Letters to an Unknown Friend

"What a wonderful thing is the essay! What a hymn to the human mind and its vagaries and cogitations—to its humanness."

This essay was presented at the one-day symposium, “Essaying: The Calibre Prize,” held at the National Library of Australia on April 30, 2010. An edited version of the essay was first published in the June 2010 issue of Australian Book Review, organizer of The Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay, and is reprinted in Dessaix’s new collection of musings, “As I Was Saying” (Random House Australia, 2012).

What a wonderful thing is the essay! What a hymn to the human mind and its vagaries and cogitations—to its humanness. All honour to Australian Book Review and the Cultural Fund of Copyright Agency Limited for celebrating it with the Calibre Purize—and, of course, to our prizewinning hymnists.

To celebrate the essay with this degree of fanfare shows a certain amount of chutzpah, I think—of “courage” in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense of the word. (“A courageous decision, Minister.”)

After all—and I hope you’ll allow me to be brutally frank, writing them myself as I do—nobody ever won the Nobel Prize for writing essays. Nobody says: Ah, yes, Virginia Woolf, or Robert Louis Stevenson, what superb essayists they were. No, they talk first about “To the Lighthouse” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” There is something, in our culture, of the country cousin (of good family, mind, and well-spoken, but not quite first-night-at-the-opera) about the essay.

All too often it’s thought of as a bit of harmless throat-clearing (smelling of dry almonds, according to one commentator) useful for filling in a puzzling silence between novels. A novel: now there’s something you can take seriously. A novel is storytelling, which is what culture is – plus folk-dancing and cooking. An essay is just commentary. Write a novel or three and they’ll sit up in Stockholm; a single novel in the shops and you’ll be strutting your stuff at Adelaide Writers’ Week in no time—or Vancouver or Hay-on-Wye. On the other hand, when your publisher asks you what you’re working on next and you tell him a book of essays, watch his little face fall.

A novel is grand, even if we no longer believe in grand narratives—at least, not officially. Novels have sweep. Essays are so small. As each of us is small, of course, when all is said and done, even Seneca or Susan Sontag, not to mention Oprah Winfrey or the queen, which is why I think that the essay is vital to a civilised life.

And in turn it’s why a book like Alan Bennett’s “An Uncommon Reader”—did you ever read it? It’s about the queen taking to books—is such a joy: she may be grand, but she’s also small, like us. But I digress, being an essayist at heart. Oh, I’ve called a couple of my books “novels,” but deep down I’m just a gossip. In Damien Hirst’s words: “Sometimes I feel I have nothing to say, and that’s something I often want to communicate.” It’s a great shame, I think, that Hirst chose art to do it through.

Georg Lukacs even thought that the smallness of the essay—or rather, the essayist’s need to give up his hopes of bigness while explaining his most profound ideas: the essayist’s “ironic modesty” as he calls it—is essential to its status.

But, but, but, you will object—and I do take your point—there are essays aplenty on grand subjects: on Aboriginal deaths in custody, on global warming, on nuclear non-proliferation, adultery in the French novel and every other matter of consequence you can think of. Of course there are—they’re not all about a man chasing his hat or bed-wetting or going out for a walk to buy a pencil—although some of the most memorable have been. And these essays on grand subjects will appear in important newspapers, in the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books, and be anthologised in much remarked-upon tomes—and deservedly so. This is good. They need no defence from me. These are the oils in the National Gallery.

But what I would like to gossip about today is the standing of the more fugitive form in the twenty-first century: the perfectly judged watercolour, the more personal kind of essay, the sort of thing we write just because we want to tell someone something, something we must find the words for now, before the moment passes.

