THE ESSAY

I doubt if anyone could define the essay," one writer of essays remarked, "but I see no reason why anybody should be afraid to write one if he has anything worth essaying." Yet some definition, however incomplete, is in order here.

What is an essay? Basically, it is a short piece of prose, seldom longer than five or six thousand words. (Yet some essays fill whole books, and others, such as Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, are written in verse.) An essay should be on a topic of interest to the writer. It is "true" in the sense that it is not fiction; it is about something the writer has really seen, or felt, or thought about. It is usually an attempt that is, not an exhaustive treatment of the topic. Unless it is strictly technical, its style depends upon the personality of the writer and upon the topic under discussion. Its purpose may be to stimulate the reader's thought, to amuse, to instruct, to explain, to describe, or to convince.

In studying essays, you will be asked to pay attention to some of the ways the authors have given structure and style to their writing. You will learn how to apply some of these devices to your own writing. Take the matter of organization, for example. You will see how your ideas-can be arranged by chronology. You will see how the effective organization of some essays depends upon a spatial or geographical arrangement.

You will also see how the authors' personalities and their attitudes toward their subjects are reflected in the styles of their essays. Montaigne, as a humanist, is informal and highly personal. Others are serious and objective in their approach. Sometimes the language is plain; sometimes it is richly colored and imaginative. You will see how some writers, such as Montaigne, use anecdotes or fictional characters to help them make their points in an interesting way.

Perhaps you have not been aware that you have been reading essays for years. An essay is not a strange form that exists only in textbooks. In a sense, it is any attempt at written communication. Whenever you read a letter, a sports column, a movie review, an editorial, you are reading an essay. For the most part, the essays you read every day are familiar: they are informal and reflect the personalities of their writers. A good essay is like good conversation. One of the rewards of reading essays is meeting people-the essayists-through the ideas that interest them.


MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE

(1533-1592)

"So, reader," wrote Montaigne in 1580 in the preface to his first volume of Essays, "I am myself the substance of my book, and there is no reason why you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject."

Until the age of thirty-eight, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne had been an active man of the world-busy at the court of King Henry 11 of France, and in the parliament of his native city, Bordeaux. Then, as he tells us, "weary of court employment and public honors," he retired to his estate near Bordeaux. There, in a small book-lined room high up in a tower, he spent most of his remaining years writing his essays and reading.

Montaigne was the real inventor of the essay and even of the word "essay" itself. To him, this word-from the French essai, a trial or attempt-meant a short and very personal treatment of any topic. He did not attempt to treat the topic completely, and he wrote about anything from friendship to cannibals-whatever interested him.

What interested him most was himself. No writer before Montaigne's time had ever published such intimate details about his own mind, feelings, and habits. In his conversational style, he tells us, for example, that he was small; that he slept too much; that he was bad at sports; and that he "could never speak to dogs, birds, or horses." His motto was que sais je?- what do I know? The modern French writer, Andre Gide, said of Montaigne: "What did he bring the world then that was so new? Self-knowledge-and all other knowledge seemed to him uncertain; but the human being he discovers, and'uncovers, is so genuine, so true, that in him every reader of the Essays recognizes himself."

Read Jane Kramer's New Yorker article, "Me, Myself, and I"


Montaigne's Essay "On Liars"

There is no man so unsuited for the task of speaking about memory as I am, for I find scarcely a trace of it in myself, and I do not believe there is another man in the world so hideously lacking in it. All my other faculties are poor and ordinary, but in this I think I am most rare and singular and deserve to gain name and fame thereby.

Besides the natural inconvenience that I suffer on this account-for assuredly, considering how necessary it is, Plato was right in calling memory a great and powerful goddess-in my country, when they want to say that a man has no sense, they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of the shortcomings of my own, people correct me and refuse to believe me, as if I were accusing myself of being a fool. They can see no difference between memory and intellect.

This makes me look much worse off. But they wrong me, for experience shows that, on the contrary, excellent memories are often coupled with feeble judgments. They also wrong me in this, that the same words which indicate my infirmity, signify ingratitude as well-and I am nothing if I am not a good friend. They blame my affections instead of my memory and turn an involuntary defect into a wilful one. "He has forgotten this request or that promise," they say. "He doesn't remember his friends. He did not remember to do this, to say that, or to keep quiet about the other, for my sake." Certainly I am prone enough to forgetfulness, but as for neglecting, out of indifference, a service which a friend has asked of me, that I do not do. Let them be content with my misfortune and not turn it into a kind of ill will, a kind quite foreign to my character.

