In one of his more breathtaking performances (which is saying something), David Foster Wallace, at a state fair, moves from looking hard at the prize pigs: “Swine have fur! I never thought of swine as having fur. I’ve actually never been up very close to swine, for olfactory reasons” to thinking, with Swiftian mercilessness, not just about what happens when the pigs are industrially processed, but how we contrive to deal with that routine slaughter. “I’m struck, amid the pig’s screams and wheezes, by the fact that these agricultural pros do not see their stock as pets or friends. They are just in the agribusiness of weight and meat ... even at the fair their products continue to drool and smell and ingest their own excrement and scream, and the work goes on. I can imagine what they think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materialises at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon.” (“Ticket to the Fair”, 1994).
This passage does everything Montaigne would have wanted from his posterity: self-implication without literary narcissism; a moral illumination built from a physical experience. Like the best non-fiction long-form writing, it essays a piece of the meaning of what it’s like to live – or, in the case of Hitchens’ last magnificent writing, to die – in a human skin. Essay writing and reading is our resistance to the pygmy-fication of the language animal; our shrinkage into the brand, the sound bite, the business platitude; the solipsistic tweet. Essays are the last, heroic stand for the seriousness of prose entertainment; our best hope of liberating text from texting.