The 20th century witnesses no decline in the fortunes of the essay. On the contrary, it has become an "eclectic kind of literary genre - and one supple enough to be adapted to the many individual styles and varied purposes" of leading 20thcentury writers (Fraser). At times the essay not only rivals but surpasses in interest the so-called "creative" genres. New journals and reviews take root as vehicles for essays in their initial form, including the Nouvelle (and later Nouvelle Nouvelle ) Revue Française (1908-43, 1953-; New French review), the Cahiers du Sud (1914-; Notebooks of the south), the Nouvelles Littéraires (1920-; Literary news), Les Temps Modernes (1945-; Modern times), Critique (1946), and Tel Quel (1960-82; As is; then L'Infini , 1982-; The infinite). French writers continue to be more reluctant than their English counterparts to use the essay for self-portraiture, preferring autobiography, journal, notebooks, and other forms. New impetus is given to the travel essay and the lyrical essay, and critical awareness grows of the essay, both as a genre unlike any other and as an "anti-genre" undermining all the others.
As in the preceding century, essayists may still be divided roughly into two groups: those who wrote primarily or only essays; and "creative" writers (for want of a better term) who have left an important body of essayistic work. To begin with the lesser lights among the former type: Julien Benda (1867-1956), in his La Trahison des clercs (1927; The Treason of the Intellectuals ); André Suarès (1868-1948), literary, musical, and art critic, travel essayist, and moralist ( Voici l'homme [ 1905; Here is man]); Albert Thibaudet (1874-1936), literary critic, historian of modern French literature, author of a series of Réflexions (1938-40) on literature, the novel, and criticism itself; Charles Du Bos (1882-1939), explorer of English literature and of spirituality in literature, in his Approximations (1922-37); Henri Massis (1886-1970), Catholic apologist and critic of the educational system ( Agathon, ou, L'Esprit de la nouvelle Sorbonne [ 1911; Agathon, or, the spirit of the new Sorbonne]); Jean Rostand (1894-1977), who used biology as a springboard for meditations on human nature ( Pensées d'un biologiste [ 1939; Thoughts of a biologist]); Simone Weil (1909-43), spiritual writer, searching and prophetic critic of modern society ( Oppression et liberté [ 1955; Oppression and Liberty ], edited by none other than Camus himself); the Romanian-French author E. M. Cioran (1911-95), a relentlessly pessimistic writer whose laconic, fragmentary texts such as Précis de décomposition (1949; A Short History of Decay ), Syllogismes de l'amertume (1952; Syllogisms of bitterness), and De l'inconvénient d'être né (1973; The Trouble with Being Born ) often read like a self-parodying intimate journal, "without chronology or intimate detail, reflecting the disorder inherent in the intellectual life itself "(Bruno Vercier and Jacques Lecarme, 1982); and Michel Serrès (1930-), whose five-volume series of essays, from Hermès: La Communication (1968) to Le Passage du NordOuest (1980; The northwest passage), propose a critique of science from the viewpoint of a new humanism.
The most original and gifted of the "pure" essayists are Alain (pseudonym of Emile-Auguste Chartier, 1868-1951) and Roland Barthes (1915-80). Journalist and lycée philosophy professor, Alain produced, over a period of some 30 years (1903-36), more than 5000 uniformly brief prose pieces which he called "propos," meaning "propositions" presented for our reflection; "proposals," plans, or designs for living more wisely; and simply, "words." As Jean Miquel puts it ( Les Propos d'Alain, 1967), Alain "tried his hand at everything" (a Montaignean trait); hence the contents are amazing in their variety. The impulse for a given propos was usually less an idea than, as in the essays of Montaigne or Marivaux, a chance circumstance or occurrence, often an observed concrete phenomenon of the humblest everyday kind, out of which an idea would grow. Some propos are veiled or stylized selfportraits, while others (again one thinks of Montaigne's reflections on the writing of essays) are thoughts on the art of the propos, or, more broadly, on the creative process itself. Each propos can be read independently of the others, yet one leads to another, and certain themes recur: Alain recognized this last feature by grouping and publishing some of them that possessed a common theme (e.g. Propos sur le bonheur [ 1925-28; Alain on Happiness]). Form and style depended greatly on improvisation and the author's desire to espouse what he called "thought in action" or the process of thought (another affinity with Montaigne and Marivaux). Yet the constraints within which he worked, those cruel deadlines and severe limitations of length, worked miraculously to bring out the craftsman in him, for he is one of the most impeccable and artistic of French prose stylists. Not always the clearest, however: his elliptical style, with its unexpected juxtapositions of thought and absence of transitions, is often deliberately "obscure," so as to challenge the reader's alertness and intelligence. "Many of the propos," observes Sterling Madsen (in an unpublished dissertation, Duke University , 1975), "are so structured as to defy immediate interpretation." The propos have been variously compared to the act of breathing, mental gymnastics, choreography ("the dance of thoughts," is Alain's phrase), the fugue, and a proposition, but not a proof, in geometry (Madsen). Many propos are small prose poems or poetic rêveries.
