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The essay in troubled times

Essay | 10 minute read
Quarrelsome, wayward and hybrid – why the essay is the perfect form for our dark, baffling age

It is a ship, sailing.

Seen through a large casement window, it traces a barely perceptible wake on the blue of the lake, while behind – tall, dark, sharp – a mountain range abruptly severs the perspective.

Except the image isn’t quite what it seems: look closer, and you’ll discover the window is not a window, but a cupboard; and the bisecting line which cuts down its middle is not a window frame, but the cupboard’s doors. It’s a trick.

This double-take photograph, Zurich, is one of a dozen or so that punctuate the Nigerian-American novelist and critic Teju Cole’s 2016 essay collection, Known and Strange Things. I like it not only for its elegance and everyday surrealism, but also for how those qualities foreground its essential conceit: self-reflective understanding. By looking, and then looking again, at Cole’s photograph we catch ourselves in the act of comprehension. And so does it gently lead us towards insight: that art requires close attention, responds to sustained engagement and is marked by wilful autonomy. Art works on us without permission.

Though you could find these qualities in a poem, a novel or a play – or even, evidently, in a photo of a cupboard – to my mind, they are most readily found in the essay. Why? Because the genius of the essay as a form lies in its generosity. Essays are both concise and capacious. They permit, therefore, sustained attention and deep engagement with objects, ideas and emotions – sharp edges and all.

The word essay derives from the French ‘to try’. Meant in the sense of an attempt but also, crucially, of a trial. As John Berger observed in Ways of Seeing, ‘Our principal aim has been to start a process of questioning.’ The essay shapes the raw material of thought: it refines, reduces, tempers.

Like a crystal caught in the light, it strews illumination into unexpected angles, odd corners. And thus does it shine in the dark. The perfect form for troubled times.

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Our world churns. We are living in the Anthropocene, an epoch marked by tumult, turbulence and loss. Politics is as deranged as our climate: authoritarianism is on the march; and cultural progress we complacently thought assured, such as a woman’s rights over her body, is under threat once again. Against such a backdrop, how to write – why to write – become pressing concerns. How to grip language to an age of crisis? It is a question that preoccupied the novelist and activist Arundhati Roy’s recent lecture to PEN America:

‘So, as we lurch into the future, in this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook “likes”, fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race toward extinction – what is literature’s place?’

One answer is that the place of literature is to look closer. And few literary forms demonstrate as close and consistent attention as the essay. Take the novelist Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Why Birds Matter’ from his 2018 collection, The End of the End of the Earth. It is a celebration of sustained attention and wonder. He begins: ‘If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world.’ It’s a lovely thought: birds as the measure of all things, not man; and as invitations to travel, to see. But that ‘if’ is crucial too: Franzen acknowledges his proposition is impossible – you’ll never see every bird, or every country. As well as invitations to travel and delight, then, birds are also urgings towards humility, to discovery of our limits. Later, he expresses this point directly: ‘One reason that wild birds matter – ought to matter – is that they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding.’ Attention is therefore, in Franzen’s estimation, an ethical impulse. Look long and hard enough at something, he suggests, and you will eventually wander out beyond yourself. Through prolonged attention, we stumble upon otherness and discover it beautiful.

Today, attention is a precious commodity. We live in an economy where our inattention relentlessly mined and monetised – distraction as extraction. But also the constant ambient hum of existential threats like climate crisis delays and deflects our thoughts from the realisation that they are already impacting millions of lives. Compassion is thus scattered, diffused. Images of horror and stories of apocalyptic loss are worn smooth by their endless circulation through social media and 24-hour news. William Gibson’s aphorism springs to mind: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed yet.’

Now it would be foolish to suggest that the essay, or even literature in general, could single-handedly right this wrong. But it is not foolish to suggest that the essay demonstrates the kind of deep intellectual, aesthetic and moral engagement that would go some way towards alleviating it. As a form, it serves as both method and model.


Consider Cole’s heart-shaking ‘Perplexed … Perplexed’ from Known and Strange Things. It is a frank and lengthy examination of the phenomenon of Nigerian mob justice; an attempt to unpick ‘the blood knot’ which Cole sees at the heart of his home country, and which has ‘dyed it all the way through with callousness.’ Though Cole explores the various factors which have ‘long steep[ed]’ Nigeria in violence – colonial brutalisation, an erosion of trust in judicial institutions, and outlandish folkloric beliefs are all plausibly suggested – his essay centres on one particular act of inhumanity: the murder of four students by a mob in 2012.

With quiet, insistent dignity, Cole recovers the story of these young men and the terrible speed with which they were accused, tried and executed for a crime they didn’t commit.

On Friday, October 5, 2012, four students at the University of Port Harcourt, in southern Nigeria, went to the nearby village of Aluu. They went to collect a debt from a man named Carson Lucky … At Aluu, they tried to shake down Lucky … Lucky raised an alarm, a crowd gathered and the students found themselves accused of stealing laptops and phones. They were immediately set upon by the mob, stripped, paraded through town, and beaten. They began to plead for their lives and, even as they did so, were weighed down with tires and set alight.

