilations, extracts, “breviaries” for the honnête homme, and other variations. Purely as a thinker, he exerted more influence than ever on the Age of Enlightenment, since “the philosophes carried out against classical thought a campaign very similar to that of Renaissance and Reformation writers against the Middle Ages.”
“As it emerged from the classical period,” observes Theodore Fraser (1986), “the essay form became in turn for the philosophes the favored literary genre by which they could forward their assault on the traditional citadels of power and prestige.” Furthermore, as the century progressed readers and critics became more appreciative of Montaigne’s socalled “disorder,” recognizing it as perfectly suited to the context of a “conversation.”
The main development in the essay of this time is the emergence of the periodical (la grande presse) as a new vehicle for short works of philosophical, historical, literary, and artistic criticism, as well as a polemical weapon. Older journals, such as Le Journal des Savants (1665; The journal of the sages) and Le Mercure Galant (1672–1724; The gallant Mercury; then Le Mercure de France, 1724–1965), continued to function. The first daily paper, Le Journal de Paris, was founded in 1777. The philosopher Pierre Bayle had established his Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters), an early example of “literary reportage,” in 1684. These were followed by Le Pour et le Contre (1733–40; The pros and cons) of the Abbé Antoine-François Prévost (1697–1763) and by two distinguished journals produced by opponents of the philosophes: the Journal (originally Mémoires) de Trévoux (1701–62) and L’Annee Littéraire (1754–90; The literary year) of Voltaire’s worthy adversary, Elie-Catherine Fréron (1718–76). Much admired by Sainte-Beuve (in Causeries du lundi, 1853) as a precursor of the modern critical essay was the Correspondance Littéraire (1718–96; Literary correspondence) of the German-born Frédéric de Grimm (1723–1807) who, in his role as Paris correspondent of various German sovereigns for literary and artistic “news” became “the literary chronicler of the century.” He also enjoyed the luck to have as his collaborator one of the century’s greatest essayists, Denis Diderot. Many of the new journalists, or nouvellistes as they were also called, prepared their published ideas in the conversational atmosphere of drawing-rooms and cafés such as the Procope, the Régence, and the Rotonde. The “age of criticism,” as it has been called, thus greatly favored the expansion of the essay. A vast new public for the genre appeared in the form of the bourgeoisie libérale, whose power was growing. The 18th was also above all the century of great prose, a fact which added to the essay’s popularity. Between La Fontaine and the Romantic poets, verse went into decline, along with the classical hierarchy of genres favoring verse. As the strict separation of genres promoted by classical doctrine broke down, new forms of prose, such as the prose poem and poetic prose, absorbed lyrical elements once found in verse.
Examples from among the great number of essays in the longer form are: the aforementioned Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations by Voltaire; De l’esprit des lois (1748; The Spirit of Laws) and Essai sur le goût (1756; An Essay on Taste) of Charles de Montesquieu (1689–1755); and De l’esprit (1758; Essays on the Mind) of Charles-Adrien Helvétius (1715–71). Short essay forms may be grouped roughly under four types: the éloge (eulogy); the dictionary or encyclopedia article; the letter; and the rêverie.
The most brilliant exponent of the éloge, a forerunner of the biographical essay, was the witty Bernard de Fontenelle (1657–1757), lion of the salons as well as learned “perpetual secretary” of the Royal Academy of Sciences, better known for his longer works (dialogues, satires) popularizing scientific discoveries and boldly undermining religious dogmas. His éloges of Academy members, published in the Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences (History of the Royal Academy of Sciences), a journal he edited from 1699 to 1740, were based on factual accounts and free of the panegyrical, declamatory style customary in such tributes; they were much admired by Sainte-Beuve, who recognized in them one of the sources of his own essay-portraits. Another admirer was the English biographical essayist Lytton Strachey; lamenting in 1918 that the art of biography “seems to have fallen on evil times in England,” he added, “We have never had, like the French, a great biographical tradition; we have had no Fontenelles and Condorcets [Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet (1749–94)], with their incomparable éloges, compressing into a few shining pages the manifold existences of men” (preface to Eminent Victorians). Fontenelle the essayist is also important for having carried forward from Saint-Évre-mond, who had in turn learned it from Montaigne, the art one of the marks of the true essayist—of treating serious subjects in a light, ironical vein.
Masterful examples of the essay as dictionary or encyclopedia article are found in the Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary,) of Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), who emulated Montaigne’s digressive form; Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portratif (1764; Philosophical Dictionary); and the great Encyclopédie (1751–72), whose chief organizer was Diderot and for which Bayle’s
Dictionary had prepared the way. Bayle, though hardly a great stylist, had brought immense learning as well as polemical wit to the essay, providing a model for later writers, including Sainte-Beuve, who named him as one of his “three masters” (the other two were Horace and Montaigne).
The epistolary essay, a firm thread running from Seneca through Montaigne to Pascal and Madame de Sévigné, continues strong into the 18th century. Its three greatest exemplars are Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters), Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, also known as Lettres sur les Anglais (1734; Letters on England), and Diderot’s Correspondance (1830–31). Montesquieu admired his fellow Gascon, Montaigne, whom he called, with great acumen, “man thinking” as opposed to “man writing” and ranked, with Plato, as one of the great poets in prose. His own style was stronger in precision and clarity than in poetic qualities; but he learned from Montaigne how to combine “lightness of tone with basic seriousness” and, unlike Voltaire, was in no way shocked by Montaigne’s “disorder.” Closer in time as models for Montesquieu were La Bruyère’s Characters and Les Amusements sérieux et comiques d’un Siamois (1699) of Charles Rivière Dufresny (1648–1724), the impressions of a Siamese visitor to Paris, the prototype of this kind of semifictional observation (“sociological” in import) of one’s own society as seen through foreign eyes. (Montaigne’s great essay “Des cannibales” [“Of Cannibals”], which criticizes his own society by comparing it with the merits of so-called “savages,” may have originally sparked this type of writing.) The essaystory of Montesquieu’s Persians in Paris serves as the pretext for social satire; it is also one of the earliest examples of the breakdown in the classical distinction between literary forms, leading to the fusion of genres, since it is as much a short novel in letter form as an essay work. Montesquieu was probably justified in claiming that the Lettres persanes “taught others how to write epistolary novels.” The Letters on England by Voltaire (pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778) gives a new twist to this type of satire by adopting the stance of himself as a foreigner (a Frenchman in exile in England) comparing the failings of the ancien regime with what he considered the superior merits of English society. His letters are cast in a more recognizable essay form than those of Montesquieu: in the first person, without narrative continuity, and with such essayistic chapter headings as “Sur les quakers,” “Sur M. Locke,” etc. He had less enthusiasm for Montaigne than did Montesquieu or Diderot, defending his self-portrayal against Pascal’s attack upon it but complaining that Montaigne the writer lacked “eloquence”; he also denied him a place in his ideal “Temple of Taste” (“temple du goût”). There is, furthermore, a strong polemical strain in Voltaire (pamphlets, diatribes) that is alien to the relative detachment of the Essais.
