Dec 052010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.


Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
– Semisonic, “Closing Time”

On this, the last for now of my studies of Montaigne’s motifs, I thought it fitting to discuss his dislike for succinctly wrapping things up. It makes sense, then, that the last of Montaigne’s Essays is also the least singular in topic, and the most far-ranging in scope. And it’s also interesting that the first in order of Montaigne’s Essays, written more than a decade earlier, is titled “We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means” – even then, when his essays were generally shorter and more singular in topic and theme, he was pushing the singularity of individual experience as the most important facet of truth (a notion much less popular in the late sixteenth century than it is now). This is perhaps one reason he’s now accepted as the fountainhead of the form – he put the “personal” in the personal essay.

That I am ending my Montaigne series on the fourth entry, one short of the promised five, only serves to reinforce this point – one cannot predict where our own experience will take us, or for how long, which Montaigne essentially says in “On Experience,” the final in his Essays:

I, unconcerned and ignorant within this universe, allow myself to be governed by this world’s general law, which I shall know sufficiently when I feel it.    (374)

Personal, learned experience as the only conveyor of truth is an idea Montaigne examines playfully through much of “On Experience”:

Oh what a soft and delightful pillow, and what a sane one on which to rest a well-schooled head, are ignorance and unconcern…Is a man not stupid if he remembers having been so wrong in his judgement yet does not become deeply distrustful of it afterward?…To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing: we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads. (375-376)

With this we come to perhaps an important attribute of the personal essay, and nonfiction in general, which sets it apart from the novel for instance, which serves its reality in a delineated framework, as Nabokov describes in “Good Readers and Good Writers” from his Lectures on Literature:

We should always remember that the work of art [Nabokov is referring to the novel here, specifically Madame Bovary] is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. (1)

This, to me, is one of the great pleasures of the novel – at the end of a great (or even good) novel, one feels a sense of loss at having finished it, at leaving the fictional world it’s created. But unlike the novel as Nabokov describes it here, the essay never ends at its end. There is always another essay to write, as long as there is another human to write about human experience, continuing to assay and refine our collective understanding through the individual thought and expression of that understanding. Closure, then, is not something essayists, and essay readers, try to find in the essay, but rather what they try to escape.

This brings us, again, back to “Of Experience.” In it Montaigne ponders verisimilitude and enstrangement (“Nature does not makes things ‘one’ as much as unlikeness makes them other: Nature has bound herself to make nothing ‘other’ which is not unlike”), gives opinions on law which seem to predict Locke’s, ponders whether truth is watered down in interpretation and fragmentation, of course contemplates himself extensively (herein lies the line, reacting to Aristotle, “I study myself more than any subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.” ), repeats his distrust of medicine he began in earlier essays, and stresses the importance of habit in sleeping, diet, and bowel movements.

I’d like to focus the last of my commentary on the last 20 or so pages of the essay, as Montaigne weaves a few threads together here, providing a thematic crescendo for both the essay and his Essays, without ever acknowledging an end to his work. For 10 pages, he directly alternates a rather lighthearted discussion of food, class and serenity with a frank meditation on his own aging; some highlights:

I have decided never again to run: it is enough for me if I can drag myself along. Nor do I lament the natural decline which has me in its grip – no more do I lament that my lifespan is not as long and massive as an oak’s. (404)

There are men who groan and suffer for want of beef or ham in the midst of partridge! Good for them: that is to be a gourmet among gourmets: it is a weak ill-favored taste which finds insipid those ordinary everyday foods…The essence of that vice consists in failing to enjoy what others do and in taking anxious care over your diet…let boys be fashioned by fortune to the natural laws of the common people; let them become accustomed to frugal and severely simple fare, so that they have to clamber down from austerity rather than scrambling up to it. (405-406)

God shows mercy to those from whom he takes away life a little at a time: that is the sole advantage of growing old; the last death which you die will be all the less total and painful: it will only be killing off half a man, or a quarter…Everywhere death intermingles and merges with our life: our decline anticipates its hour and even forces itself upon our very progress. (407-408)

A man who wants a regimen which serves him must not allow it to go on and on; for we become conditioned to it; our strength is benumbed by it…Thus are men undermined when they allow themselves to become encumbered with restricted diets and to cling to them superstitiously. They need to go farther and farther on, and then farther still. There is no end to it. (410)

Perhaps I should apply Montaigne’s advice to my quoting, though I might like to continue further with the juxtaposition as his two intertwined conversations dovetail into a beautifully rendered exposition on the last few pages of Montaigne’s philosophy of the essay’s, humanity’s, and time itself’s boundless nature:

