The introduction to my 2010 collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant

From the first page of Charles Lamb’s essay of 1823 on “Poor Relations”:

He is known by his knock. Your heart telleth you “That is Mr. — .” A rap, between familiarity and respect; that demands, and, at the same time, seems to despair of entertainment. He entereth smiling, and — embarrassed. He holdeth out his hand to you to shake, and draweth it back again. He casually looketh in about dinner time — when the table is full. He offereth to go away, seeing you have company — but is induced to stay. He filleth a chair, and your visitor’s two children are accommodated at a side table.

This is Lamb’s typical wry brightness of tone. As the essay moves along, and as Lamb catalogues the varieties of poor relations, he finds himself recalling a boy he had known as a student at Christ’s Hospital — the old and venerable school in London that Coleridge also attended — and also at Oxford. This young man, whom Lamb does not name, had to leave the university without a degree because of his poverty. His options were few and unpleasant; he enlisted in the Army, and was killed in his first military action. Having told this story, Lamb seems to pause a moment and then says,

I do not know how, upon a subject which I began with treating half seriously, I should have fallen upon a recital so eminently painful; but this theme of poor relationship is replete with so much matter for tragic as well as comic associations, that it is difficult to keep the account distinct without blending.

Of all the many virtues of the essay as a form, it seems to be that the most wonderful of them is exhibited here. It is what I have elsewhere called a humble mutability of tone, a willingness to acknowledge and accept the vagaries of the mind, with its habit of following its own pathways in serene disregard of what we would have it do. Lamb may have meant to write a comical bagatelle; his mind, it turned out, contained a store of memories what would not confine themselves to the mood in which he began.

Now, Lamb certainly could have insisted on regaining control of his enterprise. He could have returned to what he had written and brought forth the Great Leveling Hand of Revision and made his essay more consistent in theme and tone. But he did not do this. He did not do this, I think, because whatever point he had in mind when he began, the point of the essay had, in the process of writing it, become this surprising and discomfiting recognition that “this theme of poor relationship is replete with so much matter for tragic as well as comic associations, that it is difficult to keep the account distinct without blending.” It is just this “blended” character of our experience of others, in which the tragic and the comic can never be stopped from blundering haplessly into one another’s territory, that the essay ends up portraying. Or rather, one might say that the essay does not portray the blending itself so much as one man’s unexpected and unlooked-for recognition of the blending. What is represented here is the mind — following in its habitual way its branching pathways of memory and reflection — discovering something deeply true that the mind’s owner would just as soon not know.

Here’s another example, from the beginning of that greatest of English essays, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf has been asked to give a talk on “women and fiction,” and as she strolls, deep in contemplation of this topic, across the grounds of an Oxbridge college, an idea comes to her. It is like catching a fish, she thinks.

But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the mysterious property of its kind — put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, set up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still. It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession they had sent my little fish into hiding.

What idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing I could not now remember.

In another genre — in a treatise, let us say — an idea lost is no idea at all. An idea lost returns to the realm of non-being from which it had so briefly emerged. It is nothing, and how can one include nothing in one’s treatise? But for Woolf the idea lost is, if not an idea any more, an experience — and an experience deeply relevant to the theme of women and fiction, because within these pages this is the first in a se- ries of interruptions — and, as Woolf says later in describing the conditions in which women who wish to write fiction must labor, “Interruptions there will always be.”

Let me give you one more quotation, from D. T. Max, in a recent New Yorker biographical essay on David Foster Wallace:

His novels were overstuffed with facts, humor, digressions, silence, and sadness. He conjured the world in two-hundred-word sentences that mixed formal diction and street slang, technicalese and plain speech; his prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed thought itself. “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant,” he wrote in “Good Old Neon,” a story from 2001. Riffs that did not fit into his narrative he sent to footnotes and endnotes, which he liked, he once said, because they were “almost like having a second voice in your head.”