Montaigne, they say—Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, often thought of as the father of the personal essay, though he wasn’t really: the Romans were doing it brilliantly a millennium and a half before he thought of it—Montaigne began writing his essays after his much-loved friend Étienne de La Boétie died suddenly and he needed someone to talk to. So he talked to his unknown friend, his reader—wrote letters to him. About anything that came into his mind, really—and a lot of things did (friendship, drunkenness, cannibals, Heraclitus, prayer, kidney stones and so on), often in Latin, his first language, or so we’re told (I find it hard to quite believe, in rural Gascony in the 1530s, with only his tutor to talk to, but we’re assured it’s true). It’s the intimacy with me, whom he doesn’t know, that still astonishes and disarms. Nowadays, when the vast bulk of the population never seems to stop talking and being talked at—on public conveyances, at home, in the office, even face to face, if pressed—nowadays Montaigne’s predicament when La Boétie died is almost unimaginable. Nowadays the intimacy is faux. I read last week that the average American teenage girl (twelve to seventeen) sends eighty text messages a day—that’s five every waking hour. And she also phones, emails, tweets, and pops on and off Facebook. This is to live out life’s banality, not redeem it, as the essayist seeks to do. You may be wondering why Montaigne didn’t talk to his wife, whom he married when La Boétie died, faute de mieux, but the thought never occurred to him, and would no doubt have left her nonplussed as well. No, no, you talk about the things that matter to an equal, not to your wife. And we can be grateful that it was so. We can now imagine ourselves, five hundred years later, as Montaigne’s unknown friend and relish the intimacy.


The art of conversation—the rapidly disappearing art of intimate conversation in this blogging, texting world of ours—is somehow central to the health of the personal essay, the kind I think does need some defence, unlike its more impersonal cousin. Given that for Montaigne conversation was “at the top of the pyramid of all human activities: above writing and far above reading,” you might have expected the essay (of the “familiar” kind) to flourish in France.

In fact, it first came into its own in its modern form in England, pre-industrial England, and some even believe that the reason it did is that it grew out of the culture of conversation in London coffee houses in the eighteenth century over newspapers—a culture now seriously under threat. A friend of mine, for instance, just back from Valparaiso, sent me a brief email recently: “Just been to Valparaiso. You’d love it. See my blog.” “No,” I wrote back, a little too testily perhaps (but essayists are often testy, it’s part of being an essayist as opposed to being a poet or novelist), “no,” I said, “I won’t see your blog. I am not interested in Valparaiso, I am interested in having a chat with you—just you and me—even about Valparaiso, if you wish. I am interested in the chat. Or write it up for The Monthly—I am also interested in transfiguration.” Relations have cooled. But I won’t read his blog. Valparaiso, like Montaigne’s cannibals, is quite beside the point.

 Fielding, Boswell, Johnson, Swift, Dryden and all the others went to the coffee house every day and read the papers, drank coffee and offered their polished company in conversation. It was like sheet lightning in summer, apparently; the atmosphere was set alight. It was human, it was friend to friend. Disputatious often, yes, and full of raillery, but friend to friend. And out of these encounters grew the essay, friend to unknown friend. And although coffee houses and clubs went into a decline eventually, like the newspapers—well, I’m just back from Melbourne, where the cafés are full of people texting, typing on laptops or concentratedly eating, as if that were why one went to a café—despite this decline, something had taken root in England, something that gave rise to Lamb and Hazlitt and Chesterton and Orwell and Woolf and numerous others. They went all formal during the Victorian era, it’s true, but then, last century, returned to a quirkier, more self-revealing form with a sigh of relief.

But it’s not just the second-class status and ill-health of the conversational core of the essay (and the personal essay in particular) that make me wonder if it’s quite suited to our times. Of course, as an essayist of sorts, I would say that, because traditionally essayists tended to bemoan something, frequently looking to the past and resisting the idea of being up-to-date. Let me quote Charles Lamb, for instance, who spoke of his “tender regret” in his essay on New Year’s Eve—and the passing of things:

I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties; new books, new faces, new years—from some mental twist which makes it difficult in me to face the prospective. I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects of other (former) years. I plunge into foregone visions and conclusions. I encounter pell-mell with past disappointments … I play over again for love, as the gamesters phrase it, games, for which I once paid so dear.

(Charles Lamb, whom I once read at school in North Sydney, where now I suppose they compare ads for Harvey Norman with ads for Clive Peeters. It’s all text, after all, isn’t it?)

But it’s not that, either—not just the common tendency of the most celebrated essayist to be slightly behind the times in this frantically up-to-the-minute era—that makes me uncertain about the essay’s fate in the years to come. Youth is the current obsession within Western culture. Youth may not have power (that’s a different matter), but youth is what the spotlight is on, everywhere from New Idea and Marie Claire, to Channels Seven, Nine and Ten and the David Jones menswear department.