I who boast that I so sedulously and individually welcome the pleasures of this life find virtually nothing but wind in them when I examine them in detail. But then we too are nothing but wind. And the wind (more wise than we are) delights in its rustling and blowing, and is content with its own role without yearning for qualities which are nothing to do with it such as immovability or density. (413-414)

This meditation gains a great splendour by a comparison of my condition with that of others. And so I pass in review, from hundreds of aspects, those whom fortune or their own mistakes sweep off into tempestuous seas, as well as those, closer to my own case, who accept their good fortune with such languid unconcern. Those folk really do ‘pass’ their time: they pass beyond the present and the things they have in order to put themselves in bondage to hope and to those shadows and vain ghosts which their imagination holds out to them – the more you chase them, the faster and farther they run away…so too your only purpose in chasing after them, your only gain, lies in the chase. (421)

*            *            *

Albert Goldbarth’s “Griffin,” like Montaigne’s “Of Experience,” is more interested in connections than endings. Like Joe Brainard, who was a visual artist first and a writer second, Albert Goldbarth is not known primarily as an essayist but as a poet. I haven’t read any of his poetry, but that presumption surprises me, especially since the Wikipedia on him entry notes his “distinctively ‘talky’ style,” which could also be said about Montaigne. I discovered Goldbarth while reconning’s “hybrid essay” contest last year; I had no idea what a hybrid essay was, and TheDiagram recommended that anyone who, like me, wasn’t familiar with the loose formal requirements of the form read Goldbarth’s “Griffin.” So I did.

The griffin, or gryphon, is a mythical lion/eagle hybrid, and Goldbarth uses it to explore the beginnings and endings of things – relationships, civilizations, boundaries – using the Griffin’s own lack of a clear, defined type or species as the archetype of transcendence – in being two things at once, it is neither and both of them, and something more than either:

And in fact the griffin and all of its kin – all of the hybridizedopposites, from real-life hermaphrodites to the fabled goat-footed people of northern Scythia and the dog-headed tribes of western Libya – hold a psychological value. They lead us through the horrors and astonishments of realizing that all of us lead dichotomized lives, and all of us…are the stuff of amazing weddings, some metaphorical, some literal. (22)

The essay, a meditation on convergence and divergence, floats associatively through time, space, and tone. Starting with “This seems to be the summer of com-, recom-, and uncombining,” Goldbarth introduces the reader to his friends Arthur and Martha, who are recently separated. Arthur has moved out and Goldbarth is taking a walk with Martha, who is telling him about Arthur’s stated need to find himself. Throughout the essay Goldbarth recounts the jolt this separation gives to the stability of his circle of friends – they had, after all, merged Arthur and Martha linguistically, calling them Marthur and Artha. In a moment of especially close self-examination Goldbarth, speaking of his friends, intimates a sense of the role of the nonfiction writer that echoes Montaigne:

Ah, yes. If only friends were characters, whose lives abide by authorly rules of beauty and whose suffering could, at the very least, be explained away in those acceptable terms. But I’m at a loss for advice, now, here, in the park, as the light and the branches deal out the scenery of our friendship. (10)

Goldbarth also explores the erotic poetry of Catullus and Ovid in an attempt to contextualize his friends’ breakup, but also to explore whether it’s ever possible, or advisable, to completely merge oneself with another:

So: what is and what isn’t a proper coupling? We could say that the definition of those two states is what a culture exists for. (5)

Besides the Griffin, Goldbarth explores some more popular myths – Adam and Eve, vampires, werewolves, Springsteen’s New Jersey – in an attempt to justify and/or nullify humanity’s tendency toward wedlock, and its attendant fear of death. This makes me think of Olympia Dukakis’s famous interaction with Danny Aiello in Moonstruck, when she asks him why men chase women – he evades the question by alluding to Adam’s missing rib then finally, when she continues pressing him, he says, “I dunno. Maybe because they fear death?” “That’s it!” she says. “That’s the reason. Thank you – thank you, for answering my question.” Of course, her question was also her answer. I bring this in because Goldbarth spends a substantial portion of the essay exploring our connections with each other as attempts to connect with something greater than ourselves, something that perhaps is as conflicted as we are:

Maybe a people’s God is required to be so whole, and his people so unreservedly pledged to a mimetic wholeness, only because some last remaining intention-node in the back of the brain suspects that in reality the Creator of this universe is conflicted in his own wants and intentions. To suspect such a frightening thing is to need immediately to deny it, with every atom of our zealousness. (37)

I’m listening to Bruce’s song “The River” right now, from the album of the same name – by a strange coincidence, they’re playing it at the coffee house while I’m writing about an essay that devotes multiple pages to Bruce’s Jersey mythology. Like many of the songs on the album, it’s about an unhappy marriage. In the climactic verse leading into the last chorus, the narrator remembers taking his wife to the reservoir in the summer before their discontent:

At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And hold her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?

