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The essay, we are being told, is back. An editorial in The Guardian on 5 May celebrates the alleged event and announces a new specialist publisher, Notting Hill Editions, which has released a range of cloth-covered hardbacks, ranging from Samuel Rogers to Georges Perec. However, many of us never suspected that the essay had gone away. This discursive genre, in which the author is given space to explore a more or less impressionistic or apparently random cascade of ideas rather than provide a detached and critical analysis of a particular topic, has a considerable history, but can be traced – unlike any other literary genre – to a single individual, a minor French aristocrat of the sixteenth century named Michel de Montaigne (1533-92).
Sure, there had been comparable examples of introspective or speculative prose writing before him, notably by the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch (1307-74) and, at a stretch, Machiavelli (1469-1527), but Montaigne was the first modern essayist in two very particular ways. He was the first to apply the word ‘essai’ from the French verb ‘essayer’, and from which the English assay – meaning an ‘attempt’ – was a simple step; and his unique contribution to world literature was that he made himself the subject of his own work: he was the first to bring the spotlight onto himself as the topic of his writing, or, as Aldous Huxley put it in the preface to his own collected essays, to deliver ‘fragments of reflective autobiography’ and to ‘look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description’. Nearly five hundred years on, we find that the genre that Montaigne began, of self-reflexive prose in which the thoughts and actions of an individual constitute the subject matter and determine the direction of the writing, marks out a lineage that leads directly to the contemporary infatuation with autobiographical writing; the glut of misery memoirs, ‘sick lit’, confessional and celebrity memoirs with which the publishing industry is obsessed, not to mention the contemporary trends of blogging, social networking and twittering. By no means should Montaigne be blamed for these terrible things, but we might consider that in some important ways he started it all.
Montaigne has thus become extremely interesting to publishers, and the two books I have before me reflect the wide appeal that this Renaissance gentleman has to a twenty-first century readership. Both books have long and unwieldy titles. But Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer is very good indeed, while Saul Frampton’s When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me: Montaigne and being in touch with life, although not without virtues, is filled with unfortunate and confusing turns of phrase, as well as numerous errors of editing and proofreading, and falls far behind Bakewell in both content and prose style.
Montaigne has had a long and interesting relationship with posterity. While his works brought him instant fame in sixteenth-century France, and were translated into English shortly after the author’s death, he fell foul of the Catholic church on account of his libertarian attitudes and relaxed morality, upsetting major French philosophers of the seventeenth century such as Pascal and Descartes. His work was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1676, remaining banned for nearly two hundred years. Although the French libertins adopted him and he was praised by Voltaire (and plagiarised by Rousseau), it was not until Nietzsche that Montaigne found a true descendant, one who called him ‘this freest and mightiest of souls’ and who would write: ‘That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.’ Montaigne lived, says Bakewell, as Nietzsche would have liked to live, questioning everything and yet managing to live his own life in a way that held no regrets – ‘If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived’ is a favourite and enviable quotation. Everything, says Bakewell, that ‘most repelled Pascal about Montaigne – his bottomless doubt, his ‘sceptical ease’, his poise, his readiness to accept imperfection’ were precisely those things that appealed to Nietzsche and which impress Montaigne’s fans today. At the man’s centre lay a pervasive scepticism, allied to a warm and humane engagement with the day-to-day; a hatred of cruelty; a profound but unsentimental love of nature and of animals, and an irrepressible curiosity about other societies and their customs. Montaigne is also known as an epicurean and a stoic in the mould of Marcus Aurelius (to which, as both authors point out, he adhered less stringently as the years went by).
His brand of philosophy – preferring to offer details wrapped in anecdote rather than expounding abstractedly – has a distinctly un-French edge to it that has always been popular in Britain, and his fan base ranges from Thomas Browne to Virginia Woolf, who admired him above all for his insistence on perpetually observing his immediate environment, his emotions and his interactions with the world.
