Vol 8 No 2 (2022): Heretical voices: the reasons of the essay in modern and contemporary literature
One of the features that anyone embarking on the description of the essay as a genre unquestionably has to face is the indeterminacy that is germane to its essence (Obaldia 1995), which is reflected in a desultory and fragmentary style, made up of anecdotes, illuminations, criticisms and suggestions for further reflection (Berardinelli 2008). Ever since its 17th-century origins, the essay has represented a site where it is possible to engage in vehement public oration – often simply unrequired or explicitly opposed – in the manner of the famous “soapbox orators” in Hyde Park (Sanders 1989). Following T. W. Adorno’s 1958 definition of the essay as a “heretical genre”, we might indeed be tempted to postulate that the essayist’s voice is bestowed on his/her readers at full strength when it engages in a process of systemic critique and current demystifying of dogmas pertaining either to a specific intellectual paradigm or to a historical period at large. Embodied from time to time by medieval Scholasticism, or 18th-century Enlightenment, Victorian moralism, up to 20th-century Totalitarian ideologies, these dogmas sanctioned, by means of their inflexibility, the victory of single memorable essays that have remained, despite their original context of production, aesthetical testimonies capable of resisting the decay of the material situation they originally commented upon (Ozick 1997). A fierce, free, heretical voice is what allows the essayist to embark on a diffused, polemical questioning of the received doxa, of the conventional idée reçue, of ideological conformity, and it also allows a retrospective recognition of the essay as the prime literary form suitable for criticism, intended as a campaign against banality deriving its strength from an epideictic liveliness embodied by the logic of the vox clamantis in deserto.