Every year, 30,000 tons of cosmic material passes through the atmosphere and drizzles down to earth. Only in the Arctic, or at the bottom of the deepest seas, can it be found unadulterated: a powder of asteroid and comet particles. Everywhere else this stardust mingles with the earth, with us. We wear it in our hair, carry it in our pockets.
“Shall we take dust as the founding metaphor by which to broach the unruly topic of the essay?” the British writer and critic Brian Dillon asks in his new book, “Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction.” Like these extraterrestrial particles, he says, essays drift and disperse. They are an ever-changing form, ancient and otherworldly. “Touch them however and they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing.”
Dillon is a mournful, witty and original writer. His subjects have included hypochondriacs, photography, memory and, invariably, failure of some sort. In 2012, he wrote a book-length essay in 24 hours, in front of an occasional audience, called “I Am Sitting in a Room.” He celebrates the essay as a form born of contradictions between tradition and innovation, fragmentation and wholeness, autobiography and artifice. It is a beautiful container for irreconcilable desires and impossible ambitions. . The book begins with the improbable list of topics the great essayists have addressed: the death of a moth (Virginia Woolf), falling off a horse (Montaigne), an inventory of the objects on one’s desk (William Gass).
Much of the book, however, is a rosary of refusals. Dillon will not offer a history of the form, he warns. Nor will he revisit the usual debates: “I know too well how that particular essay on essays gets written, what are its touchstones, where its arguments directed.” He will not offer defense, apology or manifesto of any kind (“I find myself allergic to polemics”). Dillon demurs even to define the essay too narrowly as a “stable entity or established class.” In fact, jettison hope for a real line of reasoning: “I was and remain quite incapable of mounting in writing a reasoned and coherent argument,” he writes.
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