At face value, On Accident, an extraordinary book of historiographic essays by Edward Eigen, offers, as the subtitle contends, twelve “episodes in architecture and landscape.” An assessment might therefore be expected to follow the usual route and evaluate the content of each case study while pausing occasionally to quibble with a fact here, an interpretation there. The modest subtitle, however, obscures a larger ambition that emerges from the composition as a whole. Through a facility with language and a delightful command of detail, Eigen stages a dozen scenarios that demonstrate how we come to understand what it is we think we know. The discussion might engage the periodicity of the weather or the appropriate wood for use in rafters, yet each essay asks the reader to reflect on the limits of knowledge. In an era when access to information and its demonstrable utility are often mistaken for erudition, this statement of epistemological complexity is particularly redolent.
The accidental at multiple levels is the theme at work in each of the tales recounted in this book, but the choice of methodology deliberately makes of this compilation something other than a bundle of articles—though that practice, once more commonplace, has produced some remarkable books. The essay, when exercised as a literary form, is not to be mistaken for an indicator of length. Rather, it is an instrument for storytelling that has a history in both structure and content. When Eigen reflects on the digestive system in relation to the famous conflation of the state with the body of its king, for example, one hears the echoes of Michel de Montaigne, whose gastric and other bodily complaints occupied the pioneering Essais (1580) to the point where he declared, “I am myself the matter of my book.” That the most mundane experiences can act as portals into knowledge of the human condition was demonstrated by Montaigne's genre-defining essays, in which he addressed topics as diverse as odor, sleep, and the opposable thumb.
This is the context in which one must place the relevance that Eigen sees in small things, whether it be an entry in a card catalogue or the predilection of John Evelyn for the English yew. To substantiate each such recognition is significantly harder than On Accident makes it appear. The considerable labor invested in the crafting of each intellectual framework, making sense of every specificity, is disguised by the adroitness with which the narrative unfolds. Given the range of subjects here, whether an eighteenth-century reconstruction of the Temple of Solomon or the more recent transformation of New York's High Line, the effort expended on contextual engagement represents quite a feat. Only with the cultivation of historical awareness—and imagination—is the obscure detail, such as the aversion of spiders to chestnut wood, relevant to the bigger picture. Statistics on lightning strikes and the flooding of the Thames are the key to a larger story. A reference to a “discourse on salads” raises no eyebrows in this book (xix).
Writing concisely is hard. Every turn of phrase must chart a narrative course. The resulting itinerary is rarely straight in On Accident, but as the essay “On Hedging” makes overt, picturesque circuitousness is an ideological medium. The tactical approach of this book certainly goes against the academic grain of the single-topic manuscript in which generality often implies theoretical consequence. “Eigen's meanderings,” as Reinhold Martin concludes in the foreword, “aim especially at the heavy-handed plot lines drawn by respectable archives and their interpreters” (xi). The meander, Eigen's included, might appear desultory, but in fact must take its cue from the delineations left by previous flows. An exquisite pleasure can be had from following along on the route laid out in these stories. Author and reader, as the preface tells us, must travel this road together. What is remarkable, as the final essay shows us in the end, is not that we embarked on the journey to begin with but that, ultimately, we return home.
This book raises crucial questions about the ends to which we put archival revelations and acts of exegesis. On Accident demonstrates again and again the skepticism over what can be said to be known with any certainty. We know far too little, the essays tell us, especially about that which we presume to know all too well: “Que sçay-je?” as Montaigne put it.1 And yet, as Eigen demonstrates, the pleasures of historical contemplation endure. Thought, after all, cannot be stifled by the conventions with which knowledge is burdened.