Denis Diderot’s (1713–84) Correspondance belongs to the tradition of the essay as private letter later made public. Many critics consider his correspondence on a wealth of subjects, carried on over a period of 40 years with friends, family, and especially his mistress, Sophie Volland (a name he immortalized), to be his true masterpiece. Diderot also “created modern French art criticism as a literary genre” (Otis Fellows and Norman Torrey, 1942.) thanks to his articles (the Salons, 1759–72) for his friend Grimm’s Correspondance Littéraire. He provided a model for both Sainte-Beuve’s critical essays in literature and Charles Baudelaire’s Salons on art and music. Nor should we forget the essayistic features found in his many other works (pensées, dialogues, entretiens), in his contributions as chief editor to the Encyclopédie, and even in his novels. He brought to the essay one of the greatest French prose styles, characterized by what Jean Thomas
(Histoire des littératures, vol. 3, 1958) calls a unique kind of “lyrisme cerebral.” Only Marivaux, his rival and perhaps superior as an essayist, owed more than Diderot to Montaigne’s example. For Diderot the Essais were “superior to the work of any moralist who has appeared since his [Montaigne’s] time.” He admired their form as much as their content, emulating their imaginative style and their loose, wandering structure
(“vagabondage”), arguing that the latter, far from being an idiosyncrasy, conformed to the very nature of the human mind itself. His own mind, like Montaigne’s, “worked through digression and association rather than through logical pattern” (Fellows and Torrey).
The final 18th-century variation on the essay form to be mentioned is the rêverie, a new literary genre created by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) in his Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (The Reveries of a Solitary Walker), published posthumously in 1782. In his much more famous Confessions (also posthumously published, 1782 and 1789), to which the Reveries are a kind of epilogue, he also invented another new genre, the modern autobiography, breaking the powerful taboo against intimate self-portraiture which had prevailed in France since Montaigne’s first attempt to challenge it. Unlike Montaigne’s only partly autobiographical Essais, the Confessions are a continuous, integrated narrative of their author’s past; they were meant, furthermore, to surpass in frankness a Montaigne he judged to be only pseudo-sincere. Yet he called Montaigne “the master of us all” (“notre maître a tous”), worthy of emulation for his stylistic “naturalness, grace, and energy” and for his “spontaneous mind” (“esprit primesautier”).
It is in the Reveries that Rousseau’s true indebtedness to Montaigne as well as his recreation of the essay may be found. He achieved the latter, according to Henri Roddier (in his 1960 edition of the Reveries), in two distinct ways: by inventing the “essaiconfidence,” confiding intimate feelings and sensations to the reader; and by preparing the way for the related modern genre of the intimate journal (“journal intime”). Having learned from Montaigne’s example, he brought to the essay: 1) an association of ideas based more on sensations than on logical thought; 2) a poetic prose alien to Montesquieu’s or Voltaire’s but akin to that of Diderot; and 3) the concept of what may be called the “peripatetic” essay, reflections arising from his walks in the countryside around Paris, thoughts and feelings stimulated by no precise object, often by pure chance as (so he describes it in the “Seconde Promenade”) “I let my mind be completely free, and my ideas follow their inclination unopposed and unconstrained.” One can hardly imagine a source of inspiration further removed from the polite conversation of the salon or the witty exchanges of the cafés, both of which animated other types of 18th-century essays mentioned earlier.
That it was possible to harmonize both kinds of inspiration had already been proved by the last (but the earliest in date of birth) and in many ways the greatest of the 18thcentury essayists to be mentioned: Marivaux (1688–1763). He stands apart from the others in several ways: as the creator of the one-man feuille périodique (periodical folio) or essai journalistique (journalistic essay); as the most self-conscious heir of Montaigne; as a rare student and emulator of the English essay and author of reflections on the nature of the essay itself; and for the unique manner in which his essays are integrated into an organic whole consisting also of his novels and plays. Few French writers of any age have been more original, more daring in their experimentation, and in so many literary genres, than this avant-garde partisan of the Moderns, in the Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns, this subverter of classical doctrine and classical rhetoric, whose reputation has been unjustly overshadowed by those of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.
To reduce his writing to marivaudage, or the excessively refined, even affected or précieux discourse about love, is to deny its true breadth and depth: his subject was nothing less than what the anti-hero of his novel, Le Paysan parvenu (1734–35; The Upstart Peasant), calls “the art of reading people’s minds and figuring out their secret feelings”—the art, in other words, of discovering not what they say but what they mean (Freud would certainly have understood his approach). An astute contemporary of Marivaux called his field of inquiry, in a memorable phrase, “the metaphysics of the human heart.”
Marivaux began his essay work with a series of articles in the Nouveau Mercure de France (New Mercury of France) entitled Lettres sur les habitants de Paris (1717–18; Letters on the inhabitants of Paris), inspired by La Bruyère’s Characters (like La Bruyère he too fancied himself as a “modern Theophrastus”) and by Dufresny’s Amusements sérieux et comiques d’un Siamois. These essays are less interesting for their satirical content than for their foreshadowing of an aesthetics of the essay which Marivaux would put into practice in his mature essay masterpieces, Le Spectateur Français (1721–24; The French spectator) and L’Indigent Philosophe (1727; The pauper philosopher).
Montaigne’s influence is obvious in the essential features of the essay as Marivaux conceived the genre: 1) an infinite number and variety of subjects; 2) a mixture of the serious and the lighthearted (cf. Dufresny’s sérieux et comique), a direct contradiction of the classical doctrine’s proprieties that forbad the mixture of tones and styles; 3) an ordering of subject matter depending largely on chance (cf. Montaigne: “I take the first subject that chance offers. They are all equally good to me”) and on immediate circumstances; 4) a complete freedom of thought (libertinage d’idées) that follows fancy and natural bent (le naturel) rather than logic; and finally 5) the freedom to write primarily to please oneself while at the same time (a paradox here) engaging in a dialogue with one’s reader. On this last point, Marivaux’s self-portrayal, characteristic of the relative reticence of French essayists as compared with their English counterparts, is rarely as intimate as Montaigne’s and much less so than Rousseau’s. This in fact adds to his appeal, since it obliges the reader, as Jean Fabre (Histoire des littératures, vol. 3, 1958) has observed, to “search out the true self of Marivaux beneath the first person of Le Spectateur français and L’Indigent philosophe.” These two works—the first, using Addison and Steele’s Spectator as a springboard for innovation, and the second, an even bolder experiment, described by its author as “an essay of what could be done by writing haphazardly whatever might strike the imagination”—establish Marivaux as one of the greatest French essayists.
