– THE MYSTERY OF BEING HUMAN –
Collections of essays may also seem rather too obviously collected, rounding up items that have in common only the fact that they issued from the same writer and are (perhaps) looking for a second home. They are ‘occasional’ and the occasion may have passed. There is a more interesting truth hereabouts. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg spoke of his own philosophy as being ‘a doctrine of scattered occasions’. A brilliant scientist and free-ranging thinker, he gathered his philosophical thoughts in scrapbooks, and they never amounted to a system. He felt that there was something irreducibly multiple, fragmented, episodic, accidental in the thoughts of even the most focussed thinker. Lichtenberg was greatly admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein and would doubtless have approved of the latter’s description of his own unfinished posthumous Philosophical Investigations as ‘an album of sketches’.
Indeed, we might go on to the front foot and argue that length – or lack of it – respects the attention span of the reader or, if that too can be turned on its head, the reading span. The essay is a mind-portable form. The apparent unity and sustained flow of the novel, the big biography, or the treatise is not replicated in the experience of their readers. Reading is scattered through readings. A novel is dipped into on the toilet, on a tube train between stops, on the edge of sleep, in a doctor’s surgery when the news of a blood test is awaited. Its characters’ lives have to negotiate the torrent of experiences that is the reader’s life.