I have come to think that this is the most remarkable aspect of Wallace’s fiction: his tendency not to dispense with the intellectual and experiential materials that went into the making of the story proper, but rather to incorporate those materials into the book, setting them at some distance from, and at angles to, the main narrative thrust. I find this fascinating, perhaps because I am drawn to anything essayistic. In contrast to Infinite Jest, a book like Joyce’s Ulysses, say, is not essayistic: there’s a world of difference between the pathways of the mind that Wallace (and in their different ways Lamb and Woolf) trace and what Joyce called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of sensory impressions. And yet “sensory impressions” are part of the story I’m telling too. The essay would be a limited form indeed if it could only tell us about the pathways our minds follow without reference to our bodies.

Consider Montaigne’s reflections, in what I believe to be the finest essay ever written, “Of Repentance,” on growing older:

I hate that accidental repentance that old age brings. The man who said of old that he was obliged to the years for having rid him of sensuality had a different viewpoint from mine; I shall never be grateful to impotence for any good it may do me. . . . Miserable sort of remedy, to oue our health to disease! . . . Therefore I renounce these casual and painful reformations.

God must touch our hearts. Our conscience must reform by itself through the strengthening of our reason, not through the weakening of our appetites. Sensual pleasure is neither pale nor colorless in itself for being seen through dim and blary eyes. We should love temperance for itself and out of reverence toward God, who has commanded it, and also chastity; what catarrh lends us, and what I owe to the favor of my colic, is neither chastity nor temperance. We cannot boast of despising and fighting sensual pleasure, if we do not see or know it, and its charms, its powers, and its most alluring beauty.

I love this because it is so honest, so unsentimental, and so gently comical. Montaigne knows — better than any writer I can think of except perhaps W. H. Auden — that having a body is really kind of funny, and a constant affront to our pretenses to dignity. St. Francis understood this too, which is why he referred to his body as Brother Ass.

(And note, by the way, how we literary critics and continental-philosophy types like to talk about “the body” — you know, The Body: the proper-nouned abstraction has much more gravitas than plain old bodies, the kinds that even literary critics and continental philosophers have. The educational guru Ken Robinson once commented that academics think of their bodies as vehicles for getting their heads to meetings. The more you think about The Body the less you have to think about your body.)

So the paths of the mind, seen honestly, are often paths set by our bodies. This is a particularly interesting fact in light of the fact that so many essays — devoted as they are to following the paths of thought — are built on memories. The cognitive scientist Antonio Damasio has argued that our memories are accompanied by what he calls “somatic markers” — neural encodings of the various physical conditions (sensory, hormonal) that existed in our bodies at the moment that the remembered event happened. So to recall an event is to retrieve the whole somatic context of that event: remembering a moment of fear, we shiver; remembering excitement, we blush.

This is a reminder of how little we control our own experiences, try though we might. And how little we control the paths we follow, whether neurally or in the great metaphorical sense of life as a pilgrimage — of a person as a viator, a wayfarer. I love the essay primarily because it is the genre par excellence of wayfaring.

An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator. Wayfarers know in a general way where we are headed: to the City of God, what John Bunyan, that great chronicler of pilgrimage, called the Celestial City — but we aren’t altogether certain of the way. We can get lost for a time, or lose our focus and nap for too long on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road, or dally a few days at Vanity Fair. We can even become discouraged — but we don’t, ultimately and finally, give up. And we don’t think we have arrived. To presume that we have made it to our destination and to despair of arriving are both, are Jürgen Moltmann has wisely said, ways of “canceling the wayfaring character of hope.”

Hope comes from knowing that there is a way — and that we didn’t create it. This is why the road’s unexpected turnings need not alarm us; this is why it’s possible even to enjoy the unpredictable, whether it comes from without or within. That is, there can be pleasure and instruction in the books we stumble across, in the serendipitous skipping from link to link across the Web — and even in our own mental vagaries, the stumbling and skipping through our neural webs.

Of course, what is instructive is not always pleasurable, and what is pleasurable is not always instructive. That’s life. So, just as George Bernard Shaw wrote what he called Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, these are Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant. Some are celebratory, some are critical; most partake of both attitudes. You never know what kinds of things will turn up along the way.