3. The 19th Century
The essay as a long continuous discourse prolongs its life into the 19th as well as the 20th centuries. Examples from among many include the Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les revolutions anciennes et modernes (1797; An Historical, Political and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern) of the great Romantic prose writer, Chateaubriand (1768–1848); De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; The Influence of Literature upon Society) and De l’Allemagne (1810; On Germany) of Madame de Staël (1766–1817); and the Essai sur les Fables de La Fontaine (1853) of Hippolyte Taine. These longer works cover the broadest range of subjects and vary in approach from the impersonal, even the erudite, to the more personal ones such as De l’amour (1822.; On Love) of Stendhal (pseudonym of Henri Beyle, 1783–1842). Among recurrent types of the short essay inherited from earlier centuries are the essay as public letter and the essay as polemical—usually political—pamphlet. The Romantic poet Alfred de Musset (1810–57) exemplifies the first type in his delightful satire on certain foibles of Romanticism, published in 1836–37 in the form of four letters to the editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes (Review of two worlds), as the Lettres de Dupuis et de Cotonet (the double pseudonym assumed by their author). The Mémoires in letter form (1828) by Paul-Louis Courier (1772–1825), inspired by those of Pliny the Younger, contain many reminiscences of Madame de Sévigné’s letters. But it is primarily as one of the last of the great pamphleteers, according to Albert Thibaudet (1936), that Courier deserves to be remembered. His chief model was Pascal’s Provincial Letters.
Courier defended the pamphlet as a literary genre in his Pamphlet des pamphlets (1824).
His younger rival as political essayist was the liberal anti-Second Empire journalist Lucien-Anatole Prévost-Paradol (1829–70), especially in his Essais de politique et de littérature (1859; Essays on politics and literature) and their sequel, the Nouveaux Essais…(1862). Prévost-Paradol ranks high among what the French call écrivains de combat, the best of whom knew how to reveal permanent, universal meaning in the ephemeral issues they addressed. In his ambition for the political essay to win (as he put it) “right of entry into the highest literary regions,” he anticipated George Orwell’s aspiration “to make political writing into an art.” Among his English models were the pamphleteers Junius and Jonathan Swift (he wrote a doctoral dissertation on Swift).
However, overshadowing in importance these revivals of earlier forms of the essay are several major developments. The most significant is the emergence of the modern periodical; others include the renewal of the aesthetic defense of fragmentary or discontinuous prose works, the shifting relationship of the essay to other genres, and the growing number of writers whose essay work is part of their production as poets, novelists, or dramatists.
Writes Fraser: “The essay’s rise in the nineteenth century to the status of an authentic, widely used, but [n.b.] still undeclared literary genre, is intimately bound up with the rapid growth of journalism in France,” a phenomenon closely paralleled in England. In this great flowering, a new type of essay emerges: first published in one of the new journals or reviews—the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Revue de Paris (The Paris review), the Joumal des Débats (Journal of debates), Le Constitutionnel (The constitutional), Le Temps (The Times), to name only a few—such essays then reappeared in collections, a new vehicle for diffusion of the genre. The great pioneer in France of this revitalized essay form, its “Montaigne,” is Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–69). His Portraits (1844–46) and Causeries and Nouveaux Causeries du Lundi (1849–69; Monday and New Monday Chats), spanning almost 30 years of production, deal with literary criticism, often (but not always) biographically oriented, and conceived in the broadest sense (he was primarily a moralist), so as to constitute a veritable “human comedy” peopled with hundreds of writers and other figures. Sainte-Beuve aimed, as Virginia Woolf was later to do in her role as critic for the Times Literary Supplement, at something much better than what she called “journalism embalmed in a book.” Another writer who met the challenge—an aesthetic as much as an intellectual one—of the periodical essay was the historian and philosopher Ernest Renan (1823–92) who, from the 1850s until his death, produced several outstanding essay collections, including his Études d’histoire religieuse (1857; Studies of Religious History), Essais de morale et de critique (1859; Moral and critical essays), Questions contemporaines (1868; Contemporary issues), and, the year of his death, the semi-autobiographical Feuilles détachées (1892; Detached leaves). SainteBeuve modestly credited his younger contemporary Renan with being “the master of a new genre,” the “article de revue.” It would be more accurate to say that Renan broadened the scope of this kind of essay still further than his predecessor, to embrace religious history, philosophy, politics, and contemporary affairs, bringing to it, in addition, a depth of thought and refinement of poetic style rarely found in Sainte-Beuve. He also added new luster to the essay-asdialogue in his Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876; Philosophical Dialogues and Fragments), inspired by Plato and by Nicolas de Malebranche (1638–1715), and launched the essay as speech or lecture.
Both Sainte-Beuve and Renan stimulated by example a whole succession of younger, less gifted critics and authors of essais, études, and the like, ranging from the (pseudo-) scientific (several were bent on finding physiological or psychological “explanations” for artistic creation) to the frankly subjective and “impressionistic.” Among the most notable were Hippolyte Taine (1828–93), who proposed to make a “science” of literary criticism (Essais de critique et d’histoire [1858; Critical and historical essays]); Anatole France (pseudonym of Jacques Thibault, 1844–1924), for whom, on the contrary, the critic is “one who relates the adventures of his soul among masterpieces” as illustrated in his La Vie littéraire (1888–92; The literary life, translated as On Life and Letters); Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906), editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes, best known for his attempt to assimilate Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to the history of literary genres, L’Évolution des genres dans l’histoire de la littérature (1890; The evolution of genres in the history of literature); Paul Bourget (1852–1935), whose Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1883–85; Essays in contemporary psychology) has outlasted in value his novels; Jules Lemaître (1853–1914), a short-story writer, drama critic for the Journal des Débats, and essayist in his Les Contemporains (1885–1918; Contemporaries), Impressions de théâtre (1888–1910; Theatrical Impressions), and Politiques et moralistes du XIXe siècle (1903; 19th-century political and moralist writers); and finally, in some ways the most original essayist of this later generation, admired by T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, and other exponents of Modernism, Remy de Gourmont (1858–1915), who invented in his La Culture des idées (1900; The Culture of Ideas) and Promenades littéraires (1904–27) an early form of “deconstructionism” which he called “dissociation of ideas,” and whose Promenades philosophiques (1905–09) are personal essays directly inspired by Montaigne.
The great poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) stands apart as an essayist for his unique approach to criticism, and is superior in his gift to any of the aforementioned periodical essayists except Sainte-Beuve and Renan. His view that criticism should be creative and poetic in nature owed much to SainteBeuve; he went even further in claiming paradoxically that the ideal critic inevitably works within the horizon limited by his own passions and prejudices, while always seeking to broaden that horizon. His voluminous critical writing includes remarkable assessments of contemporary artists and penetrating reflections on the nature of the imagination, Romanticism, and modernity in art. His essays on painting and music, especially his Salons (1845–59), link him to the tradition launched by Diderot. The elements of surprise, digression, and paradox, as well as the shifting, multiple perspectives found in his essays, are highly reminiscent of Montaigne (Martha Evans, The French Essay, 1982).
