EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.
To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.
I teach writing to college students. It’s a great job – only two or three days on campus, I get to teach what I do, and I’m paid to talk about things that matter to me. I teach at a small liberal arts college, so by necessity I teach writing in many of its variants – media writing, academic writing (the Art Formerly Known as Composition), creative writing – and, partially because of this, I tend to see many overlaps in these disciplines. Take the personal essay, for example – as a form of creative writing it was given, about 20 years ago, the nomer “Creative Nonfiction (CNF)”; in the media world it wears such hats as “literary journalism” and “immersion writing”; the realm of academic writing (populated primarily by wide-eyed freshmen) it usually gives it lip service as “personal narrative,” usually the only assignment freshmen find remotely enjoyable to write.
As I read more and more personal essays, creative nonfiction, literary journalism, what-have-you, I’m finding the overlap to be instructive. The separation between these forms comes not from fundamental differences in the writing, but from the need – in both academia and the publishing marketplace – to categorize and delineate. Perhaps due to this realization, I find it almost a rebellion to concentrate more on the similarities. This search for common ground, for conversation, is in fact the taproot of the personal essay. The form is essentially a written conversation between the essayist and the world, the essayist’s sources, and the essayist’s self.
To give this argument a touch more humanity, indulge me in an analogy: I think of the world of the essay as a big party, and reading an essay as mingling. As a reader I think of every writer as a person at this big party, and each essay as a conversation with this person. The first thing to turn me off to an essay is essentially the same prompt for me to excuse myself from polite conversation – listening to people talk only about themselves is boring. This could be why I’ve never liked Proust, or to be more specific why I once threw Swann’s Way across the room after 90 pages. There’s one guy I’d never want to corner me at a cocktail party – I can imagine him over a tray of hors d’oeuvres , explaining in excruciating detail what childhood trauma each piece of food reminded him of. Just as boring, I suppose, is just talking about the world – small talk. While many times the beginning of a substantial conversation, it’s never a replacement for it, at least if you’re looking for anything but small talk. And of course, the blowhard who only talks about what he’s read tends, in the short term, to seem pretentious, and after awhile makes the reader/listener wonder if he has anything original to say.
So, then, the most successful essays are the ones that converse organically with all three of these things, engaging the reader on each level. Another challenge for the essayist, as with the conversationalist, is to make it seem natural, like all of these conversations come easy. I say all of this to introduce the element of Montaigne’s work that he’s perhaps best known for – his conversational style – and to contextualize it with the trifecta of interlocutors I’ve mentioned – his world (including the reader), his sources (primarily drawn from his voluminous library), and himself.
The essayist is a student of the world; for reinforcement of this, one need look no further than the first of Montaigne’s Essays, “We reach the same end by discrepant means,” in which he compares many of the conquering heroes of his time, using the term “assay,” a cognate of essay, three times, not in relation to himself, but to his subjects:
The soldier, having assayed all kinds of submissiveness and supplications to try and appease him, as a last resort resolved to await him, sword in hand. (6)
Now these examples seem to me to be even more to the point in that souls which have been assaulted and assayed by both these methods can be seen to resist one without flinching only to bow to the other. (6)
None was so overcome with wounds that he did not assay with his latest breath to wreak revenge and to find consolation for his own death in the death of an enemy. (8)
This introduces a key element of Montaigne’s writing style that was different from the styles of any of his contemporaries I’ve read, which has become a seminal characteristic of the personal essay form –just as a soldier or leader assays his courage and fortitude in battle, the essayist assays his ideas in conversation with other ideas. This example may seem a bit feudal, but keep in mind that Montaigne writes mostly about soldiers and leaders in this essay – including Prince Edward of Wales, Emperor Conrad III, Dionysius, and Alexander the Great – as heroes who became noble through testing, or assaying, their mettle in physical attack and rebuttal with other heroes (or potential heroes). Analogously, the essayist tests the value of his ideas, conjectures, and stories most thoroughly through direct discussion with other ideas.