If it’s not in the spotlight, it whines like an unruly child until it is. Youth—its fantasies, tastes, diseases, values, fashions, humour, language, obsessions, ambitions and needs—leads the parade on main street these days. And why shouldn’t it? Youth has hope. There are hopes for it. Historically, however, essays (of the kind I’m talking about) were written by older writers who, like Lamb, had “almost ceased to hope.” Youth, by and large, has better things to do with its time than write personal essays—it’s actually quite hard to think of many widely read essays by young writers—although now and again they may pen formal essays.

It simply takes time to come up with that “soloist’s personal signature” (to quote Elizabeth Hardwick) that typically characterises the accomplished essay. It is hard, until you have reached your mature years, to have the sense of a well-integrated self unafraid to embrace its own uncertainties and frailties—its humanness—that essay-writing requires. Not impossible, but hard. As someone or other has observed, the young are better at poetry and mathematics. The older among us may sit in their towers like Montaigne and write letters to unknown friends about thumbs, say, or smells or rereading Virgil, but they will do it in the half-light nowadays. It’s not their era.

But there’s more to it than even that, and I can sum it up in one word, beloved of essayists from the Romans to Montaigne to Johnson to Robert Louis Stevenson to the present day—beloved, indeed, of the curator of a recent exhibition on the subject at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. That word is “idleness.” Without a capacity for idleness you cannot follow in Montaigne’s footsteps. Idleness is not indolence, mind. Idleness is an art, and it’s an art that’s not always practical to cultivate in your younger years, once you’ve left childhood behind. Your mind might bolt like a runaway horse as idleness settles, as Montaigne said his did, but you begin with an idle moment. Let me sing a song of praise to idleness.


Dogs do it best, obviously. I’m not sure about cats—I think cats very often do confuse it with indolence. But a dog has that perfect combination of an unhurried appreciation of the moment and alertness to stabs of narrative—nothing grand—that make for fine essays. A dog has no concept of what “in toto” means, and nor does an essayist (of the kind I’m talking about). A dog—you can tell by the eyes—has many “tender regrets.” And I tenderly regret that they can’t write essays.

To write about sleep or laughter or riding in coaches, as Montaigne did, you need to know how to be idle. Yet, in Australia in the twenty-first century, we do not live in a society that values idleness. We value industry—industriousness, productivity, busyness.

“I expect you’re very busy,” people say to me. “No, not busy at all,” I say. “Preoccupied, but not busy.” Nobody these days knows how to take in this information; it’s like admitting that you detest children.

Our world not only insists that we be unendingly industrious; it also demands, as never before, that we pay attention to the products of others’ industry. “Pay attention to me!” it shouts at us, ceaselessly. “Buy me! When you’re not working, shop!” In this noisy world of productivity and buying, the essayist is a foreigner. He—or she, but it’s traditionally a he—is a rambler—a flâneur, I suppose, if you want to be snooty about it—jotting down for the delectation of his unknown friend a trail of observation on whatever he passes: Cato the Younger, liars, fasting; anything, really. He’s wily, of course. His idleness is partly feigned, he’s pandering to the leisured aristocrat inside himself, never the peasant—well, Montaigne was an aristocrat, but few of us are—and his itinerary is never quite as random as he would have us believe.

My own sallies into the world, if you’d like to know, are usually more like casual rendezvous than aimless strolls—I was, after all, at least christened a Presbyterian. All the same, these sallies are not study tours. When I write I am not interested in Truth—anything universal, really. My eye is caught by particularities. Truth I leave to God and Phillip Adams.

But it’s hard for anyone in the modern world, I think, to wander haphazardly any more, and that’s what idleness entails, even if the wandering is just in your mind. This is the age of ambulance-chasing, not ambling about. It’s hard to take a break from self-consciousness, as Sarah Engledow, the curator of the “Idle Hours” exhibition [at the National Portrait Gallery], put it: a break from performance, to quell restlessness and the longing for entertainment, to take pleasure in what she called “unremarked moments.”

Unless you have a developed spiritual consciousness, it’s difficult to allay the fear that, if you turn inwards to see what you might see, you will find nothing. Once upon a time there was at least the suspicion that you might find God lurking there, or the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, interestingly, most of the people in the paintings in the “Idle Hours” exhibition were women—women or children. You’d think, given our new-found interest in what women have to say, that this would be a plus in the modern era. There was a man watering the garden, for instance, and another man reading the paper at a window, and another man lying on the floor listening to music, but the rest were mostly women, chatting, knitting, snoozing, drinking tea or, like Bonnard’s wife, just contentedly sitting. Do women, like children and dogs, have a special aptitude for enjoying idle hours, or have they simply had to adapt for social reasons over centuries—at least women of a certain class—to leading contented lives without being the slaves of “industry?” Whatever the reason, it seems plausible to suggest that women are better at idleness (at leisured pensiveness, at stillness and at taking pleasure in the ordinary) than men are.

