EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne. To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.
The personal essay as a form is relatively new to me; I enrolled at VCFA in the area of Creative Nonfiction, in fact, without a complete understanding of what the term means, and after my first residency I found I wasn’t the only one. In asking CNF faculty, I found they frequently brought up the terms “literary journalism” and “personal essay.” They almost always referred us to Phillip Lopate’s introductory essay from The Art of the Personal Essay for basic traditions of the personal essay form, and I referred to Mark Kramer’s “Breakable Rules of Literary Journalism” from the Literary Journalism anthology, which I also teach in my Media Writing classes. I’ve found that, while my media writing (and teaching) tends to follow the rules of literary journalism, the work I’ve been most interested in learning and doing recently has been personal essay. So, it makes sense that I would want to learn the traditions and conventions of the form, in the context of both my own writing and the CNF genre.
While Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay is a perfectly apt summation of the form for the general reader, I had my worries as a writer about applying a descriptive list of formal attributes to my own writing (and reading!). One name, though, kept coming up in both the introduction and my conversations with other people writing, teaching, and learning the personal essay form, a man who died more than 400 years ago, whom Lopate considers so important to the personal essay that he gave him his own section titled “Fountainhead” – Michel de Montaigne. I hadn’t read him since taking an undergraduate Renaissance literature course, and the only thing I remember is liking the fact that he was the only Renaissance writer we read who wasn’t obsessed with the nature of God. So last semester I read Montaigne’s three essays in the Lopate anthology, including the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” After reading all three of them, but especially “On Some Verses…,”I started to realize why Montaigne is so frequently cited, and – I’m not ashamed to admit it – I decided I want to write like him.
Which is, of course, a fool’s errand. But, at the least, I’ve decided to use his work as a model. So, for each of the five months of this semester, I’ll identify a technique Montaigne uses, show said technique at work in at least one other personal essay, and attempt an explanation of its purpose and effects. Besides my obvious hope that it will somehow ingrain some of these things in my own writing, I hope this series will be helpful to other writers struggling to come to grips with the personal essay form. And yes, I’m making this up as I go– I’ll be reading Montaigne’s Collected Essays each month as I go, annotating, denotating (okay, denoting), compiling, and analyzing as I go, god help me.
This month’s entry is on a central concern to most non-fiction writing (perhaps more so than fiction, but not exclusive to non-fiction) – the integration of “big ideas” with first-person narrative. Montaigne does this masterfully in all three of his essays I’ve annotated so far, but none so seamlessly and extensively as the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” I’ll describe the macro pattern first, then for the sake of brevity I’ll look at this pattern in the first two pages of the essay. After that, I’ll look at how Joan Didion employs this technique in her essay “Goodbye to All That.”
All 54 pages of “On Some Verses” generally eschew an overarching narrative, instead integrating, in order according to the amount of words Montaigne gives to each, the following three elements:
- Personal anecdote, self-revelation, and opinion
- Aphorism, advice, and universal wisdom
- Direct quotations from other authors
For now I’ll concentrate specifically on 1 and 2, as 3 will probably merit its own essay later this semester. It’s also important here to note the difference between opinion and aphorism. In the (more frequent) cases where Montaigne gives his personal opinion, he generally uses the first-person and employs humor and winking self-deprecation; when using aphorism, he switches to the omniscient third person and the tone shifts to a weighty circumspection. The fact that the personal material takes up the most space doesn’t necessarily betray a preference on Montaigne’s part – though it probably does – but rather a necessity of the form. Montaigne’s forbear Cicero, quoted here from John O’Banlon’s Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story, posited that narrative is “the fountainhead from which the whole remainder of the speech flows.” Most readers will attest that a story is more interesting than an argument, and the arguments people respond to most are the ones grounded in personal narrative, whether theirs or someone else’s.