Although he owed much to Montaigne, La Bruyère , Montesquieu, and Bayle, Alain was also very conscious of his originality as an essayist. As much as he detested Sainte-Beuve, his own journalistic feat of producing essays at frequent, regular intervals, on command, without serious sacrifice of quality, is equaled only by the author of the Lundis. His conviction that the essay was a creative art also links him with SainteBeuve. Much of his writing remains timelessly relevant, since he succeeded in uncovering general principles beneath the particulars of contemporary issues he treated; or, as he put it, "My destiny was to become a journalist raising the newspaper column to the level of metaphysics."
Like Alain, Barthes was a journalist-critic writing for the most part sur commande and an academic, though at a higher level than Alain's in the educational system, at the Collège de France, where he held the chair in semiology (the science of signs) created especially for him. This broad field took him well beyond the study of language and literature into writing about the language of fashion, film, theater, photography, painting, music, and other subjects. His questioning of the "establishment" was more radical than Alain's, since it challenged the very assumptions about reality embodied in the ideologies of today's power structures, the very claims of language and literature to have some privileged access to truth undistorted by ideology. A unique feature of his essays was his ability to absorb in succession the values of various "schools" of thought - Marxism, semiology, anthropology, psychoanalysis - abandoning each in turn, not because of any "dilettantism" but because of his belief that none offered a definitive guide and out of his horror of becoming an "authority," "expert," or "true believer" (Montaigne underwent similar changes of position and for similar reasons). Giving unity to this amazing diversity of subjects, as Susan Sontag (1982) has observed, there is a central subject: writing itself and its relation to "the theory of his own mind." A hedonistic quest for pleasure in what he reads, a spirit of playfulness (reminiscent of Renan), sometimes of joy, are attractively balanced by a sense of responsibility that links his work with the kind of ethical inquiry associated with the long line of French moralistes.
Barthes published a number of book-length essays, such as his first book, Le Degré zéro de l'écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero), challenging the theory of Jean-Paul Sartre of literature as social commitment, in the name of a purer kind of writing (l'écriture) freed from the dictates of the "institution of literature." Other long essays are his book on the semiology of fashion, Système de la mode (1967; The Fashion System), and the controversial essay on Japanese culture as a system of "pure signs," L'Empire des signes (1970; Empire of Signs). But Barthes had the natural-born essayist's "resistance to long forms" (Sontag); he is more at home in his short essays, which Sontag divides into two main types: the "straight essay" conceived in more or less linear, logical fashion (reviews, articles, etc.) and the later, more personal and original essays in which a "splintering of form" occurred, leading him to the essay as discontinuous fragment. Examples of the first type are his Essais critiques (1964; Critical Essays) and their sequels amounting to five volumes in all (1964-73) and Mythologies (1957; Mythologies), brief pieces resembling Alain's propos in form and, in content, both La Bruyère's Characters (he admired this author and emulated him as an "essayist of customs" -"un essayiste d'usages") and Marivaux's Spectateur Français. Although Barthes claimed in an interview not to have read Montaigne, Réda Bensmaïa (1986) has pursued a number of parallels in their use of the essay as "reflective text." In the brilliant and highly amusing Mythologies, originally published as monthly feature articles for the Lettres Nouvelles (New letters), Barthes the "mythographer" demythifies stereotypes of popular culture and everyday life, from ads for detergents to "people in the news." His boldest experimentation in the essay form, shading off into the essay "deconstructing" itself, or the "anti-essay," is found in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes) and Fragments d'un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover's Discourse: Fragments). The first, commissioned for the series Écrivains de toujours, in which a critic usually writes about a "classic" author or prestigious contemporary one, set the remarkable precedent of having a living author write about himself. Barthes' little volume uses the quasi-fictional pronoun il (he) as much as the personal je (I) and breaks the mold of rhetorical structure by chopping up the subject matter into small paragraphs (called "biographemes" and compared to family snapshots), arranged, in a further bold stroke, in the deliberately arbitrary alphabetical order. Barthes returns to this device of the fragmentary, discontinuous, alphabetically arranged "order" in A Lover's Discourse .