The periodical essay was far from being limited to literary and other kinds of criticism.
One of the liveliest guises it assumed, especially with the Romantics, was that of the travel essay, whose improvised, meandering form tended to mimic the unstructured nature of the voyages it described. Its most gifted practitioners were the Romantic poets Gérard de Nerval (pseudonym of Gérard Labrunie, 1808–55) and Théophile Gautier (1811–72), and the lesser-known, unjustly neglected Émile Montégut (1825–95), literary critic for the Revue des Deux Mondes. Although Nerval never uses the term essai, he does call himself an “essayiste,” a word introduced from English in 1821, and refers to his “essayisme.” In his essay masterpiece, Les Nuits d’octobre (1852; October nights), the account of his meanderings in the Île de France, he describes his essayisme as the tendency to wander (“vagabondage”). The spirit of Montaigne’s artful disorder permeates this work and also his Promenades et souvenirs (1854; Walks and reminiscences), but the models he actually acknowledged were Rousseau’s The Reveries of a Solitary Walker and Les Nuits de Paris, ou Le Spectateur nocturne (1788–94; Parisian nights, or the nocturnal spectator) of Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne (1734–1806). Gautier correctly placed Nerval in their tradition of “peripatetic literature” (“la littérature ambulante”). Gautier himself was no stranger to this same type of essay or to “essayism.” In addition to memorable critical articles such as Les Grotesques (1844), literary portraits of François Villon, Paul Scarron, and others, he published delightful travel sketches: Un voyage en Espagne (1843; A voyage to Spain), Caprices et zig-zags (1852), whose title alone invites us to place him in the essay tradition, and others. The majority of Montégut’s almost 300 published articles, of which only a third have been collected in book form, deal with literary criticism, supplemented by moral essays, political essays, and travel essays centered on his native region of south-central France. This “encyclopedic and cosmopolitan essayist” (Pierre Alexis Muenier, Émile Montégut, 1925) whose breadth of knowledge and interests rivaled those of Sainte-Beuve, Taine, or Renan and included pioneer studies in comparative literature (especially English and American literatures) was also a self-conscious essayist and student of the genre, who derived much of his inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson (whom he translated) and Thomas Carlyle. His objective, a highly unusual one for a journalist, was to replace the “artificial linking of thoughts” endemic in the journalistic article with a freer, more “indefinite and indeterminate” order, allowing for the play of the subconscious (“l’inconscience”). His motto might have been a sentence from his Types littéraires et fantaisies esthétiques (1882; Literary types and aesthetic fantasies): “We never go so far as when we know not where we are going.” Montaigne would have smiled on this idea across the centuries, and also on the fact that a 19th-century journalist-critic would be attacking Ciceronian rhetoric as he had attacked it in his own time.
To the flowering of the periodical essay as the most important development of the genre in the 19th century should be added the three other major developments mentioned above. The Romantic defense of fragmentary and discontinuous prose began in the late 18th century when the German critic Friedrich Schlegel discovered the beauty of the maxim. A whole “literature of the fragment” with an influence on the history of the essay emerged, whose vogue was akin to the Romantic taste for paintings of ruined (in other words, fragmentary) edifices. Its later exponents would include the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the poet-essayist Paul Valéry, and the poet René Char (1907–88).
Fragments were described by the early German Romantic philosopher and poet Novalis as “literary seeds” capable of germinating larger structures (Lafond, 1984). Both the fragment and the discontinuous discourse found a 19th-century apologist in France in the moralist and pensée writer Joseph Joubert (1754–1824), whose selected thoughts taken from his notebooks were first published by his literary protégé Chateaubriand in 1838 and, in more complete form, by Pierre de Raynal, as Pensées, maximes, essais, et correspondance (1842). Joubert’s debt to Montaigne’s discontinu is clear from his statement, “I am just as unsuited to continuous discourse as Montaigne.”
A still further major development affecting the 19th-century essay was the decline of the classical tradition of the hierarchy and strict separation of genres, whose political implications Antoine de Rivarol (1753–1801) had shrewdly noted by comparing “the classes of styles in our language” to the “classes of subjects in our monarchy.” The 18th century had already prepared the way for this transformation in such writers as Diderot, who made sport of the “rules” and advocated resorting to new literary forms whenever the traditional genres failed to meet new aspirations. The absorption of poetry into prose made possible the mastery of the poème en prose in such 19th-century poets as Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98). The latter wrote not only critical essays on literature, music, theater, and ballet but also prose poems such as Divagations (1897; Ramblings), comparable to very short essays, pondering the mystery of poetry in a difficult, challenging prose unlike that of any essayist before him. Gradually the distinction between genres became blurred (in the 20th century the very concept of genre would be radically questioned); many features of the essay were absorbed into the novel, the autobiography, the intimate journal, or intimate notebooks (cahiers, carnets, etc.).
The novel, like the essay, having developed outside classical doctrine, was free to say “almost everything about almost anything” (Huxley). Montégut went on record as deploring the novel’s tendency to “take on the most varied forms [and] to replace other genres.” In a more positive vein, Patrick Henry (1987), commenting on the influence of Montaigne’s concept of “continuous becoming” on such modern novelists as Proust, Joyce, and Woolf, observes: “Like the novel, the essay, which is also a narrative form of continuous becoming, can [quoting the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin] ‘include, ingest, devour other genres and still retain its status,’ for once again, like the novel, it has no canon of its own.” As for confessional literature, which had been growing in attraction for writers since Rousseau, it obviously usurped some of the traditional territory of the essay, especially in France, where the essay as a vehicle for intimate selfportrayal was less acceptable than in England. From the intimate journals and notebooks of Sainte-Beuve, Renan, and Baudelaire through those of André Gide, Valéry, and Albert Camus and beyond, this more direct form of self-disclosure would parallel the indirect form found in the essay.
In the 19th century, finally, the distinction between “pure” essayists and those whose essays constitute a more or less integral part of their total work as poets, novelists, or playwrights becomes firmly established. Renan, Montégut, Taine, Brunetière, and Gourmont belong to the first “family.” In the preceding century, Marivaux offers the initial example of a writer whose essays are part of a total vision also involving imaginative works (in his case, novels and plays). Voltaire conteur and dramatist, Rousseau novelist, Diderot novelist and dramatist, also follow this pattern. Nineteenthcentury examples abound: Nerval, Gautier, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Anatole France.
Sainte-Beuve’s limited success as poet and novelist should not blind us to the fact that his essays are intimately related to his poems and novel. His special significance from this point of view lies in his theory and practice of criticism as a creative art (Richard Chadbourne, 1977), which gave new prestige to the essay by breaking down the artificial distinction between “critical” and “creative” or “imaginative” literature. “With the example of Sainte-Beuve,” observes Wallace Fowlie (1957), “the critic became a writer, and literary criticism became an art of writing.”