Montaigne starts “On Some Verses” big:
To the extent that useful thoughts are fuller and more solid, they are also more absorbing and more burdensome. Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us. We should have our soul instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils and in the rules for right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in fine study. But for a soul of the common sort this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is continually tense. [58-59]
You’ve probably already noticed that he’s meta-writing here, identifying and addressing some of the issues I’ve just pointed out that a personal essayist faces when writing, and reading – we want to read and write important things – but too much weight at once will crush all but the most interested readers. (Edie Brickell’s most memorable words, to me, were “Shove me into shallow water, before I get too deep.”) Aware of this, Montaigne spends a lengthy paragraph confessing that his own body is failing him, summarizing in one confessional sequence how he went from, “In my youth [needing] to warn and urge myself to stick to my duty,” to his present state, where “I defend myself against temperance as I once did against sensual pleasure.” He continues in this vein for several pages afterward, describing – sometimes with humor, sometimes with a sigh – what a drag it is getting old, punctuating his personal confessions with aphorism and advice like “Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly,” and “Let childhood look ahead, old age backward.”  In the course of 54 pages, Montaigne covers disease, depression, women’s roles, sex, love, vice, religion, fatherhood, and literary criticism, maintaining an obvious self-awareness as a writer throughout.
Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” written roughly 400 years after “On Some Verses,” also mixes personal anecdote with universal statement; it also, at least in part, covers similar thematic territory. One of the essay’s major tropes is a Blakean focus on innocence and experience. I’ll focus on this here in context of the essay’s relationship to Montaigne’s. The innocence (or youth) vs. experience motif runs through literally every page of Didon’s essay, intermingling with the other motifs as well as narrative snapshots of her life in New York:
…one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before .(681)
She then tells of arriving at Idlewild, hearing a song on a jukebox on the Upper East Side that she thinks must be about her, and mistaking the Triboro Bridge for the Brooklyn Bridge from her apartment window in Queens. The most aphoristic statement of the essay is perhaps the one I can most endorse personally:
It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young. (682)
She segues from this into a story of a party in December which she goes to with an older male friend who has slept with five women and owes money to two men from the last party they went to, giving narrative attestation to her previous aphorism.
…I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never loves anyone quite that way again. (683)
After this, she tells of eating a peach on Lexington Avenue with the lush detail of a first kiss.
I knew that it would cost something sooner or later – because I did not belong there, did not come from there – but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have high emotional balance. (683)
There a delicious ambiguity to this statement – will the peach cost her something later, or is it something else? She recounts charging food at Bloomingdale’s in order to eat on $70 a week, looking in the windows of brownstones while thinking about she ways she would make herself rich, meeting extravagant people at extravagant parties, and watching the holidays and years go by.
New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu. (684)
Which leads into her observation that for her first year she lived entirely in other people’s apartments, and after that she had a longstanding aversion to buying furniture, eventually leaving all of her belongings in her old apartment to move into a “monastic” apartment on 75th Street, where her new husband finally moved actual furniture when they were married.
That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it. (685)
This leads her to recount minute, seemingly unrelated flashes of memory, mnemonic smells, touches, sensations.
I suppose that a lot of us who have been in New York have the same scenes on our home screens. (685-6)
After this, she transposes a panoply of sleepless nights with friends at different bars with the comfort of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee at her midtown job writing advertising copy, then describes the comforting loneliness of housesitting her friend’s apartment in the West Village with no one calling her, to the very end going to every party she was invited to.
You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair. (687)
And here she tells of everything seeming old, like she’d heard it all before, avoiding certain parts of the city, hurting people she cared about, insulted those she didn’t, crying compulsively “in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries,” contemplating the final step to becoming a New Yorker – getting a therapist – but getting married instead, and leaving New York with him.
All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. (688)
It wasn’t until I strung these lofty statements together and summarized the stories between that I discovered the road maps they gave to the succession of short narratives that might seem to have only intuitive coincidence with each other. In fact, each story reinforces the aphoristic point made by these epic statements, and allows her to be open-ended about the ending – in fact, seems to leave her no choice but open-endedness, as that’s the structure she set up.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.
To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.