The influence that Montaigne may or may not have had on Shakespeare has generated a considerable amount of speculative scholarship, based largely on a speech of Gonzalo’s in Act Two of The Tempest, which repeats, almost verbatim, an extract from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’. Shakespeare almost certainly knew John Florio, Montaigne’s English translator, and Montaigne’s influence has not only been discerned on the soliloquies of Hamlet – which would suggest that Shakespeare had sight of Florio’s translation before publication – but with greater assurance in the general tendency of Shakespeare’s later work towards a reflexive mode centred on the ever-questioning interlocutor. The uncertain or bewildered protagonist, suffering (or flaunting) a surfeit of experiential anxiety, was an entirely new phenomenon in literature, and according to Bakewell locates Montaigne and Shakespeare as ‘the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.’
A further similarity between Montaigne and Shakespeare is what the critic Jonathan Dollimore has called ‘a form of self-consciousness which implies simultaneous awareness of experience and the experiencing self’ as well as in the kind of relativism, according to Richard Wilson, which arises in both writers ‘from their sensation of the contingency of beliefs’. This is encapsulated, in both men’s work, in their interiority. In Montaigne, it takes a pronounced, monological turn at times:
I turn my gaze inward. I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself. I take stock of myself, I taste myself… I roll about in myself.
And yet this is not solipsism – the state in which only the self exists or can be know – but something closer to Hamlet’s self-observation in the famous soliloquies. The image of Montaigne ‘rolling about in himself’ is nicely a propos, especially given his fondness for dogs (and indeed his love of animals of all kinds). Montaigne famously refers to his cat in one of his essays (and in the title of Frampton’s book), but his weakness in giving in to his dog’s playfulness earned him Pascal’s disdain:
I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.
Montaigne also displays an unusually compassionate rapport with others – an identification with otherness that extends not only to the Protestant ‘enemy’ within sixteenth-century France (for which he was rebuked and mistrusted by fellow-Catholics during the long period of civil conflict through which he lived) but also to other human tribes. He was struck by the beliefs of the Brazilian Indians whom he encountered at the king’s court in Rouen, who ‘spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep.’ Furthermore, beyond his interest in cats and dogs, there is an almost pagan feel for, or identification with the natural world and animal life, something which provides Bakewell with one of her most interesting asides. While discussing Montaigne’s influence on Virginia Woolf, and both writers’ insistence on ‘paying attention’ in a way that eschews habitual modes of perception and categorisation, she cites Woolf’s diary of 1919:
I remember lying on the side of a hollow, waiting for L[eonard] to come & mushroom, & seeing a red hare loping up the side & thinking suddenly ‘This is Earth Life.’ I seemed to see how earthy it all was, & I myself an evolved kind of hare; as if a moon-visitor saw me.
Bakewell observes that this ‘eerie, almost hallucinatory moment’ enabled Woolf to see herself as part of a continuum, as essentially nature-bound – this is Earth Life – in a way that would not be remotely possible to an observer whose eyes were ‘dulled by habit’. The overcoming of habitual responses lies at the heart of Montaigne’s challenge. ‘Habit’ according to Samuel Beckett, ‘is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’: and it is precisely what Montaigne seeks to uncover and dismantle in his essays. He does this in various ways, but one of his favourites is to run through apparently marvellous and diverse customs from distant cultures in order to convince his readers that what they take for granted is only a matter of what they are accustomed to. As he himself put it: ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.’ His essay ‘Of Custom’ discusses, by turn, the question of whether or not one should blow one’s nose into one’s hand or into a piece of linen; how in a certain country no one apart from his wife and children may speak to the king except through a special tube; how in another land ‘virgins openly show their pudenda’ while ‘married women carefully cover and conceal them’; how in other (unspecified) locations the inhabitants ‘not only wear rings on the nose, lips, cheeks and toes, but also have very heavy gold rods thrust through their breasts and buttocks’; how in some nations ‘they cook the body of the deceased and then crush it until a sort of pulp is formed, which they mix with wine, and drink it’; where it is a desirable end to be eaten by dogs; where ‘each man makes a god of what he likes’; where flesh is eaten raw; where they live on human flesh; where people greet each other by putting their finger to the ground and then raising it to heaven; where the women piss standing up and the men squatting; where children are nursed until their twelfth year; where they kill lice with their teeth like monkeys; where they grow hair on one side of their body and shave the other. By blasting his reader with these numerous examples of apparent strangeness, Montaigne makes them question the practices which they habitually regard as unquestionable and normal in a new light. Indeed, he raises many of the issues that cultural anthropology began to tackle four centuries later, and he can safely be regarded as an early relativist. When he had the opportunity to speak with some American Indians from Brazil, the Tupinambá tribe, of which a delegation was brought before the court at Rouen, he was not simply concerned with ‘observing’ them, as though they were rare specimens of primordial life: he was much more interested in recording their amazement at their French hosts. ‘Watching them watch the French’ says Bakewell, ‘was an awakening, like Virginia Woolf’s on the hillside’.
