As I mentioned earlier this month, I decided to make my way through The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, by participating in the Deal Me in Challenge. I’ve assigned each essayist in the book a playing card, and I’ll draw a card each week and read the pieces by that essayist that are in the collection. My plan is to write a few sentences on each essay and update monthly. If I stay on track, by the end of the year, I’ll have read the entire book.
Here’s what I read this month:
Joseph Addison: “Nicolini and the Lions”
In this essay, Joseph Addison sets out to determine the truth of the rumors about the lion that appeared with Signor Nicolini in the opera Hydaspes. Apparently, people thought real lions were used—or at least that the fight in the opera was real. On the surface, Addison treats the question seriously, yet the tone of the piece and his specific observations about the “lions” show audiences’ problem “does not seem to be the want of good taste, but of common sense.
I find it hard to imagine that this was a serious dispute, but perhaps in 1711, before photographic proof could have been produced, it would have been even harder to tamp down silly rumors that it is today. And it’s not like the world today isn’t full of silly rumors that can be easily disproved.
Ou-Yang Hsiu: “Pleasure Boat Studio”
This essay by Chinese writer Ou-Yang Hsiu, written in 1043, is barely more than a page long. In it, Hsiu describe the rooms set aside for leisure that he has renovated in a way that reminds him of a boat. He then goes on to consider the significance of boats: they deliver people from danger while also being dangerous. They are hardly places of leisure, yet he named his place of leisure after a boat, perhaps signifying that he likes “life afloat.” He then notes that boat travel can be enjoyable with just a few simple comforts. He’s named his studio after this type of boat. It’s impressive how he packs into so little space so much thought about what it means to take pleasure in life.
Abraham Crowley: “On Greatness”
I have to admit I didn’t care much for this one. Crowley is musing on how it must feel to be great and how greatness is not so great after all. It is difficult to achieve, and most who achieve what looks like greatness aren’t truly great. He prefers “littleness in almost all things. A little convenient estate, a little cheerful house, a little company, and a very little feast.” The main trouble with the essay is not the ideas Crowley espouses, but the copious use of classical references that weren’t familiar to me. So, really, the problem is with me, rather than the essay, but this shows one of the problems of the essay form. Many of them do build on ideas and references familiar to the essayist’s audience but not to readers hundreds of years later. An essay can be excellent but not have staying power, at least not with an audience unfamiliar with the important ideas and literature that would have resonated in the author’s time.
Richard Selzer: “The Knife”
Selzer is a surgeon, and in this essay he considers his work, specifically the knife he uses to do this work. His descriptions are cold and detached, but he still manages to make readers feel simply by describing what the work is like, how he sees himself—as a poet, a priest, an explorer, none of these things and all of these things. The most personal bit is when he describes how he was fascinated by the idea of surgery when he was young. He also tells a story of seeing an ant in the operating room. The piece is framed by a description of what is probably a fairly ordinary surgery, an attempt to locate and excise a tumor. It begins with the discovery and ends with the removal, and along the way, we see how violent this life-saving act of surgery is. The knife is about taking life, about tearing things apart. But sometimes the thing that must be torn apart is a deadly thing.
This was my favorite essay of the month. It shows clearly how the personal essay can be art and how such art can cause us to see something we thought we understood in a new way.