Among poets and novelists whose essays are more or less integrated into their total work, several deserve brief mention, while five should be highlighted for their greater originality or the way in which they recast the essay in a radically new role: Paul Valéry, Henry de Montherlant, Albert Camus , Maurice Blanchot (1907-), and Michel Butor .
For the first group, the essay tends to be an appendage to their poetry or fiction rather than an essential part of their total work. André Gide (1869-1951), cited by Thibaudet as an example of the pervasive presence of "essayism" in 20thcentury literature, left fine critical essays such as Prétextes (1903-13; Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality ), but they have been overshadowed by his famous Journal . Valery Larbaud (1881-1957), explorer of American, English, and Spanish literatures and translator of Samuel Butler and James Joyce, best known for his creation of the fictional poet "Barnabooth," deserves remembering also for his delightful travel sketches, such as Aux couleurs de Rome (1938; The colors of Rome), which blend essay and short story. Primarily novelists, François Mauriac (1885-1970) and Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) gave new life to the journalistic (often polemical) essay : the first in his Bloc-Notes (1958-71; Writing pads), the second in such works as his La Grande Peur des bien-pensants (1931; The great fear of conformist thinkers). The versatile Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), who excelled in almost every genre (including film), left a delightful book of essays whose format evokes Montaigne and the English essayists, although the title, La Difficulté d'être (1947; The Difficulty of Being ), was inspired by Fontenelle. The "philosopher of eroticism," Georges Bataille (1897-1962), in his novels and essays, ponders the meaning of sex, self-violation, societal transgression, and death with such violence of both content and style that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) coined a new term to describe this form of the essay, in his critique of Bataille's L'Expérience intérieure (1943; Inner Experience ): the "martyred essay" (" essai martyre "). The essays in Sartre's own 10-volume collection, Situations (1947-76), are less interesting for their form than for his literary criticism and reflections on the nature and function of literature. Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex ), in the tradition of the long essay form, is an important contribution of Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86), who Toril Moi informs us ( Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman , 1994) preferred autobiography and fiction to essay writing.
Paul Valéry's (1871-1945) prolific essay output consists of two basic types of essay: those of the "official writer," written on commission - prefaces , speeches, lectures - and published under the collective title of Variété (1924-44; Variety ), and those, culminating in his massive, largely posthumously published Cahiers (1957-61; Notebooks), in which the essay is splintered into fragmentary form. Although he considered the first type to be a kind of "forced labor," he was not unhappy to find that chance circumstances, confronting him with a totally strange and unexpected subject, stimulated his mind. Out of necessity he simply made a virtue. The essays in Variety cover literary, philosophical, and "quasi-political" subjects, as well as poetic and aesthetic theory, education, and brief "memoirs of a poet." A central theme underlies all Valéry's writings: his lifelong inquiry (cf. Montaigne before him and Barthes after him) into the nature of his own mind, in order better to understand the human mind itself and to formulate what he called "the theory of oneself." He anticipated Barthes and the "deconstructionists" by questioning the claim to truth and authenticity of the "literary work," making exception only for poetry. His Cahiers, unprecedented in their deliberate apology for and practice of discontinuous, fragmentary form (only Nietzsche in philosophy had gone so far), are conceived as "anti-works, anti-finished products" (des contre-uvres, des contre-fini), rejecting all claim to systematizing or totalization of knowledge, all claim to meaningful closure. Although few of these fragments resemble Montaigne's essays, it was Montaigne's term "essai" in its original meaning that he used in order to describe his lifelong habit of rising each day before daybreak to record "for myself only" these "attempts" ("essais") at defining his thought. In style, his selfdescribed "methodical breaking up of language's ready-made forms and word-associations" echoes Montaigne's attack on Ciceronian rhetoric.