While his essay necessarily seeks to untangle Nigeria’s historical and cultural traumas, Cole returns to that image throughout: four young men, little more than boys, murdered by happenstance. We learn their names – ‘Chiadika Biringa, Ugonna Obuzor, Lloyd Toku, and Tekena Elkanah’ – and what Ugonna Obuzor’s final Twitter post was:

On August 21, Ugonna had written, simply: ‘Perplexed.’ And on the day following, August 22, 2012, the same, single haunting word again: ‘Perplexed.’

By staying with the Aluu 4, Cole gives his account an enormous momentum; but also, more importantly, a profound humanity. He recaptures the lives – and deaths – of the students from the gristly media circus (Cole says he ‘could not watch the video’ of their immolation which was widely shared). There is humane authority in his refusal to speculate and narrativise. Instead, through forensic engagement with the facts of the case, he builds, in the manner of an expert lawyer, to a devastating indictment: of Nigeria, of its bloodied colonial misrule and of a society which ‘for too long has considered [mob justice] just part of life.’

In Cole’s hands, the essay proves the consummate medium for this deconstruction; the diamond-tipped drill bit with which he uncovers the darkness which runs close beneath the surface of his beloved, bewildering country of birth.


All writing is isolation: the solitary interplay of emotion, word and idea.

But the essay, at its best, is gregarious and communal. Even when told through a subjective, personal lens, essays are frequently shored up by quotations, borrowings and other sundry fragments. It is as André Aciman suggested: ‘You write not after you’ve thought things through; you write to think things through.’ Except to that I would add: you write – or at least write essays – to think things through in the company of others. Writers may work in silence, unsure of their reception, yet they anticipate an audience of some kind; but for the essayist, that audience is most immediately provided by the vocal crowd of fellow writers whose ideas they liberate, phrasings plunder, and who otherwise accompany them in their journey down the uncharted page.

This was brought home to me reading Kevin Breathnach’s 2019 collection Tunnel Vision. A bracing debut, Tunnel Vision sees Breathnach bring scalpel-sharp critical faculties to bear on a vast array of texts – photographs, films, paintings, architecture and YouTube videos – but also, significantly, upon himself as he unflinchingly describes his addiction to hardcore porn and drugs, the breakdown of relationships and his sexual experimentation. Acerbic, funny and poignant, it is a deft portrait of a critic in crisis. Yet it is also a miscellany of quotation and reference as the lonely narrator recruits an eclectic band of writers, artists and creative misfits to keep him company. At times, the results are amusing:

‘I went straight up to my room and, laying the magazine open on my bed, I poured the other bag of mephedrone onto a large dark hardback edition of Susan Sontag’s posthumous essay collection, At the Same Time. I divided the contents into twelve lines.’

Photo by Raoul Croes on Unsplash

But more often they are bittersweet, as in one of the collection’s finest pieces ‘Death Cycles.’ In this essay, Breathnach wanders, apparently without purpose, through the suburbs of Munich.

‘An old man on a bicycle … put me in mind of my own grandfather, who was once pictured cycling gracefully down O’Connell street on the front cover of The Irish Times … When I saw posters seeking a family dog missing since September, I thought of Patrick Modiano, the French writer whose novels, all told by narrators lost amidst the cyclic topography of Paris and the past, are packed with missing dogs that signify nothing so much as the impossibility of shrugging off memory.’

Gradually, it becomes clear that Breathnach is not seeking to shrug off memory, but to exorcise it. The destination of his circuitous pilgrimage, we eventually learn, is the crash site of British European Airways Flight 609 which, on 6th February 1958, smashed into the ground shortly after take-off from Munich-Riem Airport, killing twenty-three journalists, staff and members of the Manchester United squad, including Breathnach’s twenty-two-year-old  great uncle, Liam Wheeler.

What Breathnach hopes to achieve when he reaches the memorial, apart from photograph it, is far from clear. It is as though the whorls of story that surround this event funnel him, irresistibly, to that moment, that place. Breathnach was, like his great uncle, a footballing prodigy; and ‘even as a child of just eleven’ he is aware of the burden of familial legacy: ‘How could I think of this as anything other than the sacrament of the resurrection of Liam Wheeler?’

At last, he stumbles upon the memorial. Any sense of communion is shattered, though, by a nearby motorbike crash: ‘I hear, roaring through the back of my mind, an audio hallucination of steel scorching into asphalt, an inherited memory of my granduncle’s death on this very spot.’ The interfolding of these events – the motorbike crash and, half a century ago, the fatal plane crash – overwhelms Breathnach, paralysing his ability to parse the scene before his eyes. ‘I just stand there, motionless, my mouth agape, my eyes spilling over with tears … my mind bombarded with questions I’ll never know the answers to.’

It’s a difficult moment in which to find solace. But I think, finally, there is a kind of consolation here. The suggestion that there are complexities in life and memory which stories cannot fully resolve is, especially in these dark and troubled times, strangely comforting. Through reading, we share a common bond with the writer by facing together the frayed entanglements of existence. And this is where I believe the essay comes into its own. They remind us that our attention carries moral weight, our compassion requires direction and, above all, that life remains stubbornly inexplicable. Machines of perpetual motion, essays tick on, working on their readers long after the author has slipped away.

Like ships, crewless, cutting through the blue of a lake.

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Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth, is a collection of essays edited by Nikesh Shukla and featuring Alex Diggins and other writers.