Bakewell’s interpolation of the life story with aperçus of the kind with Woolf, and elsewhere with Nietzsche, adds considerably to the weave and texture of her account. I finished her book feeling as though I had thoroughly shared in a deeper understanding of Montaigne’s work. Hers is a rare achievement. It is a shame then that I cannot similarly compliment Frampton’s book. An example of their distinct approach to subject matter might be illustrative.
All commentators are agreed that Montaigne’s awakening as a writer came about through his friendship with a colleague and fellow counsellor in the Bordeaux parliament, Etienne de La Boétie. The two men were inseparable friends for four years, and then La Boétie died. Montaigne’s grief was intense and long-lasting, and he would write of their friendship: ‘If pressed to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed, except by saying: because it was him; because it was me.’ The line is a unique and moving testimony to friendship. But while Bakewell is content to regard La Boétie as Montaigne’s ‘literary guardian angel’, looking over his shoulder during the composition of the essays, Frampton tediously – and without any evidence – insists on the possibility of a sexual relationship between the men. Not that it matters, of course: but really, why should we care? Why can’t we simply accept that this is at least a possibility, rather than having to indulge this prurient and weary conjecture that amounts to little more than anachronistic gossip-mongering?
But this, alas, is only one of Frampton’s failings: on page 29 we learn that the town of Agen is to the south-west of Bordeaux (placing it firmly in the Bay of Biscay), but on the next page it has moved (correctly) to the south-east of Bordeaux; on page 33 a painting is being described in which ‘One of [the men] is dressed as a Roman solder (sic), the other wearing the gown of a dying man.’ What, one wonders, is ‘the gown of a dying man?’ Must one know that one is dying before wearing such a garment? Or does the wearing of such a gown somehow condemn one? And there is more: discussing how plague ravaged the countryside in the 1580s, we are suddenly and randomly informed about an alleged event that took place at the opposite end of France: ‘At Ales near Lille in 1580, a young man called Jehan le Porcq died of a contagious illness, spending his final days in a shed at the bottom of his father’s garden.’ And on page 83 we learn that ‘a fog descended over northern Europe… It covered the Rhine… scaled the high walls of Oxford and surrounded Aristotle.’ There is far too much of this kind of nonsense. Moreover, the text is littered with failures of meaning, failure of tense agreement, errors of punctuation, and missing words. Frampton must take a large chunk of the blame, but surely Faber and Faber employ editors and proofreaders?
We should therefore be doubly grateful that Bakewell’s book provides an articulate and sympathetic introduction to the man and his work; but for anyone seriously wishing to make the acquaintance of a writer renowned for his self questioning rebuke ‘What do I know?’ – pre-empting postmodernity’s chronic self-doubt, but with a leavening of subtle humour, even at times hilarity – the Essays are a delight in store.
This post first appeared as a review article in the latest issue of New Welsh Review, a magazine full of good and interesting things. In fact why not subscribe here.