ce n’est jamaispar l’intérieurni par le centreque je passe—Antonin Artaud, Cahiers d’Ivry, (1947–1948)
At the end of the sixteenth century, the genre of the essay transformed the relationship between the subject and object of writing, since the essay emerged as a reaction against other literary forms—such as the commentary, the gloss or the treatise—in which the object of study is not problematized. The gloss, the commentary, or the treatise deal with disciplines or thematic topics—astronomy, agronomy, theology, physics, history—in the proper sense, whereas the essay tends to focus on the approach to those issues. To put it differently, the essay is not strictly concerned with these issues or topics in themselves, but with the approach to them by means of writing.
With Michel de Montaigne, specifically in his Essays published between 1580 and 1595, we are faced with writing where the knowledge of the object is no longer the sole center of the text. Despite being actually concerned with the Greek philosophical tradition, sixteenth-century religious wars, and, among many other topics, European colonialism in America, Montaigne’s Essays try to contest the privilege of the object, the privilege of the referent of writing, in [End Page 131] favor of its subject: the subject of writing and the writing itself, what we call in French une écriture de soi.
As is well known, in his Essays Montaigne’s writing conveys neither message nor knowledge regarding things and topics, but what he calls “la continuelle mutation et branle” des êtres [“nostre estre”] et des objects [“ des objects”]: “the continual and perpetual mutation” of “beings” and “objects” (257).
This epistemological crisis of the essay—abandoning the privilege of the object or theme for an emphasis on questioning the subject of writing and the modalities of the approach to the object—is explicit in the etymology of the word essay. Beyond the notion of attempt—in French, essayer means “to try,” “to attempt to do something”—essayer, from the Latin verb ex-agere, is a compound word of the verb agere, “to act,” in French agir. In Latin, the meaning of agere—“to act”—differs from facere, as agir does in French from faire, “to do”; it is in this way that these two verbs designate a different relationship between the subject and the object of the action. Although agere and facere both refer to action, the verb agere at the origin of the word essay designates an action accomplished by a subject, whereas facere is a transitive verb whose emphasis is placed on the object.
While, on the one hand, facere is to be read in the register of transitivity—as is explicit in the following Latin phrases: facere litteram, “to write a letter,” or facere furtum, “to commit theft”—on the other hand, agere, although a transitive verb in Latin, underscores and anticipates the kind of intransitivity of action we will later find in Roman languages. In these Latin phrases, one can see that in Latin, at the same time that, the syntactic construction of agere requires an object, this object is not, strictly speaking, the real object produced by the verb, because in the phrases agere vitam, agere aetatem, or agere aevum, “to spend time or to live,” time is not the real object produced by the verb “to spend.” In Latin, “life,” vitam, “age,” aetatem, or “lifetime,” aevum, are not the real objects produced by the verb agere. This perhaps explains the evolution of the verb in French, or in English, where “to act” and agir have become intransitive verbs, reinforcing the idea that the essay appears to be a genre where whatever has to be done or said is not simply presented as an object.
Moreover, instead of the conclusive verb facere, which designates the action as a result or an achievement—the letter is already written, or the theft is already commited—the temporality of agere, in Latin, is a durative one, as in the phrases agere vitam, aetatem, or aevum, “to live.” By its emphasis, not on the object...