This bring us to sources, which in Montaigne’s case were primarily readings from his prodigious library. In “On solitude,” Montaigne expresses an opinion on choosing sources that can best be described as alternately cautionary…
Spending time with books has its painful side like everything else and is equally inimical to health, which must be our main concern; we must not let our edge be blunted by the pleasure we take in books: it is the same pleasure as destroys the manager of estates, the miser, the voluptuary and the man of ambition. (105)
There are branches of learning both sterile and prickly, most of them made for the throng: they may be left to those who serve society. Personally I only like pleasurable easy books which tickle my interest, or those which console me and counsel me how to control my life and death. (106)
Of course there is considerable cheekiness to be read into each of these passages, as there is in the voices of most personal essayists after him. Essaying oneself in conversation with other writers, to Montaigne, is built on associations rather than formal transitions. As a telling example of this pellmell in-and-out assaying of ideas in relation to each other, his 64-page “On some lines of Virgil” spends the first eleven pages citing and/or referring to Ovid, Martial, Plato, Seneca, Cicero, Horace, Catullus, Pseudo-Gallus, Bishop Caius Sollius Apollinaris, George Buchanon, Ravisius Textor, Plutarch, Erasmus, Nicephoros Callistos Xanthopoullos, St. Augustine, Origen, Hippocrates, Diogenes Laertius, and Aristotle before actually getting to any lines of Virgil! But in “In Defense of Seneca and Plutarch,” for example, he reveals a sincere appreciation for the sources he assays himself against, defending Seneca from what he sees as false analogies to King Nero and faulty characterization by the historian Dion (186-187) and, in response to what he sees as egoistic responses to Plutarch, he takes to task those who either can’t or won’t transcend their own subjective prejudices when reading or encountering others:
We must not judge what is possible or impossible according to what seems credible or incredible to our own minds…It is nevertheless a major fault into which most people fall…to make difficulties about believing of another anything which they could not or would not do themselves. It seems to each man the master Form of Nature is in himself, as a touchstone by which he may compare all the other forms. Activities which do not take this form as their model are feigned and artificial. What brute-like stupidity! (190-191)
In segueing into Montaigne’s conversations with himself, it’s worth noting an analogy he makes between fatherhood and writing towards the end of “On the affection of fathers for their children”:
Now once we consider the fact that we love our children simply because we begot them, calling them our second selves, we can see that we also produce something else from ourselves, no less worthy of commendation: for the things we engender in our soul, the offspring of our mind, of our wisdom and talents, are the products of a part more noble than the body and are more purely our own. In this act of generation we are both mother and father; these ‘children’ cost us dearer and, if they are any good, bring us more honour. In the case of our other children their good qualities belong much more to them than to us: we have only a very slight share in them; but in the case of these, all their grace, worth and beauty belong to us. (165)
This correspondence with the self that produces writing, then, is not necessarily a challenge or assay like the conversation he creates between himself and his sources, or even himself and the world – it’s intimate, consummate, and capable of producing a life that proceeds from the intercourse in the form of the essay. Then, carrying on the metaphor of Writing as Family in “On three good wives,” after telling the story of Seneca’s wife finding that her husband was to be bled to death and arranging the same fate for herself, Montaigne cites the essay as the Good Wife who gathers man’s stories together and making them beautiful:
If any author should wish to construct them into a single interconnected unity he would only need to supply the link – like soldering metals together with another metal. He could by such means make a compilation of many true incidents of every sort, varying his arrangement as the beauty of his work required. (200)
* * *
In “Remember Death,” a not-as-morbid-as-the-title-implies essay in Patrick Madden’s 2010 collection Quotidiana, Madden refers to the skull in St Jerome’s study, a symbol many writers of the Renaissance and probably earlier always kept nearby to remind them of their own mortality. That same skull, or one nearly identical, adorns the cover of my copy of Montaigne’s The Essays: A Selection. Madden follows his mention of St. Jerome’s skull with the same quote (different translation) from“Of Three Good Wives” by (his nomer) Papa Montaigne. The connections to Big Papa don’t end there. Like Montaigne’s essays, Madden’s flow like cream, so that the reader finishes a twenty-page essay in roughly a half hour (longer, if you’re as slow a reader as I am), then realizes how rich and full the prose was. His style, like Montaigne’s, is conversational in the best sense. His voice – learned but not stuffy, confident but self-effacing – holds the reader’s interest by letting us in on the conversations he’s having with the world.
