The Essays Of Montaigne Quotidiana

The Essays Of Montaigne Quotidiana-70
I once told a friend who was studying philosophy about my introduction to Montaigne's Essais in my MFA program.He'd also studied Montaigne in school, and he thought it was fascinating that the course I was in at the time, History of the Essay, examined Montaigne as a writer, rather than as a philosopher.

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I spent last summer in France, living at a camp about an hour's drive from Michel de Montaigne's mansion in Bordeaux.

For miles, if I were to leave camp and walk in almost any direction I'd be met only by farms, by fields of wheat or grass, or by thickets of tall trees where I could hide myself from the sun.

And especially within the Montaignan tradition, the characteristic we look for as we judge the quality of an essay bears on how much digging into their own mind the essayist is willing to do.

To keep the metaphor going: Good, Montaignan essays are going to search for the essay's bedrock moment, the place where you can't dig any deeper without it actually being therapy.

Of course there are other writers whose work might find its way onto syllabi not just in creative writing classes but in courses in other disciplines—names that immediately come to my mind are Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Susan Sontag, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida—and these are writers who've adopted modes of writing often examined through kaleidoscopic lenses, looked at as if they take on different shapes and colors every time we readers make a turn.

In the light of the kaleidoscope, Montaigne's own work is no less colorful.But I do think that because the Montaignan essay allows itself qualities like digression and anecdote, in addition to its conversations with other writers, it encourages aspiring essayists to follow his lead, and to consider the ways he synthesized the many elements of essay writing all at once. He writes to us as friends, the dear in “dear reader” always hanging overhead, and the reason it might be easy for us to listen is because it's easy for him to speak.In Terence Cave's book How to Read Montaigne, for instance, Cave writes (about Montaigne's “To the Reader”) that “[a]s in letter writing, it presupposes a reader who is not some distant, impersonal figure, but something like a friend. And just as with the epistolary form, Montaigne frees himself via an avoidance of forethought: He essays (the verb form never forgotten) in fluid motion, the pen held close and inhibition held at bay.He tells us about a time when he took his horse out for a ride around his property with another man, and that eventually this man “spurred his horse at full speed up the little path behind me, came down like a colossus on the little man and little horse, and hit us like a thunderbolt with all his strength and weight, sending us both head over heels.” With this thunderbolt came fear: The momentary fear that, on the ground away from his horse, “ten or twelve paces beyond, dead, stretched on my back, my face all bruised and skinned, my sword, which I had had in my hand, more than ten paces away, my belt in pieces, having no more motion or feeling than a log,” Montaigne would succumb to death's grip.From here we're given a meditation on what it means to die.This might be the only way to read him properly: First and foremost as a man.To read Montaigne “in order to live,” and to watch him “the way he watched himself,” we initially approach him not as philosopher, essayist, or former politician, but as someone who allowed the totality of the meaning of his life experiences to flow through his pen—as a confrère in the duty of living.Or again, it may be expressed as a form of improvisation: 'essaying' can only be authentic when it avoids all premeditation and registers the random flow of thought.” Viewing Montaigne as a great letter-writer, as a belletrist at heart, might help us understand the position from which he essays, and, furthermore, how to essay ourselves. Conversely, Jane Kramer tells us in “Me, Myself, and I” that “[t]he best way to read Montaigne is to keep watching him, the way he watched himself, because the retired, reclusive, and pointedly cranky Michel de Montaigne is in many ways a fiction—a mind so absorbingly seated that by now it can easily pass for the totality of Montaigne's 'second' life.” And Sarah Bakewell, in the warmly-received How to Live, notes that “[a]s the novelist Gustave Flaubert advised a friend who was wondering how to approach Montaigne: Don't read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed.No, read him in order to live.” It seems that when we read Montaigne, it isn't as if we merely read the text but that we read Montaigne himself.It was then that I became aware of Montaigne being taught in philosophy programs, as well as how infrequently he might be taught within the milieu of creative writing.I came to understand Montaigne as a writer who fits neatly in different circles, and who is often taught to students accessing him from angles far different from my own.


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