Perhaps I’ve gone a little off topic. But perhaps not – perhaps, by diverting from the stated topic, I’ve attempted what both Montaigne and Goldbarth do. Allowing free rein to thought is, perhaps, an escape from the beginnings and the ends – a chase after the thoughts that will escape into the ether if they don’t cross the boundary, as Lou Reed once said, of the lifetime between thought and expression.

—John Proctor

See also Part One of the series.

Part Two.

Part Three.

Nov 012010

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)

…and lackadaisical:

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

See also

Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 2: The Dialectic of List and Story, with Joe Brainard in Tow

Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 1: Integrating Universal Ideas with Personal Narrative (With a Glance at Joan Didion as a Contemporary Example)

Sep 242010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.


Life is not a constant thing, it’s only made of short stories
I couldn’t even tell you where I’m from…I’m guided by the voices I’ve perfected.

Neko Case, “Guided by Wire”

I have to admit I totally cribbed the title for this part from John D. O’Banion’s book Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story,  a review of which is linked in an early Numero Cinq post. I’m currently ingesting this book, which attempts to reclaim narrative discourse  (which he dubs “story”) as an essential half of the dialectic of rhetorical theory, the other half being analytical thought (he calls this “list”). I’ve found it mind-expanding on every level of my own writing – I just replace “rhetorical theory” with “creative nonfiction.” I also wrote an earlier post called “7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 ‘List Essays’” which explored this dialectic before I actually started reading O’Banion’s book.

Montaigne understood this dialectic intuitively centuries before it was given a name. Every essay of his I’ve read (I’m now up to eleven) sidles effortlessly between his own thoughts and condensed narratives, so much so that the two are sometimes indistinguishable. His thoughts range from the aphoristic to personal (the subject of last month’s post), and most of the narratives are either summaries of things he’s read or accounts from his own life. One result of the fluid shifting from systematized “list” (his own thoughts) and “story” (which are, again, mostly short and condensed narratives) is that Montaigne’s essays don’t really seem like “essays” in the modern, systematized sense, but neither do they seem like narrative memoir or history . They are in effect, to borrow from Shklovsky, enstranged – they seem not normal, not scannable, not easily explained or summarized.

Perhaps this has something to do with Montaigne’s own reading habits.  Despite dying  roughly 400 years before the advent of the internet, Montaigne managed to surround himself with continual media stimuli. A gregarious, well-traveled statesman during a time of civil war in France before settling into mayorship of his hometown of Bordeaux, he also was an early beneficiary of the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press 80 years earlier, with a library with which he converses in his essays as fluidly as the many contemporary, living people in his town and country at the time. Thus, writers, statesmen, and local townsfolk bustle in and out of his work, sometimes seemingly without thought to logical or narrative structure – that is, until readers—and millions have read him in the last 430 years—realize that the structure is uniquely Montaigne’s. By the end of his three books of essays, Montaigne changes his mind about some things, solidifies his opinions and viewpoints on others – all within the confines of his strange, shapeshifting, personal systematic method of thought.

Take briefly, for our purposes here, “To philosophize is to learn how to die” from Book I of his essays. Though he begins the essay with three pages expounding on pleasure as the ultimate goal of wisdom, Montaigne’s melancholic mood while writing the essay is quite obvious from the fourth page on, as he approaches death from every angle he can find:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. (24)

And with this singular determination of thought, Montaigne tells of Egyptians bringing mummified corpses to the dinner table with them (24); the pagan practice of placing their graveyards next to the temples “so that this continual spectacle of bones, tombs and funerals should remind us of our human condition” (27); his own personal admission that he most fears death when he’s at his healthiest (28); tiny creatures in the Hypanis River who live only one day (“those which die at eight in the morning die in youth; those which die at five in the evening die of senility”) (30); Chiron refusing immortality when he found out how long it would last (35); and many, many more examples – too many to list, really. All of this is of course unified not by a specific thesis but by the Great Unifier itself:

Yes, but all leave life in the same circumstances, young and old alike. (21)

