he perfect essay

Malcolm has spent a fair bit of his life in and around the essay: studying it, writing it, reading it, (heaven help him) marking it, and now once again, herein, composing and experimenting with it.

The curious thing is, once he left junior school, where Mrs Self insisted on the five paragraph essay — drafted, corrected and written out as a fair copy (and that was in the 1950s) —, nobody bothered to show him how it was done. He was expected to learn from models put before him, and by teachers’ comments, always terse and frequently cryptic, appended at the end.

Today, every freshman student is given a grounding in the methods and rules: many of these briefings are available on the Net. Malcolm finds it instructive to notice differences in quality and content, which do not necessarily match the prestige of the institution.


pinion and style

Mr O’Gorman, preparing Malcolm and his ilk for Irish Leaving Certificate, presented a classic essay a week. So Malcolm met, among many more, the likes of John Donne, Dryden, de Quincey, Strachey, Shaw and Eliot. And above all, Bacon and Lamb (not at the same sitting), Addison and Steele.

The intention was, doubtless, to teach style and mannered writing. It is to be devoutly hoped that some of that rubbed off on the cowed, bowed heads before Mr O’Gorman.

The trouble was the opinions and anecdotes and, above all, sheer joy of lustrous words got in the way. And in that joy we were betrayed forever into aspirations our talents could never fulfil.


hom would we add today?

Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West, Neville Cardus and John Arlott, John B. Keane and Flann O’Brien/Myles na Gopaleen, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson have already made it into collections. How else would any civilised person cope with the fundamentals of the human digestion system? Future generations of students will be sweating through academic selections thereof for generations to come.

This is, also, a growing industry. As newspapers become less relevant for “news”, they become more reliant on opinion and comment for relevance. Here on the Net, anyone can have a go, in the hope of a cyberbubble reputation.


o, that leads Malcolm to wonder

…. which of our contemporary writers will be similarly aspicked.

Malcolm would instantly nominate Hiaasen‘s weekly column for the Miami Herald, Chris Hitchens popping up anywhere, Julian Barnes expounding francophilia in The Guardian, the late Molly Ivins pouring wit and acid with equal measure:

There is a radio station just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. It plays hymns during the day and broadcasts religious advertisements at night. They sell autographed pictures of Jesus to all you friends in radioland. Also prayer rugs as a special gift for all your travellin‘ salesman friends with a picture of the face of Jesus on the prayer rug that glows in the dark. And underneath the picture is a legend that also glows in the dark; it’s written, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.”

That’s under the sub-heading: They said it was Texas Kulcher/but it was only railroad gin.

Then there’s Maureen Dowd, whose latest piece in the Gray Lady leaps from Condoleeza to Old English and back to the Biggest Issue on the Potomac and Euphrates:

Someone might tell Condi — who said in one of her golf interviews that her zest for sports is so all-encompassing that “I love anything with a score at the end” — that she’d better get to work or America’s score in Iraq will be zero.

The Iraq war she helped sell has turned into Grendel, devouring everything in sight and making it uninhabitable. It has ravaged Iraq, Bush’s presidency, the federal budget, the Republican majority, American invincibility and integrity, and now, John McCain’s chance to be president.

And there’s no Beowulf in sight. Just a bunch of spectacularly wrong hawks stubbornly continuing to be spectacularly wrong at what an alarmed Republican Senator John Warner calls “a time in our history unlike any I have ever witnessed before.”

Watching the warring tribes in Iraq grow more violent has caused the beginning of a reconciliation among the warring tribes in Washington, as they realize they have to get the car keys away from the careening president who has crashed into the globe.


eaching a conclusion

Every great essay sticks in the mind, quite literally, when it reaches its punctuating and definitive epigram.

Maureen Dowd, in the piece just mentioned, has this:

When presidents have screwed up and want to console themselves, they think history will give them a second chance. It’s the historical equivalent of a presidential pardon.

But there are other things — morality, strategy and security — that are more pressing than history. History is just the fanciest way possible of wanting to deny or distract attention from what’s happening now.

Not bad, if not in the same league (and similar sentiment) as … for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The other Malcolm, Malcolm Gladwell, has defined the process of “thin slicing”. This, Gladwell proposes, is the human mind’s capability to make snap decisions by scanning available information and planning instant action. At opposite extremes, this process is evident in the horrible tragedy of Jean Charles de Menendez in Stockwell tube station and in the ludicrous comedy of coping with three-for-two offers in bookshops.

As a consequence, Malcolm buys his novels by a skim of the opening sentence or two, but refers to the epigram of the final page for heavier tomes. Gladwell’s thesis apart, this method achieves a fair success-rate, but numerous books on the shelves of Redfellow hovel remain unread beyond the opening chapter.


new beginning

This is the 199th entry in Malcolm Redfellow Revivus, since it was started in August last year. One further entry and it will be time to ask the umpire for a fresh guard, “Middle-and-leg, please!”, to review the field settings, and to settle for another session.

Malcolm didn’t expect this to continue beyond a passing fad, but now feels obligated to maintain some kind of presence.

Very few of the postings, on reflection and review, have wholly satisfied him. Some are, in retrospect, quite embarrassing. The perfect essay, Malcolm fully appreciates, is far beyond him, his intellect, and his capacities.

It has intrigued Malcolm how the most trivial postings have evinced some response, but more thoughtful efforts have tombstoned. The elves came and went (though not without remark). The mood and tone fluctuated. Several long-distance conversations have developed, for which Malcolm remains grateful.

Nor has Malcolm ever fully reconciled what his prime aim is. He mixes all his passing interests and fads here. He would defend himself by saying that “man is a political animal” does not circumscribe the whole being of our species with the argy-bargy of factions and “issues”. Aristotle meant that we live and thrive in the polis, the city-state, the community, and all that entails: daily events, the culture and literature of our times and those long-gone, the way we interact and respond to events, problems, controversies and ideas around us.

Inevitably, in aspiring to that, Malcolm’s grasp is far, far greater than his reach.


alcolm’s blog …

… was begun mainly, if casually, to satisfy an inner need, a personal inadequacy. In that respect it has been cheaper and given more lasting satisfaction than alcohol. Not that alcohol has not played its part.

That previous paragraph was going to start with the enclitic and unnecessary “Most of all…”, which Mr O’Gorman would have struck out forcibly.

But there is a “most of all”. It is that these postings force order on random thoughts and formality on their expression. A truly satisfying blog, for author and any potential reader alike, must conform still to Pope‘s three-century old definition:

True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but never so well express’d.

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