Introduction to 'Confessional'
This is the text of the Introduction to Confessional by Frank Harris. My thanks are extended to Edgar M. Ross for his permission to reproduce this copyright material. Scanned for your delight as part of the Frank Harris Preface Project.
The art of essay-writing is peculiar: some of the greatest have never indulged in it and yet literature would be poorer without the essays of Bacon, Montaigne, Emerson and Schopenhauer. I had never thought of writing essays; but my friend Esar Levine who knows my writings better than I know them myself, insists that my fugitive attempts are worthy of enduring form. Naturally I was easy to persuade and they are now assembled in a book for my readers to judge.
I prefer Bacon's Essays to his larger works whlch indeed I have never even read through; Schopenhauer's Essays also are more interesting to me than his masterpiece, and surely everyone prefers Emerson's Essays to his poetry though now and then he wears the singer's robe with a certaln majesty; but after all Montaigne, nearly all of whose works may be called essays, and Bacon are the true types of essayists and the greatest masters of the art. Both appear to write anything that comes into their heads and they always find something interesting to say.
If Anglo-Saxon prudes would read Montaigne's essay on "Love" they might perhaps realize that truth demands freedom of speech, that the very vesture of truth is the exact word. But Montaigne's object was not to teach so much as to relieve his own feelings and pent-up thoughts, and these essays of mine should be read in much the same spirit.
I cannot resist the temptation to set forth here a few of the gems which these masters have given us. Bacon says:
"A man that studieth revenge, keepeth his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well."
This is wiser than the Italian proverb which says "revenge is a dish which should be eaten cold." There is, however, a Creole proverb in Mauritius, "Ca qui boude manze boudin" (He who sulks eats his own belly), which shows insight equal to Bacon's. The worldly wisdom of Bacon often astonishes me:
"If a man will keep but of even hand, his ordinary expenses ought to be but to the half of his receipts; but if he think to wax rich, but to the third part. . . . He that is plentiful in expenses of all kinds, will hardly be preserved from decay."
And here is his best; one of the furthest throws of human thought, finer even than the best of Pascal:
"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."
But it is, I confess, in Montaigne that I am most interested. I have always the feeling that he was the wisest and among the best of Frenchmen and he reaches the heights without appearance of effort. Here is a phrase equal to Bacon's best:
"Our life consisteth partly in folly, partly in wisdom. He that writes of it but reverently and regularly omits the better half of it."
I often please myself by thinking that I am more akin to Montaigne than to any other essayist. His views, even on the literary art, are mine:"I had rather my child should learn to speak in a Taverne, than in the schools of well-speaking Art."
And again,"In my country and in my days. learning and bookishness doth much mend purses; but minds not at all."
"I refuse no words that are used in the frequented streets of France : those that will combat use and custom by the strict rules of grammar do but jest : I correct unadvised not customary errors. Speak I not so everywhere? Do I not lively display myself? That sufficeth."
That is my defence too.
On almost every page I find fruits of thought:
"Love is not properly nor naturally in season, but in the age next unto infancy: no more is perfect beauty."
"I accept truth as well when it helps me, as when it hurts me."
And how he makes fun of abstinence and prudery. He puts his contempt in italics:"Are we not most brutish to term that work beastly which begets and which maketh us?"
No such wisdom in English.
In comparison with these masters, the English and American writers such as Charles Lamb and Emerson are infinitely overrated. I would rather spend an hour with Montaigne than five minutes with Emerson who is too much the preacher, or one minute with Lamb who after all never reaches the height of the argument.