For a great majority of Montaigne’s essays I’ve read so far, narrative plays a subservient role to Montaigne’s personal system of discourse – he has thoughts and runs with them, employing personal anecdote and epic story in service to this thought. One notable exception I’ve found so far is “On the Cannibals,” which seems to do the inverse. Most of that essay – about 80% by my estimation – gives extended narratives of warring “savage” tribes in Palestine, the continent of Africa, and elsewhere that European explorers where writing about in disgust at the time. He keeps his own comments relatively infrequent. Actually, his “comments” are mostly stories from European antiquity that mirror the acts that his contemporaries were dismissing as savage. Interestingly, in Chapter 8 of Reorienting Rhetoric , “The Rejection of Narration,” O’Banion speaks to a tendency among sociologists  to rely too heavily on listing and systematizing tribal cultures, most of them oral cultures whose primary mode of thought is narrative. This attempt to systematize tribal narratives leads to ethnocentrism:

By ethnocentrism [sociologist Jack Goody] means a “framework” of thought, including presuppositions, preconceived classification systems, and unnecessary and unconsciously held limitations of perspective. (156)

Compare this, then, to one of the few instances of commentary in “Of the Cannibals”:

…every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. (82)

Here, then, is an example of Montaigne traversing the limitations of his own culture’s systematic thought by employing, when writing of “savage” tribal cultures, their primary mode of discourse – narrative. While this example reveals the limitations of systematic thought, the modern example of I Remember tells Joe Brainard’s own personal narrative as a list.

It’s not surprising after reading even one page of I Remember that Joe Brainard was primarily a visual collage artist and secondarily a writer (to his own mind, at least) – his list-memoir is a pastiche of over a thousand descriptive images, short narratives, inversions, fantasies, revelations, and name checks, all tied together only by the fact that all begin with the words “I remember.” Brainard arranges them rarely with any apparent care for narrative cohesion – rather, he piles image upon image, memory upon memory, until the memories, almost by sheer weight, combine and condense into a vibrant, sometimes hilarious, sometimes gross, sometimes heartrending portrait of a gay youth in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the Fifties who moves to New York City and becomes part of a major art movement.

When reading various “list essays,” one question continually nagged at me: Could anyone pull this off in a book-length work?  I asked this question to Patrick Madden at the July residency, and he asked me if I’d ever heard of Joe Brainard. I’d heard the name, but didn’t know much about  him – to my shame, it turns out. Brainard was an integral part of the New York School of poetry (not the New York School of art and painting, to whose aesthetic movement his artwork bore little resemblance) and, living in New York City and fancying myself a novice historian, I’m now duly embarrassed that Brainard has eluded me until now. I Remember is not just a book but a compilation – he published many of the entries in smaller, chapbook-like editions through the Seventies, including I Remember, I Remember More, and More I Remember More.

If Brainard’s memory is a wide horizon, he swathes  the disparate elements into bundles in multiple ways. Due to the list format he uses to relay those memories, I found in myself a tendency to delineate his memories into categories, or simply “areas.” I’ll attempt to and elucidate many of these areas in due time, but before that it’s important to grasp two elements they all share:

  1. Brainard is a lingual minimalist. All of his memory-paragraphs are short, with almost no modifiers (i.e., adjectives or  adverbs).
  2. Every memory is separated by both an tab indent and a line break.

Now, to briefly return to Shklovsky. These two stylistic choices work together  to remove each memory from the linear horizon, to decontextualize it, to make it strange:

The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to that which the image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive the object in a special way, in short, to lead us to a “vision of this object rather than mere “recognition.” (Shklovsky, “Art as Device,” Theory of Prose p10)

Brainard frees each individual memory  from its original context, and forces it to stand naked, competing with thousands more naked memories before and after it for the reader’s attention. Sometimes there is a vague, free-associative sense of the memories’ relationships to each other, as in these four short paragraphs:

I remember chalk.

I remember when green chalkboards were new.

I remember a backdrop of a brick wall I painted for a play. I painted each red brick in by hand. Afterwards it occurred to me that I could have just painted the whole thing red and put in the white lines.

I remember how much I tried to like Van Gogh. And how much, finally, I did like him. And how much, now, I can’t stand him. [28]

But much more often the memories are estranged from each other, leaving the associations to the reader. These reader associations can be personal, whether a recognition of objects, emotions, or references in the memories. They can also be connections inferred between the memories – I, for example, noticed that Brainard remembered “the outhouse and a Sears and Roebuck catalog “ on page  24, then on page 60 “a ringworm epidemic and being scared to death that I would get it,” and I remembered a recent show on NPR where a scientist described his lifetime contribution to his field – the discovery in the fifties that ringworms were spread primarily through fecal remnants that bare feet stepped into on their way to the outhouse.