4. The 20th Century
The 20th century witnesses no decline in the fortunes of the essay. On the contrary, it has become an “eclectic kind of literary genre—and one supple enough to be adapted to the many individual styles and varied purposes” of leading 20th-century writers (Fraser). At times the essay not only rivals but surpasses in interest the so-called “creative” genres.
New journals and reviews take root as vehicles for essays in their initial form, including the Nouvelle (and later Nouvelle Nouvelle) Revue Française (1908–43, 1953–; New French review), the Cahiers du Sud (1914–; Notebooks of the south), the Nouvelles Littéraires (1920–; Literary news), Les Temps Modernes (1945–; Modern times), Critique (1946), and Tel Quel (1960–82; As is; then L’Infini, 1982–; The infinite). French writers continue to be more reluctant than their English counterparts to use the essay for self-portraiture, preferring autobiography, journal, notebooks, and other forms. New impetus is given to the travel essay and the lyrical essay, and critical awareness grows of the essay, both as a genre unlike any other and as an “anti-genre” undermining all the others.
As in the preceding century, essayists may still be divided roughly into two groups: those who wrote primarily or only essays; and “creative” writers (for want of a better term) who have left an important body of essayistic work. To begin with the lesser lights among the former type: Julien Benda (1867–1956), in his La Trahison des clercs (1927; The Treason of the Intellectuals); André Suarès (1868–1948), literary, musical, and art critic, travel essayist, and moralist (Voici l’homme [1905; Here is man]); Albert Thibaudet (1874–1936), literary critic, historian of modern French literature, author of a series of Reflexions (1938–40) on literature, the novel, and criticism itself; Charles Du Bos (1882–1939), explorer of English literature and of spirituality in literature, in his Approximations (1922–37); Henri Massis (1886–1970), Catholic apologist and critic of the educational system (Agathon, ou, L’Esprit de la nouvelle Sorbonne [1911; Agathon, or, the spirit of the new Sorbonne]); Jean Rostand (1894–1977), who used biology as a springboard for meditations on human nature (Pensées d’un biologiste [1939; Thoughts of a biologist]); Simone Weil (1909–43), spiritual writer, searching and prophetic critic of modern society (Oppression et liberté [1955; Oppression and Liberty], edited by none other than Camus himself); the Romanian-French author E.M.Cioran (1911–95), a relentlessly pessimistic writer whose laconic, fragmentary texts such as Précis de décomposition (1949; A Short History of Decay), Syllogismes de l’amer-tume (1952; Syllogisms of bitterness), and De l’inconvénient d’être né (1973; The Trouble with Being Born) often read like a self-parodying intimate journal, “without chronology or intimate detail, reflecting the disorder inherent in the intellectual life itself ” (Bruno Vercier and Jacques Lecarme, 1982); and Michel Serrès (1930–), whose five-volume series of essays, from Hermès: La Communication (1968) to Le Passage du NordOuest (1980; The northwest passage), propose a critique of science from the viewpoint of a new humanism.
The most original and gifted of the “pure” essayists are Alain (pseudonym of Emile- Auguste Chartier, 1868–1951) and Roland Barthes (1915–80). Journalist and lycée philosophy professor, Alain produced, over a period of some 30 years (1903–36), more than 5000 uniformly brief prose pieces which he called “propos,” meaning “propositions” presented for our reflection; “proposals,” plans, or designs for living more wisely; and simply, “words.” As Jean Miquel puts it (Les Propos d’Alain, 1967), Alain “tried his hand at everything” (a Montaignean trait); hence the contents are amazing in their variety. The impulse for a given propos was usually less an idea than, as in the essays of Montaigne or Marivaux, a chance circumstance or occurrence, often an observed concrete phenomenon of the humblest everyday kind, out of which an idea would grow.
Some propos are veiled or stylized selfportraits, while others (again one thinks of Montaigne’s reflections on the writing of essays) are thoughts on the art of the propos, or, more broadly, on the creative process itself. Each propos can be read independently of the others, yet one leads to another, and certain themes recur: Alain recognized this last feature by grouping and publishing some of them that possessed a common theme (e.g. Propos sur le bonheur [1925–28; Alain on Happiness]). Form and style depended greatly on improvisation and the author’s desire to espouse what he called “thought in action” or the process of thought (another affinity with Montaigne and Marivaux). Yet the constraints within which he worked, those cruel deadlines and severe limitations of length, worked miraculously to bring out the craftsman in him, for he is one of the most impeccable and artistic of French prose stylists. Not always the clearest, however: his elliptical style, with its unexpected juxtapositions of thought and absence of transitions, is often deliberately “obscure,” so as to challenge the reader’s alertness and intelligence.
“Many of the propos” observes Sterling Madsen (in an unpublished dissertation, Duke University, 1975), “are so structured as to defy immediate interpretation.” The propos have been variously compared to the act of breathing, mental gymnastics, choreography (“the dance of thoughts,” is Alain’s phrase), the fugue, and a proposition, but not a proof, in geometry (Madsen). Many propos are small prose poems or poetic rêveries.
Although he owed much to Montaigne, La Bruyère, Montesquieu, and Bayle, Alain was also very conscious of his originality as an essayist. As much as he detested Sainte- Beuve, his own journalistic feat of producing essays at frequent, regular intervals, on command, without serious sacrifice of quality, is equaled only by the author of the Lundis. His conviction that the essay was a creative art also links him with SainteBeuve.
Much of his writing remains timelessly relevant, since he succeeded in uncovering general principles beneath the particulars of contemporary issues he treated; or, as he put it, “My destiny was to become a journalist raising the newspaper column to the level of metaphysics.”
Like Alain, Barthes was a journalist-critic writing for the most part sur commande and an academic, though at a higher level than Alain’s in the educational system, at the Collège de France, where he held the chair in semiology (the science of signs) created especially for him. This broad field took him well beyond the study of language and literature into writing about the language of fashion, film, theater, photography, painting, music, and other subjects. His questioning of the “establishment” was more radical than Alain’s, since it challenged the very assumptions about reality embodied in the ideologies of today’s power structures, the very claims of language and literature to have some privileged access to truth undistorted by ideology. A unique feature of his essays was his ability to absorb in succession the values of various “schools” of thought—Marxism, semiology, anthropology, psychoanalysis—abandoning each in turn, not because of any “dilettantism” but because of his belief that none offered a definitive guide and out of his horror of becoming an “authority,” “expert,” or “true believer” (Montaigne underwent similar changes of position and for similar reasons). Giving unity to this amazing diversity of subjects, as Susan Sontag (1982) has observed, there is a central subject: writing itself and its relation to “the theory of his own mind.” A hedonistic quest for pleasure in what he reads, a spirit of playfulness (reminiscent of Renan), sometimes of joy, are attractively balanced by a sense of responsibility that links his work with the kind of ethical inquiry associated with the long line of French moralistes.