But I find some consolation, first because I have derived from this evil my principal argument against a worse evil, which might have taken root in me: the evil of ambition. For lack of memory is an intolerable defect in anyone who takes on the burden of the world's affairs.

Then, as several similar examples of nature's workings show, she has generously strengthened other faculties in me in proportion as this one has grown weaker. I might easily have let my intelligence and judgment follow languidly in other men's footsteps, as all the world does, without exerting their own power, if other people's ideas and opinions had ever been present with me by favor of my memory.

Again, my speech is consequently briefer, for the storehouse of the memory is generally better stocked with material than that of the invention. If my memory had been good, I should have deafened all my friends with my chatter, since any subject that calls out such powers as I have of argument and development warms and extends my eloquence. This would have been lamentable, as I have learned in the case of some of my intimate friends. In proportion as their memory gives them a complete and first-hand view of their subject, so they push their narrative back into the past and burden it with useless details. If the story is a good one, they smother its virtues; if it is not, you curse their fortunate powers of memory or their unfortunate lack of judgment. Once one is well on the road, it is difficult to close a discourse and break it off. There is no better way of proving a horse's strength than by pulling him up short and sharp. Even among men who keep to the point, I find some who would like to break off but cannot. While they are searching for a place at which to stop, they go maundering and trailing on like a man who is losing strength. Particularly dangerous are old men who retain the memory of past events but do not remember how often they have repeated them. I have known some very amusing tales to become most tiresome when told by some gentlemen whose whole audience has been sated with them a hundred times.

I find some consolation, also, in the reflection that I have, in the words of a certain ancient author, a short memory for the injuries I have received. Like Darius, I should need a prompter. Wishing not to forget the insult he had suffered from the Athenians, the Persian king made one of his pages come and repeat three times in his ear, each time he sat down to table: "Sire, remember the Athenians"; and it consoles me too that the places I revisit and the books I reread always smile upon me with the freshness of novelty.

Not without reason is it said that no one who is not conscious of having a sound memory should set up to be a liar. I know quite well that grammarians make a distinction between telling an untruth and lying. They say that to tell an untruth is to say something that is false, but that we suppose to be true, and that the meaning of the Latin mentiri, from which our French word for lying derives, is to go against one's conscience, and that consequently it applies only to those who say the opposite of what they know; and it is of them I am speaking.

Now liars either invent the whole thing, or they disguise and alter an actual fact. If they disguise and alter, it is hard for them not to get mixed up when they refer to the same story again and again because, the real facts having been the first to lodge in the memory and impress themselves upon it by way of consciousness and knowledge, they will hardly fail to spring into the mind and dislodge the false version, which cannot have as firm or assured a foothold. The circumstances, as they were first learned, will always rush back into the thoughts, driving out the memory of the false or modified details that have been added.

If liars make a complete invention, they apparently have much less reason to be afraid of tripping up, inasmuch as there is no contrary impression to clash with their fiction. But even this, being an empty thing that offers no hold, readily escapes from the memory unless it is a very reliable one. I have often had amusing proof of this, at the expense of those who profess to suit their speech only to the advantage of the business in hand and to please the great men to whom they are speaking. The circumstances to which it is their wish to subordinate their faith and their conscience being subject to various changes, their language has also to change from time to time; and so they call the same thing gray one moment and yellow the next, say one thing to one man, and another to another. Then, if these listeners happen to bring all this contrary information together as a common booty what becomes of all their fine art? Besides, they trip up so often when they are off their guard. For what memory could be strong enough to retain all the different shapes they have invented for the same subject? I have seen many in my time who have desired a reputation for this subtle kind of discretion, not seeing that the reputation and the end in view are incompatible.

Lying is indeed an accursed vice. We are men, and we have relations with one another only by speech. If we recognized the horror and gravity of an untruth, we should more justifiably punish it with fire than any other crime. I commonly find people taking the most ill-advised pains to correct their children for their harmless faults and worrying them about heedless acts which leave no trace and have no consequences. Lying-and in a lesser degree obstinacy-are, in my opinion, the only faults whose birth and progress we should consistently oppose. They grow with a child's growth, and once the tongue has got the knack of lying, it is difficult to imagine how impossible it is to correct it. Whence it happens that we find some otherwise excellent men subject 'to this fault and enslaved by it. I have a decent lad as my tailor, whom I have never heard to utter a single truth, even when it would have been to his advantage.

