“Que sçay-je?” Montaigne famously asks in 1580. “What do I know?” Montaigne's question shapes the entirety of his Essais, and his title gives name to a new genre, one that weds selfhood and knowledge: the essay drives inward, seeking to “test” and “try” what the essayist does or doesn’t know. Through knowledge, the essay voices, perhaps even brings into being, the self who composes it. This interest in self-knowledge isn’t exclusive to the essay. Yet, since Montaigne invented it, the essay has been a particularly keen means of investigating that enigma we call “I.”
In our moment, Montaigne’s 432-year-old genre has shown it can adapt to new media. Audio essays regularly appear on programs like NPR and in contests like the Third Coast International Audio Festival. The essay has also gone visual on literary websites such as Blackbird and TriQuarterly Online. And the digital work in the Electronic Literature Collections has shown how the essay can use interactivity and computation toward its ends. Montaigne may have initiated the essay in print, but the genre has escaped the page. Essays now show up in any medium through which we render ourselves to ourselves, and these innovations have revealed the essay's true nature: not (or not only) a literary genre, but rather a certain act of mind, of self-seaching, captured in art.
New media also demonstrates new possibilities for essaying. How, for example, does the self emerge through the inflection of a voice in an audio essay? How do images yield or obscure knowledge? Take Dinty W. Moore’s video essay “History.” During a trip to Edinburgh, Moore discovers he’s unintentionally taken several photographs of old men. These images become the mystery the essay tries to solve—to know their meaning, to know the self for whom they mean. And Moore invites us into this mystery. We stare at these photos. We ask what they mean. We, too, don’t know.
And perhaps we never will. The essay seeks knowledge; it doesn’t always find it. At the end of “History,” Moore states, “I’ll never know myself.” Moore's hard-won conclusion reminds us that the essay lies not in attaining some final knowledge of the self, but in the try, the attempt, and at times in the beauty that emerges when an essayist, working in whatever medium, takes up Montaigne’s simple question: “What do I know?”