Barthes published a number of book-length essays, such as his first book, Le Degré zero de l’écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero), challenging the theory of Jean-Paul Sartre of literature as social commitment, in the name of a purer kind of writing (l’écriture) freed from the dictates of the “institution of literature.” Other long essays are his book on the semiology of fashion, Système de la mode (1967; The Fashion System), and the controversial essay on Japanese culture as a system of “pure signs,” L’Empire des signes (1970; Empire of Signs). But Barthes had the natural-born essayist’s “resistance to long forms” (Sontag); he is more at home in his short essays, which Sontag divides into two main types: the “straight essay” conceived in more or less linear, logical fashion (reviews, articles, etc.) and the later, more personal and original essays in which a “splintering of form” occurred, leading him to the essay as discontinuous fragment.
Examples of the first type are his Essais critiques (1964; Critical Essays) and their sequels amounting to five volumes in all (1964–73) and Mythologies (1957; Mythologies), brief pieces resembling Alain’s propos in form and, in content, both La Bruyère’s Characters (he admired this author and emulated him as an “essayist of customs”—“un essayiste d’usages”) and Marivaux’s Spectateur Français. Although Barthes claimed in an interview not to have read Montaigne, Réda Bensmaïa (1986) has pursued a number of parallels in their use of the essay as “reflective text.” In the brilliant and highly amusing Mythologies, originally published as monthly feature articles for the Lettres Nouvelles (New letters), Barthes the “mythographer” demythifies stereotypes of popular culture and everyday life, from ads for detergents to “people in the news.” His boldest experimentation in the essay form, shading off into the essay “deconstructing” itself, or the “anti-essay,” is found in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes) and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). The first, commissioned for the series Écrivains de toujours, in which a critic usually writes about a “classic” author or prestigious contemporary one, set the remarkable precedent of having a living author write about himself. Barthes’ little volume uses the quasi-fictional pronoun il (he) as much as the personal je (I) and breaks the mold of rhetorical structure by chopping up the subject matter into small paragraphs (called “biographemes” and compared to family snapshots), arranged, in a further bold stroke, in the deliberately arbitrary alphabetical order. Barthes returns to this device of the fragmentary, discontinuous, alphabetically arranged “order” in A Lover’s Discourse.
Among poets and novelists whose essays are more or less integrated into their total work, several deserve brief mention, while five should be highlighted for their greater originality or the way in which they recast the essay in a radically new role: Paul Valéry, Henry de Montherlant, Albert Camus, Maurice Blanchot (1907–), and Michel Butor.
For the first group, the essay tends to be an appendage to their poetry or fiction rather than an essential part of their total work. André Gide (1869–1951), cited by Thibaudet as an example of the pervasive presence of “essayism” in 20th-century literature, left fine critical essays such as Prétextes (1903–13; Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality), but they have been overshadowed by his famous Journal. Valery Larbaud (1881–1957), explorer of American, English, and Spanish literatures and translator of Samuel Butler and James Joyce, best known for his creation of the fictional poet “Barnabooth,” deserves remembering also for his delightful travel sketches, such as Aux couleurs de Rome (1938; The colors of Rome), which blend essay and short story.
Primarily novelists, François Mauriac (1885–1970) and Georges Bernanos (1888–1948) gave new life to the journalistic (often polemical) essay: the first in his Bloc-Notes (1958–71; Writing pads), the second in such works as his La Grande Peur des bienpensants (1931; The great fear of conformist thinkers). The versatile Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), who excelled in almost every genre (including film), left a delightful book of essays whose format evokes Montaigne and the English essayists, although the title, La Difficulté d’être (1947; The Difficulty of Being), was inspired by Fontenelle. The
“philosopher of eroticism,” Georges Bataille (1897–1962), in his novels and essays, ponders the meaning of sex, self-violation, societal transgression, and death with such violence of both content and style that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) coined a new term to describe this form of the essay, in his critique of Bataille’s L’Expérience intérieure (1943; Inner Experience): the “martyred essay” (“essai martyre”). The essays in Sartre’s own 10-volume collection, Situations (1947–76), are less interesting for their form than for his literary criticism and reflections on the nature and function of literature. Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex), in the tradition of the long essay form, is an important contribution of Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), who Toril Moi informs us (Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, 1994) preferred autobiography and fiction to essay writing.
Paul Valéry’s (1871–1945) prolific essay output consists of two basic types of essay: those of the “official writer,” written on commission—prefaces, speeches, lectures—and published under the collective title of Variété (1924–44; Variety), and those, culminating in his massive, largely posthumously published Cahiers (1957–61; Notebooks), in which the essay is splintered into fragmentary form. Although he considered the first type to be a kind of “forced labor,” he was not unhappy to find that chance circumstances, confronting him with a totally strange and unexpected subject, stimulated his mind. Out of necessity he simply made a virtue. The essays in Variety cover literary, philosophical, and “quasi-political” subjects, as well as poetic and aesthetic theory, education, and brief “memoirs of a poet.” A central theme underlies all Valéry’s writings: his lifelong inquiry (cf. Montaigne before him and Barthes after him) into the nature of his own mind, in order better to understand the human mind itself and to formulate what he called “the theory of oneself.” He anticipated Barthes and the “deconstructionists” by questioning the claim to truth and authenticity of the “literary work,” making exception only for poetry.
His Cahiers, unprecedented in their deliberate apology for and practice of discontinuous, fragmentary form (only Nietzsche in philosophy had gone so far), are conceived as “antiworks, anti-finished products” (des contre-oeuυres, des contre-fini), rejecting all claim to systematizing or totalization of knowledge, all claim to meaningful closure. Although few of these fragments resemble Montaigne’s essays, it was Montaigne’s term “essai” in its original meaning that he used in order to describe his lifelong habit of rising each day before daybreak to record “for myself only” these “attempts” (“essais”) at defining his thought. In style, his selfdescribed “methodical breaking up of language’s ready-made forms and word-associations” echoes Montaigne’s attack on Ciceronian rhetoric.