But here’s the paradox: traditionally, they write few essays. They’re perfectly placed to write them, but do so far less often than men do. The modern editor of an essays anthology will usually go out of his or her way to make sure that half the essays are by women (I strove for gender balance myself when editing “The Best Australian Essays”), but I can guarantee that any broad survey collection you pick up, even for recent decades, will draw overwhelmingly on male essayists. Some of you will see the patriarchy at work here, some of you other social factors, but for me it’s a paradox I can’t quite fathom. It’s as if women have found other things to do with their time; things more to their liking than writing essays.

One commentator, Phillip Lopate, has suggested that it has something to do with what he calls the tone of gentlemanly authority, the sense of “natural” authority, that the authors of the traditional essay have tended to enjoy, even when affecting self-doubt. This is a tone that, until very recently indeed (and even then it won’t be “gentlemanly”) fewer women than men are likely to have mastered. “Ladylike authority” won’t quite do, will it—it sounds too headmistressy, too prim, too performed.

I’ve been wondering if Lopate’s suggestion could be phrased in another way. I’ve been wondering if women are as likely to want to address unknown friends as men are; if they might not be in general more comfortable addressing friends they know. Perhaps women do not dawdle in public, as the personal essayist does. Perhaps women indeed only have friends they know, so perhaps the whole idea of revealing yourself to “unknown friends” seems odd to them. A woman intent on revealing herself, in other words, might more naturally turn to other genres—the short story, for instance, or the novel, the memoir, the autobiography—in which nakedness is more acceptable, like nudes in the Vatican Museum. Here nakedness is art. And make no mistake: the personal essay (unlike its more impersonal cousin) is a remarkably naked form. Your peculiarities, your frailties and quirks, your impotence in the face of life’s vicissitudes, your predilections, your old wounds, your creaking bones are all not just there for all to see, but are your stock in trade.

In other words, you must be adept at idleness, but you must also see it as your right—almost your birthright (playing on the notion of aristocracy)—if you want to be free to ramble through the world remarking at your leisure on the unremarked-upon. The essayist revels in a kind of ownership of the world. And this still has, I think, the whiff of gentlemanliness about it. But perhaps this will fade.

Meanwhile, as you’ll have gathered, I can’t help wondering if the essay—at least in its more personal form: the polemical essay is, I’m sure, quite safe—might be not quite of these times (a bit like singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ or fondue dinners). That air of the aristocratic amateur that the essayist affects is out of favour. We don’t approve of aristocrats and we despise amateurs. I doubt, for instance, that Charles Lamb would find a publisher for his essays today, unless, as a friend of mine put it, he wrote a celebrity piece about his crazy sister stabbing their mother to death.

I’m selfishly concerned about the fate of the personal essay because it’s what I most naturally do. I’m not a celebrity, and well-researched trumpet-blasts on the state of the world are not my strong point. I have rendezvous which ignite in me a desire to wheel around a target, affecting a nonchalant saunter, until I think I’ve nailed it. Vladivostok, the subjunctive, swearing, silence, Saturday afternoons—almost anything will do. Well, anything that the voices in my head habitually talk about with passion. Not cats, obviously, or Old Uzbek poetry.

Well, have I nailed my target? I’m uncertain—but then uncertainty, except about matters of taste, is one of the flags that fly from the essayist’s masthead. We’re not averse to stabbing people in the back at times, but otherwise thrust is foreign to us. We circle, look over our shoulder, pause to greet passers-by, sniff the air and lurch a lot. For us the underlying air of incoherence that characterises our thought is something to be joyfully acknowledged—it’s what makes us who we are. We don’t want our dentist to be incoherent. But then, we’re not dentists.

And for us, at root—and let me quote Michel de Montaigne one last time—the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.

About the Author

Robert Dessaix

Robert Dessaix is a writer, translator, broadcaster, and occasional essayist. His books include A Mother's Disgrace (1994), Night Letters (1996), and Arabesques (2008). In 2009 he published "On Humbug" (MUP).

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