Joseph Epstein’s life and writing exemplify the ideal essay writer’s tendency to be a humane generalist rather than an academic specialist. Aiming at well-roundedness, the essayist also becomes freed from vogue words and jargon, a bad influence against which Mr. Epstein campaigns vigorously and wittily in “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.”
Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits by Joseph Epstein (505 pages, Axios Press, 2020)
What makes a good essay—our stock in trade here at The Imaginative Conservative? The dictionary definition of an essay is “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, generally analytic, speculative or interpretative.” An essay invites the reader to ponder a particular topic in human experience and, ideally, shares something of the author’s personality and point of view. It is of the nature of the essay that it is not exhaustive of its subject; that is the province of the book. It is also of its nature, I would say, that style is somewhat more important than content. One reads an essay to sample the mind of the author, his way with language, his voice, his personal “take” on a subject. Logos, the intellectual force of argument, is united to pathos, emotional engagement with the reader (ensuring that an essay differs from an encyclopedia entry), all operating under the umbrella of the ethos, the character of personality of the writer.
Joseph Epstein (born 1937) is one of the contemporary masters of the essay, and Imaginative Conservatives will delight in this new harvest of his writings (gallimaufry refers to a kind of hash or stew). A man of deep conservative sensibilities, Mr. Epstein would nevertheless object to being called a political writer, even though contemporary issues are discussed in these pages. In fact, he laments that his art—the art of the cozy, familiar essay—has largely been superseded by partisan political diatribes (I would add also, of lifeless academic dissections). Mr. Epstein’s subjects are varied, ranging from literature to philosophy to social custom to homely topics like cats and baseball. What he is most of all, as he has shown in his previous books and essay collections, is a spokesman for culture in its highest and deepest sense. His style, a thing of grace and clarity, combines erudition with a Robert-Benchley-like bewilderment and self-deprecation that welcome the reader as a fellow traveler. He is never dry or pedantic. Even when he criticizes, it is with a mordant wit and never a nasty edge.
In its original meaning, essay (from the French for “to try”) implies something tentative and exploratory. The essayist is not preaching fixed truths so much as working through his ideas. Mr. Epstein specifies that the essay does not aim at “definitude”; it cannot say everything about a particular topic. Instead, the essayist selects carefully a range of statements and impressions he wants to convey. It’s less about spewing information than about creating a little world of thought and impressions, and what one doesn’t say is often just as important as what one does. Everything must be elegant and crystalline; obscurity or opacity have no place. Working on a small canvas, there is less leeway for carelessness. The essay is thus a gemlike art of proportion and exactness. In an essay, every word counts.
Unlike the novelist, the essayist does not have character, setting, or plot to hide behind; it’s just him, speaking in his own voice, and the audience. Vividness and energy of language propel the reader along; one doesn’t hurry through an essay to pick up information, one lingers and savors. This implies perhaps that the best essayists are “amateurs” rather than “experts”—those who are motivated by a sheer desire to share their insights with us. Mr. Epstein names “dedication to truthfulness” and the desire to share of himself two of the essential qualities of the essayist.
Part of this value of this book is that the author explains what went into making him a fine essayist. If Mr. Epstein wears his erudition lightly, it is because he has been all his life an autodidact. As he says, “I have never met a really educated person who wasn’t an autodidact, who didn’t finally get his education on his own.” Entering the University of Chicago as an undergraduate in the mid-1950s, he encountered that school’s Great Books program and was shocked by how much he didn’t know. One of the boons of the educational system at UC was that no textbooks were used; instead, students dove into the original sources themselves, reading Plato, Aristotle, et al. These things are recounted in the chapter “University of Chicago Days,” which for me is the heart of the book along with the opening chapter, “The Bookish Life” (originally written for First Things).
An adequate if not brilliant student, Mr. Epstein flourished in his post-school years as he cultivated his gifts as a writer. His life and writing exemplify the habit of continuous education and culture. Indeed, Mr. Epstein’s lack of higher degrees made him all the more dedicated to self-educating, and he enthusiastically shares with us his intellectual passions, ranging from ancient Roman history (the chapter “Big Julie” is about Julius Caesar) to George Gershwin. This reflects another aspect of the ideal essay writer: He or she tends to be a humane generalist rather than an academic specialist. Aiming at well-roundedness the essayist also becomes freed from vogue words and jargon, a bad influence against which the author campaigns vigorously and wittily in this book.
Mr. Epstein emphasizes that “no map, no blueprint, no plan, no shortcut exists” to acquiring culture; there is no magic formula for education. The school years can, at least, provide the initial spark to the life of the mind; the rest of life exists for building the spark into a flame. The strength and charm of liberal learning is that it exists for its own sake; as Mr. Epstein puts it, “The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end.” He quotes the father of the essay, Montaigne: “From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime.” Mr. Epstein’s aims in reading are “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness” (the same qualities, incidentally, that come out in his essays). Reading at its highest is a communion of minds: “Reading the right books, the best books, puts us in the company or men and women more intelligent than ourselves.” Reading also frees one from the limitations of one’s own era: “We all live in the contemporary world, but that doesn’t mean that we have to restrict our reading to that world, which is doubtless already too much with us.”
Speaking of the contemporary world, I hear that some people have been seeking to sabotage this book—perhaps without having read it—because its author elsewhere penned a satirical essay taking aim at credentialism and verbal pretention. Too bad for them. Mr. Epstein’s collection taps into an ideal I have long cherished but rarely find of late, a feeling of endless leisure—a camaraderie of the mind, reflection that is at once humane and humorous. We have among us multitudes of writers who can analyze, dissect, and deconstruct, but few who provide this basic pleasure. Mr. Epstein is one of those blessed few.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.