The essay collections of Albert Camus (1913–60) and Henry de Montherlant (1896–1972) share many common elements: they both bring a lyrical quality to their finest essays, which possess a beauty of their own as well as serving to throw light on their fictional and dramatic works; both practice a blending of genres which lends essayistic features to their fiction and narrative elements to their essays; both sought to preserve a sense of dignity, nobility, even heroism in a world fast losing such a sense; compared with the boldly experimental, subversive Blanchot, Barthes, and Butor, their
essays appear traditional in form and even somewhat archaic. In other ways they diverge sharply from each other. Montherlant was a minor aristocrat, aloof, self-absorbed, anarchical in outlook, reveling (like Gide) in his contradictions, which he called “alternances” and rarely sought to resolve. Steeped like Montaigne in the Roman classics, especially Seneca, as well as in the classical idea of the essay as a search for the art of living wisely, and happy to emulate the sensuous, amply developed Romantic prose of Chateaubriand, he prided himself on his irrelevance to contemporary values and concerns. The theme of the self, in fact the cult of the self which he had learned from Maurice Barrès (1862–1923), permeates his essays, which constitute a long dialogue with himself whose ultimate aim is to construct a poetic, mythic self-image, often with little correspondence to the actual facts of his life. An unrelenting nihilist, he wrote, in his essay collection Service inutile (1935; Useless service), “Only the idea of myself keeps me afloat on the seas of nothingness.” This tragic perspective, enriched by a wealth of reflections on many subjects, gives to Service inutile and to other fine collections of essays such as Aux fontaines du désir (1921–27; At the fountains of desire) and Le Solstice de juin (1941; June solstice) a unique beauty and power.
Camus, by contrast, clung to the ideal of social commitment in the name of humanism and justice. Much of his essay work consists of polemical articles first written for the significantly named newspaper, Combat (1944–47) and subsequently published in book form as Actuelles (1950–58; Current issues). As a political essayist he is a worthy successor of Renan and Prévost-Paradol. However, these “essays in rational form” couched in “the language of action” (his own description) he did not consider true “essays.” He reserved this purer designation for the three collections of semiautobiographical, lyrico-narrative pieces entitled L’Envers et l’endroit (1937; The wrong side and the right side), Noces (1939; Nuptials), and L’Été (1954; Summer), inspired by his revered philosophy professor, Jean Grenier (1898–1971), and by the example of Grenier’s fine essay work, Les Îles (1933; The islands). (Camus named Grenier along with Montherlant and André Malraux as the modern writers who had most influenced him.) Unlike Montherlant, Camus had serious scruples about dwelling on himself as essay subject matter: for one thing, he expressed doubt that “any man has ever dared depict himself as he really is”; for another, he preferred what he called “objective” subjects. Finally, unlike Montherlant, he also excelled in the long form of the essay, his best work in this field probably being Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus).
The novelist-essayists Blanchot and Butor are best understood in the context of the essay’s evolution in its relationship to the “postmodern” radical questioning of the whole concept of literary genres and of the privileged status accorded to the language of “literature.” Lafond has shown the venerable precedents of this movement in the 16thand 17th-century defense of fragmentary and discontinuous literary forms (maxim, aphorism, essay). “The fragment,” noted Cioran, “is doubtless a disappointing genre, but the only honest one.” The philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–) argued that “all writing is aphoristic” and that “the fragment is not a failed literary form but the very form of everything that is written.” He based this view on his claim as a semiotician that the meaning of a given unit in discourse is impossible to determine without indefinite deferral (what he called différance). Similarly, Barthes, in his essay on Butor, wrote: “The discontinuous is the fundamental status of all communication: there are no communicative signs that are not discrete [i.e. separate from all other units].” Derrida also questioned the concept of “genre” as a “principle imposing order,” that is, arbitrary order, and allowing “transgressions” only within its prescribed limits. The philosopher Édouard Morot-Sir (in an article in The French Essay, 1982) considers the essay as the ultimate “anti-genre,” perfectly expressive of contemporary “agnosticism, subjectivism, and nominalism [i.e. the belief that the names of things correspond to no metaphysical reality beyond themselves].” The essay as “anti-essay,” subversive of its own traditional forms, is but one variation among several in the 20th-century revolt against genres: the “anti-novel,” the “antitheater,” the “anti-painting,” etc.
Blanchot’s early essays in literary criticism, such as the collection Faux pas (1943; False steps), were relatively “straight” in manner, before he moved to the essay as “l’écriture fragmentaire” (“fragmentary writing”), a term he invented, and to the “antibook” or “livre écartelé” (literally “drawn and quartered”) or “élaté” (“shattered,” “exploded”). His work, then, whether in fiction or criticism, became a “defense et illustration,” an apology for and practice of fragmentary and discontinuous forms. His sources were many: the “negative theology” of the great medieval theologian, Meister Eckhart (language can meaningfully make only negative statements about the nature of God); Mallarmé’s goal of “giving a purer meaning to the words of the tribe” and his reflections on the nature of language and of the “Book”; Nietzsche’s defense of the fragment; and Valéry’s concept of the “antibook.” Drawing on these precursors, together with his contemporaries, the philosophers Michel Foucault (1926–84) and Derrida, he probed the nature of language as the essential clue to the nature of being itself. Faced with the act of writing, he asked such questions as: “Who is speaking?” and “In what sense is there truly an author?” His striving to find a “language beyond language,” a “language outside itself,” and his resistance to the book as completion, closure, totality are reflected in such essay collections as L’Entretien infini (1969; The endless dialogue), L’Attente, l’oubli (1962; Waiting, forgetfulness), and Le Pas au-delà (1973; The step/not beyond). In these texts he practices what he called “plural speech,” using multiple typefaces (narrative fragments in italics juxtaposed with bold-face type for essay fragments), creating the effect of a dialogue between the different voices, creating also the illusion of an author who is “absent” (or, as he preferred to call it, “neuter”). The distinction between genres, in fact any claim that the concept of genre has meaning at all, has practically disappeared in such works.
Some of these essayistic features are also found in the work of Blanchot’s younger contemporary, Michel Butor (1926–). A natural-born experimenter and versatile (perhaps too versatile) polygraph, moving from one artistic experiment to another in a kind of frenzy, he was a pioneer in the nouveau roman (new novel) before abandoning the novel for what he calls “postnovelistic texts,” assimilating what he had learned of the novel into the writing of essays. In reality he was indifferent to the traditional distinction between genres and, even more significantly, to the longstanding assumption that works of “criticism” (i.e. essays) were somehow inferior to works of “invention” (novels, poems, plays). His model here was Baudelaire, on whom he wrote a critical study, Histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire (1961; Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire’s). His massive fivevolume series of essays on literature, Répertoires (1960–82; Repertories) and, in four volumes, his essays on art, Illustrations (1964–76), are less original in form than such texts as Mobile (1962), described as a “kaleidoscopic presentation of travel notes, lyrical outcries, dialogues, work timetables, and quotations” (Vercier and Lecarme). For Butor himself it was akin to a musical score, calling upon the reader’s collaboration to turn it into a composition; others compare it to “serialist music.” Central to Butor’s essays as well as his novels are his reflections on space, both “literary” and geographical space, and on reading, or, more exactly, on what it means to be a reader. This latter theme suggests a close affinity with Montaigne, which he in fact demonstrated in his Essais sur “Les Essais” (1968; Essays on the Essays), on the subject of La Boétie’s role in the Essais. He called himself, in a phrase that Montaigne would have enjoyed, a “monstrous reader.” In his reading of works of the past, again not unlike Montaigne, he sought to uncover in them their “power of subversion” (Georges Raillard, Butor, 1968).
