Years ago, I read somewhere that the word ‘essay’ comes from or is the French word for ‘to attempt’, or ‘to try’. I was in maybe the fourth of six years of my meandering, start-stop undergrad education and had come to think of the essay as little more than an academic chore—a form of writing that, if it hadn’t been designed as such, had at least since become little more than a weak-but-better-than-multiple-choice mode of proving and evaluating learning. To write an essay was to collect your thoughts into something tidy and coherent for a specific audience (a teacher) to read and assess in a specific way. I was never fond of school, in part because I’m rather lazy and as such didn’t foster my own curiosity until my early 20s, but mostly because I’ve always had a problem with authority, in both the conventional civic and social senses as well in a deeper, more primitive way, that, like sex, violence, and air, seems both cosmically large and atomically small in how it affects and is affected by virtually everything in our lives in some perversely Eschered Newtonian symbiosis. I joke with friends that I’m still an angsty teenager at heart, but the way I feel when I’ve been told to do something by someone whom I’ve given the power to do so—regardless of whether it’s something I want to—isn’t so much petulant indignation as it is a physiological revulsion that often generates a very real nausea or exhaustion, like a monosyllabic grunt from my hindbrain telling me that that fish is probably unfuckable, or that even though that douchebag is drunk, he could probably still kick my ass, or that I should hold my breath when I enter an office bathroom after someone’s just left it visibly sweating.
But ‘to attempt’? What a fresh perspective; how crudely I’d misapprehended the form. Here I’d been led to believe an essay’s worth lay in the harmony of its soundness and validity, that it could be practically and succinctly (and even quantifiably, in the case of numeric scoring) evaluated, and that it was necessarily self-contained (or guidingly referential) and complete, when the very goddamn name of the thing implies—nay, says—that it is, at best, optimistically indeterminate. Because save for some notable exceptions, like making conceptual art, falling in love, and picking your nose, the event of achievement, of an attempt’s success, obviates the call for discussion of or reflection on the attempt itself. So an essay, if true to its nymic roots, ought to be an inconclusive forward gesture at a future which remains forever undetermined within the boundaries of the text, or it ought to be a failure in its own present, with its very existence serving as a meta testimony to its inadequacy. In a capitalist civilization, an essay ought to be inherently defiant and anti-authoritarian in its permanent conditions of ambiguity, unproductivity, and irreducible complexity. An iridescent floating stone.
We are raised to live our lives writing tedious, myopic, and defensible academic essays to be graded by teachers whom we select from a short list of names we don’t recognize, and if we do, it’s because one of them published an unremarkable exegesis of an esoteric critical theory book and is now in residence at our school while rewriting it into a preface for that book’s second edition of 20 copies, five of which will be given to other institutions to sit unread on dusty shelves until their libraries are scanned and demolished and 15 of which will be listed on an Amazon Marketplace storefront with zero previous sales for $150 each and will there remain until one of the teacher’s former students orders one eight years later and contacts Amazon when it doesn’t arrive after two weeks and Amazon’s customer service team isn’t able to reach the seller because he died three years earlier from an aneurysm or some other terrifyingly mysterious but also mundane thing and his widow doesn’t really even understand what email is so they refund the student’s money and close the storefront, or it’s because we heard one of them is known for fucking his worst students and trying to fuck his best ones, and that’s if we’re lucky enough to even get a choice—usually we aren’t. And it’s fine if you want to write those essays, but I can’t—I get that feeling in my gut, that reptilian instinct—and my only choice is to write essays which embrace their etymology; essays which are loose, wayward, reckless, self-indulgent, and failing attempts at the unachievable.