The essay collections of Albert Camus (1913-60) and Henry de Montherlant (1896-1972) share many common elements: they both bring a lyrical quality to their finest essays, which possess a beauty of their own as well as serving to throw light on their fictional and dramatic works; both practice a blending of genres which lends essayistic features to their fiction and narrative elements to their essays; both sought to preserve a sense of dignity, nobility, even heroism in a world fast losing such a sense; compared with the boldly experimental, subversive Blanchot, Barthes, and Butor, their essays appear traditional in form and even somewhat archaic. In other ways they diverge sharply from each other. Montherlant was a minor aristocrat, aloof, self-absorbed, anarchical in outlook, reveling (like Gide) in his contradictions, which he called "alternances" and rarely sought to resolve. Steeped like Montaigne in the Roman classics, especially Seneca, as well as in the classical idea of the essay as a search for the art of living wisely, and happy to emulate the sensuous, amply developed Romantic prose of Chateaubriand, he prided himself on his irrelevance to contemporary values and concerns. The theme of the self, in fact the cult of the self which he had learned from Maurice Barrès (1862-1923), permeates his essays, which constitute a long dialogue with himself whose ultimate aim is to construct a poetic, mythic self-image, often with little correspondence to the actual facts of his life. An unrelenting nihilist, he wrote, in his essay collection Service inutile (1935; Useless service), "Only the idea of myself keeps me afloat on the seas of nothingness." This tragic perspective, enriched by a wealth of reflections on many subjects, gives to Service inutile and to other fine collections of essays such as Aux fontaines du désir (1921-27; At the fountains of desire) and Le Solstice de juin (1941; June solstice) a unique beauty and power.
Camus, by contrast, clung to the ideal of social commitment in the name of humanism and justice. Much of his essay work consists of polemical articles first written for the significantly named newspaper, Combat (1944-47) and subsequently published in book form as Actuelles (1950-58; Current issues). As a political essayist he is a worthy successor of Renan and Prévost-Paradol. However, these "essays in rational form" couched in "the language of action" (his own description) he did not consider true "essays." He reserved this purer designation for the three collections of semi-autobiographical, lyrico-narrative pieces entitled L'Envers et l'endroit (1937; The wrong side and the right side), Noces (1939; Nuptials), and L'Été (1954; Summer), inspired by his revered philosophy professor, Jean Grenier (1898-1971), and by the example of Grenier's fine essay work, Les Îles (1933; The islands). (Camus named Grenier along with Montherlant and André Malraux as the modern writers who had most influenced him.) Unlike Montherlant, Camus had serious scruples about dwelling on himself as essay subject matter: for one thing, he expressed doubt that "any man has ever dared depict himself as he really is"; for another, he preferred what he called "objective" subjects. Finally, unlike Montherlant, he also excelled in the long form of the essay, his best work in this field probably being Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus ).
The novelist-essayists Blanchot and Butor are best understood in the context of the essay's evolution in its relationship to the "postmodern" radical questioning of the whole concept of literary genres and of the privileged status accorded to the language of "literature." Lafond has shown the venerable precedents of this movement in the 16th- and 17th-century defense of fragmentary and discontinuous literary forms (maxim, aphorism, essay). "The fragment," noted Cioran, "is doubtless a disappointing genre, but the only honest one." The philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-) argued that "all writing is aphoristic" and that "the fragment is not a failed literary form but the very form of everything that is written." He based this view on his claim as a semiotician that the meaning of a given unit in discourse is impossible to determine without indefinite deferral (what he called différance ). Similarly, Barthes, in his essay on Butor, wrote: "The discontinuous is the fundamental status of all communication: there are no communicative signs that are not discrete [i.e. separate from all other units]." Derrida also questioned the concept of "genre" as a "principle imposing order," that is, arbitrary order, and allowing "transgressions" only within its prescribed limits. The philosopher Édouard Morot-Sir (in an article in The French Essay , 1982) considers the essay as the ultimate "anti-genre," perfectly expressive of contemporary "agnosticism, subjectivism, and nominalism [i.e. the belief that the names of things correspond to no metaphysical reality beyond themselves]." The essay as "anti-essay," subversive of its own traditional forms, is but one variation among several in the 20th-century revolt against genres: the "anti-novel," the "antitheater," the "anti-painting," etc.
