WHETHER or not Montaigne was the father of the essay it was surely he who christened it, describing the pieces he wrote in the latter part of the sixteenth century essais. In French the verb simply means to try. As Sarah Bakewell writes in How To Live: or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, which we cannot recommend too highly, “to essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl.” This was precisely Montaigne’s approach. His essays were like shots from a blunderbuss. They ranged far and wide, digressing frequently from their ostensible subject. Often, in the space of a few pages, Montaigne contradicted or repeated himself. It is as if he was thinking out loud, as if he could not discipline his thoughts, or didn’t even attempt to do so.
His constant focus, however, was himself, his essays an attempt to answer the question: How to live? In total he wrote one hundred and seven essays with titles as beguiling as they appear simple: ‘Of Friendship’, ‘Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes’, ‘Of Thumbs’, ‘How we cry and laugh for the same things’. In so doing he offered a template for future essayists, allowing them the liberty to write about whatever took their fancy. Thus generations of children were weaned on the essays of Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey and others who waxed prolixly on old china, the pleasure of hating and the joys of being ill and confined to bed.
Of late, however, the essay has dropped off the fashionable Richter scale, too closely associated perhaps with school days and demands to tell the story of a penny or what you did on your holidays. What Montaigne would have made of this is anyone’s guess but the chances are he would have disapproved. For him the essay was an affirmation of life. At ease with the idea of death after he survived a close encounter with it, he devoted his remaining years to being. Though he lived through difficult and dangerous times he manages still to communicate with readers on a heightened level of intimacy. As Bernard Levin said: “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity” ‘How did he know all that about me?’”
That, then, is the bar which contemporary essayists must essay to cross. In this issue of the SRB we lay down a challenge, to find a contemporary essayist to compare with Montaigne. In association with the University of Aberdeen, we are looking for writers who will embrace the essay form and adapt, expand and energise it for the twenty-first century. With this in mind we have chosen as a topic ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ which aficionados of the essay may recognise as the title of one of Bertrand Russell’s best essays. “Our age,” began Russell, not beating about the bush, “is the most parochial since Homer.” Russell was writing in 1950. “We imagine ourselves at the apex of intelligence, and cannot believe that the quaint clothes and cumbrous phrases of former times can invest people and thoughts that are still worthy of our attention.”
Russell wrote from the position of one of his age’s foremost philosophers. That is one approach. Others, however, are myriad. The essay, as its adherents never fail to argue, comes in all shapes, sizes and guises. It can be witty or sombre, critical or adulatory, informative or anecdotal, immediate or historical, emotional or empirical.
Our subject was chosen because of its elasticity and its general pertinence. You could, if you decide, consider religion or politics, food or football, street furniture or the way we save, or not. You could write in the first person or the third or the second. You could be deeply personal or reticently private, or both. You could, if you want, argue that being modern-minded is that last thing anyone would want to be. You could, for example, say that the only way to be modern-minded is to be resolutely old-fashioned.
Nothing, therefore, should be ruled out. Except to say that dullness is unacceptable. You may write about the dullest subject under the sun but you must not write dully about it. We judges have high expectations, open minds and a sense of anticipation. Now it’s over to you. You will find details about how to enter on the page opposite.