Take, for example, “Panis Angelicus,” his essay that gets its title from recording he has of his grandmother singing an old Catholic hymn in Latin. He sets up the discourse of the essay by defining Catholic mass as a process of spiritual transubstantiation:
In the Mass, transubstantiation is the change from bread and water into the body and blood of Christ…But transubstantiations happen all the time: food into muscle and blood and bone, water to vapor to snow back to water, ideas and images into words and images and ideas in another head.
I’ll be the first to admit that my idea of transubstantiation was fuzzy at best before reading this, but Madden manages to not only define a relatively opaque term but to include the reader in the discussion on whichever level we choose – spiritual, physical, or academic. The connections he then makes in the essay, between listening for the first time to his grandmother’s voice as an adult with his children and extended family, to his father’s survival of Vietnam, to a busker he hears singing “Panis Angelicus” on a bus in Uruguay while on a Fulbright Fellowship. Everything in the world, he implies, is connected, as are we.
Madden’s choice of sources is just as varied than Montaigne’s. He juxtaposes literary, critical, and historical references with mathematical formulas, condensed narratives, lists, quotations, and pictures (including one of Montaigne himself) – and that’s all just in the essay “Gravity and Distance.” Another essay, “Asymptosy” (another new vocabulary word for me), essentially about words and numbers and images and the relationship between them, is set up in sections that seem to be a set of riddles and puzzlers. And the essay “Singing” starts each section with a general statement, sometimes aphoristic, sometimes personal – that he then expands on, including:
Singing is at once natural and unnatural.
One time I and two other motorists, whom I could see in my rearview mirror, were singing the same song at the same time.
And my personal favorite:
Cantar es disparar contra el olvido.
[To sing is to fight against forgetting.]
Each of these is a sort of call-and-response, like a musical convocation or a work holler. And as always, he’s finding connections – my personal favorite is his discovery that “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the ABC song share the exact same tune, a discovery that I made as well recently with my daughter. We were sitting outside a coffee shop and I was humming “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to her, when a little girl next to us who must have been four or five years old started practicing her ABC’s.
And finally there are the conversations Madden has with himself, most notable (for me, at least) in the final and longest essay of Quotidiana, “Finity,” which he starts by relaying his obsessive-compulsive counting of the grapes he bought at his local supermarket:
There are 172 grapes in the bag I bought from my local Smith’s supermarket. One-hundred-sixty of them look to be in good shape, four of them are undeveloped, six of them are deflated, and two were hiding underneath the drain in the sink where I washed them yesterday, thus upsetting the nicely round number (a prime number multiplied by ten!) I thought I had.
In itself, this literal recounting of his inner compulsions might be offputtingly Proustian, but Madden uses this compulsion to numerate the stars in the sky; possible grains of sand in the world; the progeny of Abraham, Brigham Young, Niall Noigiallach, Genghis Khan, and his own forefathers; surnames of his family; and the world population. But he also interjects this numeration with the stories that underlie them – of Abraham’s struggles with his own faith, for example – and punctuates the juxtaposition by reminding the reader that we no longer need to count grapes, people, or grains of sand:
Once we see the expanse of this vast world, once we can know, almost instantly, the tragedies our brothers and sisters are facing halfway around the globe, once our fruits come to us no matter the season and from far away, more temperate places that grow things we could not have otherwise, we no longer wonder, at least not so much, how many there are of things.
If this all sounds a lot like the dialectic of list and story I covered in Part II, I’ll chalk that up to another level of the conversation.
—By John Proctor