The Essay’s Boundaries. Appraising the Evolution of the Essay Genre.
The Essay’s Boundaries.
Appraising the Evolution of the Essay Genre.
edited by Federico BERTONI, Simona CARRETTA, Nicolò RUBBI
In the opening of his renowned text Soul and Form, published in 1911, György Lukàcs addressed to his friend Leo Popper his concerns on how the apparently simple task of locating the trait d’union between the work of art’s different parts had soon turned for him into an altogether theoretical issue: what is an essay? The reflection on the essay and on its essence thus re-emerged like a karstic river at the beginning of the 20th century. Its source should be drawn back to Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon, while the 18th-century literary production was its ἀκμή. During the past century, modernity seems to have favoured the development of the unsystematic tendency which is intrinsic to the essay, starting by its very etymology. It derives, in fact, from the late Latin word exagium «to balance» which aptly describes the essay’s function: a propensity for “hefting,” or constantly testing consolidated ideas in the light of concrete experiences. By virtue of its experimental component, the essay could thus achieve the status of an independent form of writing, and a key interactor with other literary art forms.
If, like poetry, the essay is characterized by a preference for the short form and for free associations, it nonetheless shares with the novel some ontological traits: the use of prose, mainly, and the ironic gaze cast by both essayists and novelists on alleged truths.
The recent critical debate did not fail to record these similarities: Thomas Pavel, amongmany others, has pointed at the mingling of narration and essayist meditation as distinctive feature of the modern and contemporary novel (see the works of Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil and, more recently, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera, or Enrique Vila-Matas). Likewise, in an issue of L’atelier du roman dedicated to the relationship between essay and novel (Roman, essai: affinités électives, Flammarion, Paris, 2007), literary critic François Ricard defined the novel as the privileged ground floor for essayist practices in the 20th century. It does not seem a coincidence, then, that one of the most fertile outcomes of the essay over the recent period was literary criticism written by novelists. Hermann Broch, Julien Gracq, Alejo Carpentier, Milan Kundera, Javier Cercas, Ricardo Piglia, and Martin Amis, among others, turned out to be excellent essayists, next to Julio Cortàzar, (author of Imagen de John Keats, Suma de Letras Argentinas, 2004). The intense exchange between the essay and other literary forms possibly reveals the contradictory landscape where the modern essayist has to operate: despite being a ‘sibling’ to the poet and the novelist, s/he cannot count on an established tradition for recognition or comparison. Therefore, besides the rare but radiant cases of ‘pure essayists’, i.e., writers who consciously embraced the art of the essay e (next to Montaigne, arguably Alain, Emil Cioran or José Ortega y Gasset, specifically in its Meditations on Quixote), the rest have been widely unaware.
The lack of significant models has made it hard even for scholars to define, in a more of less comprehensive fashion, the essay’s esthetic and cognitive goals. Negation is the easiest way to proceed, according to Irène Langlet’s approach, as she argues in her recent monography L’abeille et la balance: penser l’essai (2015). The essay is no academic treaty, article, pamphlet, poème en prose, diary, autobiography; all genres that neveretheless share some of the peculiarities of the essay. Despite the objective difficulties of defining the ultimate portrait of the essayist (who is always «en apprentissage et en épreuve», in Montaigne’s words), however, a few scholars retrieved the reflections of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Jean Starobinski in recent years, thus setting off what seems to be one of the most promising current critical debates in Europe.
In Italy, besides recent studies that discuss the essay only marginally, (for example in its relationship with the novel -Stefano Ercolino, Il romanzo-saggio, 2007-, or with humorous writing -Giancarlo Alfano, L’umorismo letterario. Una lunga storia europea (secoli XIV-XX), 2016), the most crucial, up-to-date account on the state of the essay is undoubtedly La forma del saggio. Definizione e attualità del genere letterario (2002) by Alfonso Berardinelli. According to the Italian critic, the essayist is the expression of the so-called autocoscienza laica (literally, laic self-awareness), of the problematic and split individual subjectivity, who is as antidogmatic and as ironic as the true aesthete. Berardinelli grants to Giacomo Leopardi’s works and Francesco De Sanctis’s corpus of the status of actual essays. But these, at least according to the author, are exceptions in a literary panorama that has been emptied, if not exhausted, on the one hand by evasive tendencies and on the other, by an acute autocoscienza storica (historic self-awareness). For Berardinelli, then, 20th-century Italian essayists have allegedly been unable to mediate between continuity and rupture, tradition and innovation. Furthermore, he emphasises how the contemporary essay has been marginalized in the contemporary literary scene by the emergence and development of journalism and other forms of specialized writing.
Almost twenty years after La forma del saggio and more than a century after Soul and Form, this monographic section seeks to offer a new evaluation of the multifaceted state of this fascinating literary form. Articles that aim to review the contemporary literary landscape in relation to the essay in an international or national perspective are particularly welcomed. We will accept both studies with a wide scope and close readings of specific essayists. In particular, we are interested in the following fields of research:
- Theoretical interpretations of the essay form.
- Suggestions of periodization of the essay form an historical perspective.
- Articles on specific authors, on their essay writings or their relationship with the essay.
- Studies on the essay as an art form over time.
- Comparisons between novels and essays by the same author.
- Studies on the relationship between essay and novel; essay and poetry, etc.
- Studies on the essay’s most recent developments.
We accept articles in Italian, French, Spanish, and English. If interested, please send an abstract of 300 words, along with a bio note (max 150 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org, by July 25th, 2017.
Accepted contributors will be contacted by July 31st and completed articles are expected not later than October 30th, 2017, when the peer-review process will take place. For further information, feel free to contact the editors at email@example.com.
«Ticontre. Teoria Testo Traduzione» n. 9 (May 2018)
The Essay’s Boundaries.
For a New Reflection on the Destinies of the Essay
edited by Federico Bertoni, Simona Carretta, Nicolò Rubbi
For abstracts, articles, and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
Language: Italian, French, Spanish, English.
Articles’ maximum length: 50.000 words with spaces.
Abstract: 300 words — biographical note: 150 words
Deadline for abstracts and bio notes: July 25
Feedback on abstracts: July 31
Deadline for articles: October 30
Publication: May 2018; peer review: yes.