Thinking on Paper: Incompleteness and the Essay


  • Peter Marks


Michel Montaigne first brought together a collection of short discursive prose pieces in 1580, and in naming them ‘essais’, from the French root word for ‘attempt’, he signals that the activity of inquiry undertaken in the form might be ongoing. In this sense, an essay by its very nature is incomplete. Incompleteness might be seen as an admission of failure, or as a sign of deficiency. Nearly two hundred years after Montaigne, Samuel Johnson’s definition of the essay as ‘a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, undigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance’ sounds almost dismissive. Yet Montaigne’s modest term carries with it an awareness of the shortcomings of the medieval certainties, certainties which an emerging Humanism was directly challenging in the 16th century. That challenge, too, was an ongoing process, exemplified by the fact that Montaigne repeatedly revised his essays, as well as adding to their total number. There ‘is no such thing as a definitive edition’ of Montaigne’s essays, explains M.A. Screech, the editor of a recent edition. ‘One has to choose,’ he adds, the Essays being ‘a prime example of the expanding book’.