If, like the truth, falsehood had only one face, we should know better where we are, for we should then take the opposite of what a liar said to be the truth. But the opposite of a truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.

The Pythagoreans regard good as certain and finite, and evil as boundless and uncertain. There are a thousand ways of missing the bull's-eye, only one of hitting it. I am by no means sure that I could induce myself to tell a brazen and deliberate lie even to protect myself from the most obvious and extreme danger. An ancient father says that we are better off in the company of a dog we know than in that of a man whose language we do not understand. Therefore those of different nations do not regard one another as men, and how much less friendly is false speech than silence!

King Francis the First boasted of having by this means drawn circles round Francesco Taverna, ambassador of Francesco Sforza Duke of Milan-a man of great reputation in the art of speech- making. Taverna had been sent to make his master's excuses to His Majesty in a matter of great importance, which was this: the King wished to have constant channels of information in Italy, from which he had recently been expelled, and especially in the Duchy of Milan. He had decided, therefore, to keep a gentleman of his own at the Duke's court, an ambassador in effect, but in appearance a private individual ostensibly there on his own personal business. For the Duke very much depended on the Emperor -especially at that moment when he was negotiating a marriage with his niece, the King of Denmark's daughter, now the Dowager Duchess of Lorraine-and he could not establish open relations or intercourse with us without great prejudice to himself. A Milanese gentleman named Merveille, one of the King's equerries, was chosen for this office and was despatched with secret credentials and instructions as ambassador, also with letters of recommendation to the Duke in the matter of his own private affairs as a mask and a show. However, he was at Court so long that the Emperor began to grow suspicious; and it was this, we believe, that gave rise to the subsequent events, which were that one fine night the Duke had Merveille's head cut off on a false charge of murder, his whole trial having been hurried through in a couple of days!

Francesco Taverna had come with a long falsified account of the affair-for the King had addressed himself to all the princes in Christendom, as well as to the Duke, demanding satisfaction- and he was received in audience one morning. In support of his case he advanced several plausible justifications of the deed, carefully prepared for the purpose. He pleaded that his master had never taken our man for anything but a private gentleman and a subject of his own, who had come to Milan on his own business and resided there in no other character. He denied all knowledge that Merveille was a member of the King's household or was even known to the King, much less that he was his ambassador. King Francis, in his turn, pressed objections and questions upon him, attacking him from all sides and cornering him at last on the point of the execution, carried out at night and apparently in secret. To which the poor embarrassed man replied, as if to put an honest face on the matter, that out of respect for His Majesty, the Duke would have been sorry to let the execution take place in daylight. You can guess how quickly he was caught out in this clumsy self-contradiction, made in the presence of such a nose as King Francis had.

Pope Julius the Second having sent an ambassador to the King of England, to incite him against the French king, and having stated his case, the English king, in his reply, dwelt on the difficulties he would find in making the necessary preparations for attacking so powerful a king, and put forward certain reasons for them. The ambassador then, ill advisedly, answered that he had himself considered these difficulties, and had put them before the Pope. From this statement, so foreign to his purpose, which was to urge him to immediate war, the King of England at once inferred what he afterward found to be the case, that this ambassador was privately inclined to the French side. When he informed the Pope of this, the ambassador's property was confiscated,and he barely escaped with his life.


Read this poem to see if you can find connections with the essay you just read.

A Confession of Lies

No, it isn't needed: this blue sky, the two exact trees
Where they are green ash, blue pine. The seas can rise
To within an inch of the buildings but will not,
Ever. For now, like them, my words can be trusted.
There is no need for a doubt. We will not die.
We cannot keep the woods from receding north
To a cooler horizon. Red, white, and yellow
Trash will escape our hands to go into the water.
A glowing, new coal will escape our lips and go down
Through time in the water, to come up a cool, gold
Drink. The truth: We aren't eager to die. We
Turn all our acts to good. We think and desire
Alike. Whatever we start we complete. We don't
Let our anger loose. All earth
Is as wide and dear and clean as when I was small.
Whenever I lie, I tell a truth.

AND 

If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.

Mark Twain
(1835-1910, American humorist, writer)

Check out Twain's essay: "Advice to Youth"

How does this quote fit in to these previous works on lies?

An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie, guarded.

Alexander Pope
(1688-1744, British poet, critic, translator)