Germaine Bree (1978) has written: “The French essay made such a brilliant stage entrance with Montaigne that it seems at one stroke to have reached a level of perfection designed to discourage successors.” She adds: “It was in England rather than in France that the essay won a rightful place among accepted literary genres.” As a title in the singular for a longish, tentative, and modest inquiry into a large subject, the essai took hold in France; but as a short form, for two centuries it assumed other names and guises, as though to distance itself from Montaigne. It became the invisible or nonexistent genre, unrecognized by critics and historians of letters. It was categorized—and often dismissed—as an English literary type. Rare were the French essayists such as Marivaux or Montégut willing to emulate their English counterparts. In one of his letters Flaubert hints at something deep in the French psyche that both admired the “superb parts” of English writing and distrusted its “defective composition” and “lack of plan.” Sainte- Beuve, introducing his famous article, “What Is a Classic?” (Causeries du lundi, 1850), indulges for once in a more informal manner of writing, “of the sort that our neighbors, the English, modestly call an ‘essay’ and have developed into a genre.” Brunetière makes no mention of the essay in his L’Évolution des genres, except, in the volume on criticism, to dismiss the English critics as “mere essayists.” A German anthologist of French moralist writings, G.R.Hocke, affirmed in 1938: “There is no French essay.” Fraser documents further evidence of this strange situation, citing French dictionaries and encyclopedias.
Gradually in our own century, however, thanks to the efforts of Chadbourne, Brée, Fraser, and others, awareness has increased that l’essai is much more than a vague amorphous term for “nonfiction” or “the prose of ideas” and that it deserves attention for its specific nature as a distinct literary genre, however elusive its nature may be. Among long-established, prestigious genres such as fiction, poetry, and drama, its very marginality and its freedom from the constraints of literary conventions have given it the advantage of being a uniquely flexible and adaptable instrument; so adaptable, in fact, that it is “protéiforme” (Brée), able like the Greek god Proteus to change its form at will; capable of assimilating features of the poem, the short story, or the dialogue; capable even, in the hands of a Blanchot, a Barthes, or a Butor, of subverting itself, dissolving into fragments and becoming the “anti-essay.”
The paradox is that the long absence in France of critical awareness of the essay as genre has coexisted with an extraordinarily rich production of essays and “essayrelatives,” almost without hiatus, from Michel de Montaigne to Michel Butor and beyond. Amidst the changing guises, certain more or less constant features of the essayist’s art recur: the invitation to the reader to enter into the author’s confidence and share in his or her dialogue with the self; the freedom of form sometimes called “artful disorder”; the effect of “thought-inprocess” as distinct from the finished product of thought leading to conclusion and closure; reflections that are less premeditated than stimulated by chance, rooted in circumstance, using any subject as pretext. These features, which obviously derive from Montaigne, are hardly exclusive to the French essay. What may be its specific cachet is at least fourfold: a restrained, indirect manner of self-portraiture; a strong link with the moraliste literary tradition (not all moralistes are essayists but most essayists are moralistes); a greater willingness (certainly than the English essayists), especially since postmodernism, to use the essay as a tool for theoretical, often highly abstract speculations on the profoundest philosophical questions.
As for the fourth feature, it has been beautifully summed up by Sontag apropos of Barthes’ essays. The French essay, she writes, provides merely one great “variation on the project of self-examination—the noblest project of French literature,” a project “inaugurated by Montaigne: the self as vocation, life as a reading of the self [with] the self as the locus of all possibilities.”
The Age of Enlightenment: An Anthology of Eighteenth Century French Literature, edited by Otis Fellows and Norman Torrey, New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1971 (original edition, 1942)
Anthologie des essayistes français contemporains, Paris: Kra, 1929
Choix d’essais du vingtième siècle, edited by Germaine Brée and Philip Solomon, Waltham, Toronto, and London: Blaisdell, 1969
The Continental Model: Selected French Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, edited by Scott Elledge and Donald Schier, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, revised edition, 1970 (original edition, 1960)
Découverte de l’essai, edited by Susan Lawall, Christian Garaud, and Mireille Azibert, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975
Essays of French, German and Italian Essayists, New York: Colonial Press, and London: Co-operative Publication Society, 1900
Bensmaïa, Réda, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (original French edition, 1986)
Boase, Alan, The Fortunes of Montaigne: A History of the Essays in France, 1580–1669, New York: Octagon, 1970 (original edition, 1935)
Brée, Germaine, Twentieth-Century French Literature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983 (original French edition, 1978)
Burke, Peter, Montaigne, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981; New York: Hill and Wang, 1982
Chadbourne, Richard, Ernest Renan as an Essayist, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1957
Chadbourne, Richard, “Prévost-Paradol, Political Essayist,” French Review 30 (1957):350–57
Chadbourne, Richard, “The Essay World of Emile Montégut,” PMLA 76 (1961):98–120
Chadbourne, Richard, “Criticism as Creation in Sainte-Beuve,” L’Esprit Créateur 14 (1974):44–54
Chadbourne, Richard, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Boston: Twayne, 1977
Chadbourne, Richard, “A Puzzling Literary Genre: Comparative Views of the Essay,” Comparative Literature Studies 20 (1983):133–53
Champigny, Robert, Pour une esthéique de l’essai, Paris: Minard, 1967
Croll, Morris, “Attic Prose: Lipsius, Montaigne, Bacon,” in his Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm: Essays, edited by J.Max Patrick and others, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966
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Fowlie, Wallace, “The Essay,” in his A Guide to Contemporary French Literature: From Valéry to Sartre, New York: Meridian, 1957
Frame, Donald, Montaigne’s Essais: A Study, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969
Fraser, Theodore, The French Essay, Boston: Twayne, 1986 The French Essay, Columbia: University of South Carolina Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, 1982
Good, Graham, “Montaigne, the Growth of Experience,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:26–42
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Hope, Quentin, Saint-Évremond, the Honnête Hotnme as Critic, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962
Lafond, Jean, editor, Les Formes brèves de la prose et le discours discontinu (XVIe-XVIIe siècles), Paris: Vrin, 1984
Queneau, Raymond, editor, Histoire des littératures, vol. 3, Paris: La Pléiade 1958
Routh, H.V., “The Origins of the Essay Compared in English and French Literatures,” Modern Language Review 15 (1920):18–40, 143–51
Sontag, Susan, “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes,” The New Yorker, 26 April 1982:122–41
Terrasse, Jean, Rhétorique de l’essai littéraire, Montreal: University of Quebec Press, 1977
Thibaudet, Albert, Histoire de la littérature française de 1789 à nos jours, Paris: Stock, 1936; as French Literature from 1795 to Our Era, translated by Charles Lam Markmann, New York: Funk and Wagnall, 1968
Vercier, Bruno, and Jacques Lecarme, La Littérature française depuis 1968, Paris: Bordas, 1982
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