Monday, February 25, 2008


A meddlesome and restless instrument

I think I read the first hundred-plus pages of Montaigne's Essays (this edition Stanford University Press 1986; translated by Donald M. Frame) back in October. I'm not sure, because I've since crossed over into a new journal, and the previous journal is back home on a bottom shelf with all the anonymous others. But I see from paging back through this current one that I began to read the Essays again in mid-January, with the intent to become engrossed, and to finish. And last Saturday evening, sleeping cat sitting at my feet, finish I did. It took so long because other books intruded, of course, and because I took copious notes all the way through.

I hardly know how to begin talking about the experience of reading this book. How about by mentioning that twelve or fourteen years ago I read selections from the Essays for a graduate school seminar, and thus my preconceived notions about what the book was all about were set firmly in place. Namely, that the Essays were largely humanistic and all concerned with a humanist's various worldly pleasures and displeasures. This is due to that selection, I now think, which focused on some of the earthier and revealing aspects of Montaigne's writing, i.e. sex, other bodily functions, his day-to-day realities of living, etc. But in reading the entire series, I come away with a much broader sense of Montaigne as a man concerned with all the questions of life, large and small, profane and sacred - he says we are neither angels nor beasts - and the questions that speak to me the most as a thinking reader are the ones that delve into what, exactly, is a human being, and what is our purpose on earth, what is our proper relationship to Nature, what is God, what is the soul, how is the soul attached to the body, what is the importance of and use of the body and the soul and the mind, what is death and how can we prepare for it, what did the ancient philosophers think of all these things, and what does Montaigne think of them now, in modern times, as it were.

It's a lot; it's everything; it's too much to talk about here, so I'll just mention a few things. Some of my very favorite passages in the Essays are those in which Montaigne specifically talks about writing his essays - particularly regarding his intent:

"I am not building here a statue to erect at a town crossroads, or in a church or a public square:

'I do not aim to swell my page full-blown
With windy trifles....
We two talk alone.'

This is for a nook in a library, and to amuse a neighbor, a relative, a friend, who may take pleasure in associating and conversing with me again in this image. Others have taken courage to speak of themselves because they found the subject worthy and rich; I, on the contrary, because I have found mine so barren and so meager that no suspicion of ostentation can fall upon my plan." (p.503)

"This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas.... If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions.... I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all the moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff." (p.611)

One person's life can illustrate all aspects of the range of emotions and thoughts available in human existence. Montaigne knew it - and lived by the motto Know thyself:

"I do not care so much what I am to others as I care what I am to myself. I want to be rich by myself, not by borrowing." (p.474)

"Who does not see that I have taken a road along which I shall go, without stopping and without effort, as long as there is ink and paper in the world? I cannot keep a record of my life by my actions; fortune places them too low. I keep it by my thoughts." (p.721)

Holy mackerel, Montaigne is endlessly quotable. I stopped reading so many times, to take note of sentence after sentence that leaped off the page at me:

"In a time when it is so common to do evil, it is practically praiseworthy to do what is merely useless." (p.722)

"Amusing notion: many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends to a bookseller's shop." (p.750)

"...I am somewhat tenderly distrustful of the things I wish for." (p.775)

He considers the mind "...a meddlesome and restless instrument." (p.794)

Some of the essays are convoluted and wandering, to this twenty-first century mind at least, but when I lost the thread of Montaigne's reasoning, his story line so to speak, he himself brought me gently back with a laugh:

"It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I.... My style and my mind alike go roaming." (p.761)

Even though the book strained my mental capacity and facility, I was sad to finish. But I did come away filled with a overwhelming sense that one does not need fame or fortune to live well, to live with integrity and moral choice and happiness (and in fact fame and fortune are highly suspect). To those who say their lives have amounted to a hill of beans, Montaigne replies:

"What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations.... Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all.... To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles or provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately." (pp.850-851)

I also come away with the idea that Montaigne was a very lonely man who set himself apart from others by choice, even though he was extremely social and worldly. He lost his best friend early on in life, and I imagine that he then spent his remaining decades telling us, his future readers (not that he had any faith that he would have future readers), everything he would have told this close friend if he could have. He knew what true friendship was, and lost it, and mourned it for the rest of his life. And we remain the beneficiaries.

Favorite essays: Of solitude, Of practice, Of Books, the Apology for Raymond Sebond, Of the disadvantage of greatness, Of vanity, and finally, Of experience. As I said, I approached the end and was sad to finish - sad to leave such fine company. Of course after a decent interval I started reading another book, but the language seems all wrong and the ideas and activities so simple. After the heights and depths and sheer intellectual rigor of Montaigne.

Now it's taken me a good part of the afternoon to write this mini-essay about the very first Essays, and I feel like I've barely said anything at all. Well, it's slow here at the bookshop, and to be honest, my mind is still living in the sixteenth century.

Thanks for the great review and for taking the time and effort to write it.

You're very welcome, Dan.

I've been considering reading the essays of Bacon next, but I think I'm going to return to more recent times for a while. I need something new and good. Suggestions?
Suggestions: Want some lighter fare? Travel-type reading always gets me out of the cabin-fever doldrums this time of year. I'm thinking of rereading Simone de Beauvoir's AMERICA DAY BY DAY and Douglas Brinkley's THE MAJIC BUS. To quote Brinkley, a college professor, "arranged to teach a six-week experimental class aboard a fully equipped sleeper bus. The class would visit thirty states and ten national parks. They would read twelve books by great American writers. They would see Bob Dylan in Seattle, gamble at a Vegas casino, dance to Bourbon Street jazz in New Orleans, pay homage to Elvis Presley’s Graceland and William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, ride the whitewater rapids on the Rio Grande, and experience a California earthquake. Their journey took them to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Harry Truman’s Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt’s North Dakota badlands. And it gave them the unforgettable experience of meeting some of their cultural heroes, including William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, who took the gang for a spin in his own psychedelic bus. Driven by Doug Brinkley’s energetic prose, The Majic Bus is a spirited travelogue of a unique experience."
Hi Sarah,

Did you realize that today is Montaigne's birthday?

In 1993 when Brinkley's book came out, I was working in a new-book store and we got a big pile of these, and a great cardboard Merry Prankster bus display to go along with them. I didn't read it back then, though I was interested - even though my tolerance for Beat-type literature was waning at that point - but from the description it sure sounds like a trip I'd like to take today! Thanks for bringing it up, anon.

Mark, you sent me scurrying for my copy of "A Book of Days for the Literary Year" (Thames and Hudson 1984, great little reference book, by the way) and yes, indeed! Happy birthday, Michel de Montaigne of Perigord, born in 1533. Your work lives on!

I serendipitously found out about his birthday when checking out a website for the very first time today - Check it out! Looks like they have lots of fun quotes!

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