Now, about those categories. At first I was going to number each memory and list the occurrences of each major area of experience, maybe even make a nice circle graph that would reveal something about the balance of the memories or some logic in their ordering, but I soon realized that 1) that’s a lot of work, 2) it would be a little too nurturing of my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and 3) most importantly, such itemization would do a disservice to the intuitive, spontaneous quality of the work Brainard has created. So instead, in light if the impulsive nature of the book itself, I decided to simply open the book at random with my notecard of categories/areas in hand, pick a memory, and explain how it elucidates at least one of the categories I’ve deduced from my first reading. (The categories are in italics.)

  • “I remember a tower on top of a building in Tulsa that changed colors every few minutes. But only green and yellow and white.” (104)
    This simple, airtight description of an object is something Brainard repeats many, many times throughout the book. Sometimes these objects come before over after an event or action that gives them context, but many times, like this one which comes right after a series of memories involving the barber shop, the context is quite loose. It’s followed by a memory about the hat store, so the only inference I could imagine would be an aesthetic or metaphoric connection of the tower atop the building and the hat atop the head. Which actually makes a strange sense, given Brainard’s penchant for visual collage which is apparent here and elsewhere in the book though his visual description of colors.
  • “I remember (after school) soda fountain shops with booths, and a jukebox, but only in the movies.” (143)
    I really love this one, because it does, in three lines, many of the things Brainard does so well throughout the book – he remembers something from his childhood, then inverts it into something else, thus commenting in the influence TV had (has) on his perspective (he was, after all, raised in the golden age of television).
  • “I remember a boy I once made love with and after it was all over he asked me if I believed in God.” (20)
    Actual self-contained narratives are relatively sparse in the book, and as seen here, are sparse within themselves when they do appear. But here we have a story, in a sentence, that merges (so to speak) two of Brainard’s main concerns throughout the book, sexual discovery and god and religion. While many of his other descriptions of sexual encounters are graphic and non-erotic, this one is actually both sweet and ironic. It’s one of the few times his idealized view of love and romance shares space with the reality of his own experience.
  • “I remember a story about a couple who owned a diner. The husband murdered his wife and ground her up into hamburger meat. Then one day a man was eating a hamburger at the diner and he came across a piece of her fingernail. That’s how the husband got caught.” (59)
    This might be called cheating, if there were rules – not an actual memory but a memory of a communal myth, made especially delectable  by the nature of the myth. I mean, who hasn’t heard a story, growing up, about something disturbing going on at the fast food joint? (My mother used to tell me McDonald’s made their burgers from worms, a legend so ubiquitous that devoted a page to disproving it.) This memory/legend also combines Brainard’s fascination with the disgusting and his sense of humor with his sometimes morbid, sometimes elegiac, always matter-of-fact mention of death.
  • “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly.”
    Holy mackerel. I have to say, this one actually made me stop reading for a minute when I first read it. Here is something you’re not supposed to admit remembering, a racially charged episode where the primary cultural plotline of his time, the Civil Rights Movement, assumes secondary importance to the child’s simplistic, external view of the world. More than most, this particular memory walks a fine line between honest and asinine.

The wonderful irony of both Montaigne’s essays and Brainard’s I Remember is that both, through intuitive enstrangement of normal, everyday language, achieve their own sort of “magical realism,” for lack of a less-used term. Where Montaigne achieves this through seamless juxtaposition of the personal narrative and grand, almost omniscient statements, Brainard makes his own personal experiences epic by singling them out and alienating them from each other, and using clean, sparse language to relay them.

Serendipitiously (for me, if not for the topic of the piece), I read a recent article on about Kevin Morrissey, the Virginia Quarterly editor whose suicide has attracted national media attention. In this devastating, sad essay, Steve Almond uses a list format similar in style to Brainard’s to trace the narrative of Morrissey’s death and the aftermath, and also to question a publishing industry that’s becoming more and more bottom line-driven, writers and editors – himself included – who sometimes forget amidst the seas of rejection letters (and our own narcissism) why we write:

We’re going to destroy ourselves as a species if we lose the capacity to imagine the suffering of others. One way to do this – the best way – is via our imaginations, via storytelling. It’s our job to help spread that particular virus, in our work and our lives. The point isn’t to take sides. There are no sides. There’s just the one side. And we’re all on it. [Read it all]

—John Proctor

Aug 222010

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:

  1. Personal anecdote, self-revelation, and opinion
  2. Aphorism, advice, and universal wisdom
  3. 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.” [59] 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.

—John Proctor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.