We all get depressed – if not now or yesterday then tomorrow or sometime after – and anyone who doesn’t has something wrong with them. Such people would benefit from professional advice because they are lacking something that is an essential part of being a human animal.
What matters at all costs is how deep the depression digs into our mind and body and how long it lasts.
The life of the writer Brian Dillon took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2015: in his forties, a long-lasting relationship was coming to an end and things fell apart; he could no longer write; suicide was a relatively painless option.
The book he was trying to write, “Essaysim”, did get completed and by being able to continue with its writing the suicidal path was not taken.
He came to realize that writing had always been his way of distracting himself from the urge to self-destruct.
Not everyone will share this way of trying to stave off the mental pain of existence but many will turn to and rely on reading as an essential means of coping with life. In this regard Brian Dillon is very much like the rest of us.
“Essaysim” is a book about reading the essays of others. A completed work on a larger scale, like a novel, has a wholeness that does not answer Dillon’’s needs. He warms to the form of a shorter piece of writing on a particular subject.
This is the essay – the word can also be used as a verb meaning ‘to try, attempt’ – and its etymology goes back to the twelfth century and a word meaning ‘a scale’, a form of measurement by weighing something.
The essay tries to weigh up its subject, express what is essential about it while accepting that it is only an attempt. It is, as Dillon puts it, “strange to itself”. Incompleteness is part of its nature, it can be fragmentary but this is the way it has to be because human existence is incomplete. We are not in control of everything and as Adorno – one of the essayists Dillon admires – expresses it:
But the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory;
it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal.
The therapeutic value of reading “Essaysim” rests with its exploration of the consolation that comes from reading how others write about life.
The pleasure comes from being directed to a host of essayists whom one might not otherwise know about. The reading list at the end of the book will contain some familiar names but many will be new and worth seeking out.
“Essaysim” is far more than a tale of middle age melancholy. One of the writers quoted, E.M. Cioran, points to what is universal about the transitory nature of our lives:
Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history – greater than the fall of empires – I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence.
“Essaysim” by Brian Dillon is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.