The Sublime Essay: Why I Delight in Mystery through Manners

Feast of the Seven Holy Martyred Youths of Ephesus and St Cecelia the Martyr

Essay_Square_2.jpegI GET ABSORBED in fiction. I plow through theology and philosophy. I luxuriate in poetry. But I delight in the essay. One self-contained exploration of a thing or an idea that I can digest within the space of an hour or so: that just seems right. And when it’s done well, it’s sublime.

I’m talking about essays not as specialized academic papers but as a general, literary thing, a determinedly informal attempt, sometimes written to a thesis, to explain or explore. An essay is an attempt in the sense of the French term essayez, “to try,” from which the English word essay is derived. I’m thinking not so much of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding but of literary essays by W. H. Auden or C. S. Lewis or Annie Dillard or David Foster Wallace or Marilynne Robinson or Wendell Berry or Cynthia Ozick. Robert Louis Wilken and Peter Brown come to mind as wonderful historical-theological essayists.

Essays delight me in two ways. On the one hand, a good essay can start with the particular and can explode it into the universal. On the other hand, a good essay can flout the fusty strictures of academe and, in the space of twenty pages, address a topic so absurdly broad that a lifetime of study would only begin to cover it.

So, the former. An essay often advertises itself as being about a very particular thing but ends up being universal in scope. An essay about mowing the lawn becomes a meditation on the nature of home, hospitality, beauty, pain, futility. Whatever. It’s a literary alchemy that good writers understand and exploit. There’s really no way, it seems, to write convincingly about a universal thing except by poking and probing at the minute, the particular, the everyday and letting it disclose its universal essence through its concrete expression.

Recently, for instance, I reread C. S. Lewis’s essay “Learning in Wartime”—I say “reread,” but it had been so long since I’d read it that I’d forgotten everything of what the essay said—and though the topic does not particularly worry me, it was the next one in my copy of The Weight of Glory. But what looks at first blush to be an essay about the value of continuing one’s college education while World War II rages turns out to be of more than simply historical interest. The essay, it turns out, is really—more universally—about the value of learning as a Christian, and even about the value of learning at all. In other words, why spend time in books, learning, and scholarship when something more pressing (in this particular case the war effort) needs to be done? Well, there’s always something more pressing that needs to be done, whether it’s the laundry or witnessing to your neighbor or the monthly budget. From his particular place, having grounded us in the particular instance of the problem, Lewis sets off on a reflection on the value of learning—that is, doing something with little or no immediate (or even remote) practical value—in a distracting, obligation-laden world.

I don’t think this is the best example of what I’m talking about, but it’s the one I read most recently, and the one that gave me the idea for this blog post, so I feel like I’d be being a little disloyal if I didn’t mention it. If you want further examples of what I’m talking about, read any—and I mean any—essay by Nicholson Baker, and you’ll see what I mean.

Flannery O’Connor, in writing about fiction, nevertheless identifies this principle of the universal expressed through the concrete in her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” She says, “What-is is all the [fiction writer] has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.” A little later she puts this in theological terms: “Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic [and, I would add, any Christian] fiction writer will be the presence of grace in nature, and what matters for him is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is.” I think this is actually a good description not just of the task for the writer but of a theory of aesthetics generally. It’s what good writing does. It’s what art does. It expresses the transcendent through the mundane.

But to the latter. In a way that I don’t think contravenes what I’ve just written, an essay has the freedom to be as broad as it wants to be. It’s not shackled by the peer-reviewed, sub-subdisciplined atomization of the modern academy. Marilynne Robinson has an essay simply titled “Darwinism.” Auden has “Genius and Apostle.” Ozick has “Metaphor and Memory” for goodness’ sake! Here one is liberated from the hand-wringing of footnotes and bibliographies and can play fast and loose with huge swaths of intellectual history. How else would we get anything done?

Now, each of these essays was produced by a writer with a razor-sharp intellect, and for every successful essay like this written there are hundreds of failures. These succeed, moreover, not because they forego the immediate, the particular, and the minute, but because they are able to inevitably but unexpectedly bring into focus lucid, concrete details that illustrate, and even give substance to, the broader theme with stunning precision.

So I think the two types of essay succeed on the same terms, but proceed in a methodologically asymmetrical way. They both present, again in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “mystery through manners, grace through nature, . . . that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”

And therein lies my delight.


Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.

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  • commented 2016-06-27 02:03:06 -0500
    A cogent, elegant piece of work, this—these lines in particular:
    “It’s a literary alchemy that good writers understand and exploit. There’s really no way, it seems, to write convincingly about a universal thing except by poking and probing at the minute, the particular, the everyday and letting it disclose its universal essence through its concrete expression.”
    You mirror what you argue beautifully—the gentle mixing of absolute and qualified in ’There’s really no way, it seems . . .‘, even the playful, onomatopoetic ’p’s. Also, the implication that the essayist is always on the edge of charlatanism in your choice of the words ‘alchemy’ and ‘exploit’ is a sly bit of diction and, what is more, appropriate to the genre.

    While I agree with your lines, ‘each of these essays was produced by a writer with a razor-sharp intellect, and for every successful essay like this written there are hundreds of failures’ I might just add that these failures are often written by those same razor-sharp intellects. Think batting average—four out of ten is superstar status. Behind many (not all; the world contains freaks) bound collections of sublime essays are unbound collections of abortive attempts pounded out for the sake of daily/weekly discipline. Of course, the trash essays often make the sublime ones possible.

    Well put, Jeff.
  • Eighth Day Institute posted about The Sublime Essay: Why I Delight in Mystery through Manners on Eighth Day Institute's Facebook page 2015-10-22 13:12:41 -0500
    The Sublime Essay: Why I Delight in Mystery through Manners