Blanchot's early essays in literary criticism, such as the collection Faux pas (1943; False steps), were relatively "straight" in manner, before he moved to the essay as " l'écriture fragmentaire " ("fragmentary writing"), a term he invented, and to the "anti-book" or " livre écartelé " (literally "drawn and quartered") or " éclaté " ("shattered," "exploded"). His work, then, whether in fiction or criticism, became a " défense et illustration ," an apology for and practice of fragmentary and discontinuous forms. His sources were many: the "negative theology" of the great medieval theologian, Meister Eckhart (language can meaningfully make only negative statements about the nature of God); Mallarmé's goal of "giving a purer meaning to the words of the tribe" and his reflections on the nature of language and of the "Book"; Nietzsche's defense of the fragment; and Valéry's concept of the "antibook." Drawing on these precursors, together with his contemporaries, the philosophers Michel Foucault (1926-84) and Derrida, he probed the nature of language as the essential clue to the nature of being itself. Faced with the act of writing, he asked such questions as: "Who is speaking?" and "In what sense is there truly an author?" His striving to find a "language beyond language," a "language outside itself," and his resistance to the book as completion, closure, totality are reflected in such essay collections as L'Entretien infini (1969; The endless dialogue), L'Attente, l'oubli (1963; Waiting, forgetfulness), and Le Pas au-delà (1973; The step/not beyond). In these texts he practices what he called "plural speech," using multiple typefaces (narrative fragments in italics juxtaposed with bold-face type for essay fragments), creating the effect of a dialogue between the different voices, creating also the illusion of an author who is "absent" (or, as he preferred to call it, "neuter"). The distinction between genres, in fact any claim that the concept of genre has meaning at all, has practically disappeared in such works.
Some of these essayistic features are also found in the work of Blanchot's younger contemporary, Michel Butor (1926-). A natural-born experimenter and versatile (perhaps too versatile) polygraph, moving from one artistic experiment to another in a kind of frenzy, he was a pioneer in the nouveau roman (new novel) before abandoning the novel for what he calls "postnovelistic texts," assimilating what he had learned of the novel into the writing of essays. In reality he was indifferent to the traditional distinction between genres and, even more significantly, to the longstanding assumption that works of "criticism" (i.e. essays) were somehow inferior to works of "invention" (novels, poems, plays). His model here was Baudelaire, on whom he wrote a critical study, Histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire (1961; Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire's ). His massive fivevolume series of essays on literature, Répertoires (1960-82; Repertories) and, in four volumes, his essays on art, Illustrations (1964-76), are less original in form than such texts as Mobile (1962), described as a "kaleidoscopic presentation of travel notes, lyrical outcries, dialogues, work timetables, and quotations" (Vercier and Lecarme). For Butor himself it was akin to a musical score, calling upon the reader's collaboration to turn it into a composition; others compare it to "serialist music." Central to Butor's essays as well as his novels are his reflections on space, both "literary" and geographical space, and on reading, or, more exactly, on what it means to be a reader. This latter theme suggests a close affinity with Montaigne, which he in fact demonstrated in his Essais sur "Les Essais" (1968; Essays on the Essays ), on the subject of La Boétie's role in the Essais. He called himself, in a phrase that Montaigne would have enjoyed, a "monstrous reader." In his reading of works of the past, again not unlike Montaigne, he sought to uncover in them their "power of subversion" (Georges Raillard, Butor, 1968).