To Limit Is to Define

Mario Aquilina’s New Anthology

by | Sep 14, 2021 | Review

The Essay at the Limits: Poetics, Politics and Form
By Marion Aquilina
264 pp. Bloomsbury Academic, $39.95
Released April 2021

If, as Oscar Wilde’s aphorism goes, to define is to limit, then it follows that every definition of this elusive genre, this elusive word—the essay—is both limiting and limited. Often described as transgressive, heterogeneous and, indeed, limitless, the fourth genre is a feral creature that refuses to be domesticated. It resists, even, to be simply a genre, that is, limited to form.
          The new collection of academic essays edited by Mario Aquilina, counter-intuitively titled The Essay at the Limits, explores the essay in its capacities as a genre and a mode by looking at the peculiar things that happen at the essay’s limits. As Aquilina explains in the introduction, the negative connotations of the word “limits” may initially suggest that this volume explores the shortcomings of the essay, but this is far from the case. The “limits of the essay,” Aquilina writes, “are not only productive in a definitional sense—without limits, something would be everything and hence nothing—but also crucial to understanding what is specific to the essay as a literary form.” In other words, rethinking the essay at the limits is an attempt to discover what is constitutive of and particular to the essay.
          In the introductory chapter, Aquilina unpacks the idea of “the essay at the limits” while discussing the histories and theories of the genre, providing a frame of thought with which to read the contributions that follow. Throughout the introduction, Aquilina argues that irresolvable tensions and paradoxes abound when rethinking the essay. These arise due to the essay’s Janus-like nature: the essay is “a human and familiar form” that is “interested in human matters, written in a conversational style and dependent on a readership that shares similar interests and concerns,” but it can also be “marked more by the desire to stretch and transgress previously established limits.” Indeed, the essay has been double-faceted since its origins, Aquilina points out, through the etymology of  the word “essay” as well as the genre’s bifurcated genealogy. “Essay” has “a dual meaning […] as both product and process,” he writes, and these two definitions are ascribed to the two fathers of the essay: Francis Bacon and Michel de Montaigne respectively. The essay emerges at the point where these tensions are productively negotiated, and this negotiation occurs at the limits. In Aquilina’s words, “the essay, in dialectical and not easily resolvable ways, is a form that is constituted by and prospers from tensions around limits.”
          The central—and defining—paradox of the essay, according to Aquilina, is that it “seek[s] to be a genre that is most essayistic when it transgresses generic expectations.” At the heart of this paradox lies the crucial tension between the essay and the essayistic, the genre and the mode (once again, Bacon and Montaigne). Aquilina proposes to

thin[k] of the essay […] as always already informed, constituted even, by an irresolvable tension of genre and mode. This involves thinking of the essay and the essayistic not as opposite ends in a spectrum along which different essays may be plotted at various points on a continuum (whether diachronic or synchronic) but as simultaneous forces (centripetal and centrifugal, if you will) that mark any essay and that determine the radical questioning of formal and conceptual limits that is paradoxically defining of the essay.

Thus, in the theory of essay dynamics as Aquilina conceives it, the two forces of the essay are “simultaneous” rather than “opposite,” and the tension between these two forces is “irresolvable” but always being productively negotiated at the limits. The paradox lies in how this “radical questioning” is also what is “defining” of the essay; the essay’s freedoms are, paradoxically, also its limits.
          In the introduction of The Essay at the Limits, Aquilina redresses the tendency to “theoriz[e] the essay without excluding the essay when it is more familiar than groundbreaking, when it leans more towards genre than the a-generic.” He proposes a re-definition of the essay that accounts for both the Montaignian essay and the Baconian essay by addressing the form’s tensions and negotiations, turning the essay’s infamous indefinability into an opportunity to reconcile with its paradoxes, to truly probe into the nature of the essay and, significantly, to address “the essayistic” while doing so.
          Aquilina’s provocative introduction anticipates and paves the way for the fifteen contributions’ radical and rigorous re-thinking of the essay. “In the essayistic spirit of the essay,” Aquilina writes, the contributors “assa[y] to break new ground in thinking about the essay while remaining firmly aware of and grounded in the essay tradition from which it inevitably proceeds.” The contributions are divided into three sections prefaced by Aquilina. The first part, ‘The Essay and the World,” “refin[es] our thinking of the essay as a form that seeks to understand, represent or participate in the world or aspects of the world ‘out there’. […] [The chapters] invite us to interrogate the ways in which the essay, as a form of thinking, navigates the limits and relations between the subjective and the objective in the quest for different kinds of ‘truth.'” On the other hand, the second part focuses on “The Essay and the Self” and it explores the “sense of human presence in the essay, the idea that the essay is in some ways an expression or modulation or veiling of personality or identity, [and] the ways in which voice, point of view, style and publication affordances construct or problematize the sense of self in the essay.” In the third and last section, “The Essay, Form and the Essayistic,” the contributors write about the essay from the perspective of form and investigate “how the essayistic mode – or the essayistic ‘spirit’ – can transcend the limits of the essay as a genre and be a generating impulse elsewhere.”
          Literary criticism on the essay in this volume is also at the limits, questioning what is perceived as central to the essay and arguing for the intrinsically essay-like swerves of formal or conceptual innovations. The irresolvable forces of the essay are continuously in dynamic negotiation on both a chapter and volume level. Canonical essayists such as Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf are discussed alongside new voices like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Dillon. In The Essay at the Limits, the essay is encountered within the familiar context of literary criticism and theory, but also within the post-literary context (which James Corby writes about) through contributions that trace an essayistic strain in music (Maria Frendo on the essayistic poetics of Dmitri Shostakovich’s and Joseph Vella’s musical compositions), film (Bob Cowser Jr on the essayistic historiography of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour), and digital fiction (Joseph Tabbi on the digital essayism of Anne Burdick and Janet Sarbanes’s Trina: A Design Fiction). At the limits, the fourth genre meets other literary forms, such as the aphorism (R. Eric Tippin on the kinship between the aphorism and the essay), poetry (Allen Durgin on Wallace Stevens’s “straight-laced poems as queer essays”), and the novel (Jason Childs on essayistic twenty-first-century novels). For some contributors, the essay intersects philosophy, politics, critical and cultural theory, race, and gender at the limits; in other contributions, the essay encounters itself at the limits through discussions of its formal aspects (Ivan Callus on tone and Michael Askew on the essayistic ‘I’).
          The Essay at the Limits, like the Roman god Janus, has a double vision: a set of eyes look back at the beginnings of the essay, its etymologies, genealogies and traditions; the other pair observe the essay’s relevance in the 21st century as “a powerful literary form,” as the blurb puts it, in a contemporary world riddled with post-truth. This double vision equips the editor and the contributors with critical foresight. What does fate have in store for the essay according to The Essay at the Limits? Perhaps an increasingly post-literary future. One thing is certain: the essay will emerge and re-emerge as it has always done, by negotiating its irresolvable limits.

Jasmine Bajada

Jasmine Bajada

Jasmine Bajada is a researcher at the University of Malta’s Centre for English Language Proficiency. She has published academic articles and reviews in journals such as CounterText, Glits-E, and Antae. Her personal research interests include literary geography, Mediterranean studies, feminism, and ecocriticism.