“Mixed Up,” by Adam Gopnik. The New Yorker, 1/16/2016.
Gopnik’s article gives many facts and insights into the life of Michael Montaigne, the 16th century writer credited with inventing the essay, and is well worth reading in its entirety, but here, I am focusing on one tiny part—barely a paragraph, an aside, barely noted in passing.
Each form of writing, Gopnik tells us, creates its own reader. A sonnet is addressed to an indifferent object of passion, but an essay is always [Gopnik’s emphasis] addressed to an intimate unknown intently listening on the other side of the wall.
When I write a blog posting, I am writing to that intimate unknown. If I write a word or thought too complex, I will explain or simplify it on rewrite. If I am too wordy, I will tighten the prose, all with this generalized intimate unknown in mind.
Gopnik gives the example of E. B. White, who was devoted to his wife, Katharine, an early fiction editor at The New Yorker who is credited with setting the tone of the magazine that is still characteristic today (at least until they became obsessed with anti-Trump articles). She is prominent in his letters, but rarely, if ever, appears in his essays. “If the essays were even implicitly addressed to a particular intimate, they would become too specific. The illusion of confiding in the reader alone is what essayists play on. You’re my best friend.”
That said, I must add one more insight from Gopnik’s article.
Montaigne shows us our inner selves are a mass of contradictions. “. . . the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh.” All contrarieties are found in our souls:
Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine . . .
Then, an insight by Gopnik: “Lists are the giveaways of writing. What we list is what we love, as with Homer and his ships, or Whitman and his Manhattan trades, or Twain and steamboats.”