Drawn from Life, Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne
Translated by M. A. Screech; Introduced by Tim Parks
Notting Hill Editions, London
185 pp, £14.99
One could easily diminish Michel de Montaigne (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne) (1533-1592) as being that inventor of the essay, that plodding form which considers and concludes. Spanish painter Pablo Picasso once observed, “Yo no busco, yo encuentro” (I don’t seek after, I come upon). Picasso’s observation could help us focus and situate Montaigne’s insinuatingly sinuous, uncannily accurate prose. His focus is not result-oriented on content and conclusion but rather is maker-focused on composition and creating. Much of each essay magnifies its composition in a language. Repeatedly, Montaigne thinks of his efforts as flawed, monstrous or distorted. To become his reader, I have had to become a kind of ventriloquist engaged in an act of translation and projection, of time, genre, gender, language and many translations. It was only when I found how uncertain, fearful and tentative he was that I could begin to write of him wholeheartedly. I came to appreciate that Montaigne struggled tremendously with how to think far more than with what to think. In other words, he was not writing conclusions; he was coming upon what he found as it appeared. In order to be a seamless ventriloquist, in order to read and know Montaigne, I had to get as close to him as I could. In effect, I had to mimic now what he did with what he called his self: “The world looks always opposite; I turn my sight inwards, and there fix and employ it. I have no other business but myself, I am eternally meditating upon myself, considering and tasting myself. Other men’s thoughts are ever wandering abroad, if they will but see it; they are still going forward: for my part, I circulate in myself” (“Of Presumption”). He chose to establish a singular intimacy with himself which I would I saw have to emulate as his ventriloquist. At first, I felt overwhelmed and uninitiated when I received the beautiful Drawn from Life. At once, I asked myself how much in all did this great figure write, and when, and which of all his writings are in this volume, how do they change and what is his flag ship hobby horse, his daunting intellectual obsession?
There were three books of 107 essays of different length and tone. These were essais, meaning attempts which indicate their spirit—not a finality, but a stab into the open. The first volume “A,” including 57 passages written 1571–1580, was published in 1580 ; the second “B” included 37 passages written 1580–1588, was published in 1588, and the third “C,” often called the Bordeaux copy, with thirteen passages written from 1588–1592, was posthumously published in 1595 with the help of his adoptive daughter Marie De Gournay, Now, in this Montaigne revival, there are critical divisions between those liking the 1595 version and the 1588 Bordeaux heavily-edited copy. Drawn from Life has eight essays from Book One, two from Book Two and three from Book Three. Two substantial essays are not in Drawn from Life: his “Of Friendship, ”Chapter 27 in Book One, recounting the loss of his closest friend, Étienne de La Boétie, whom he called his “double,” and ”Of Vanity,” Chapter 9 in Book Three. Their absence actually is important for an incrementally intimate reading of Montaigne, the one who ever incrementally attempts. Now that I had fashioned this mechanical chessboard of chapters, I had to read and confront the first chapter which had two conspicuously different names in different translations: “We Search the Same End by Discrepant Means, or “That Men by Various Ways Arrive at the Same End”. The first chapter was at first like a hard tire; it retained an opaque, impersonal, even impenetrable feeling. As I kept reading his chiseled words, fruitlessly looking for a summation, I soon felt that the thing repeated, the hobby horse was fear, not of death or pain, but of losing mental control and becoming not oneself. All at once, I remembered Samuel Johnson in his 1751 Rambler, when he proposed his groundbreaking idea of the “invisible riot of the mind”. Throughout his essais, Montaigne considers and engages just such a riotous mind—searches for ways to distract it, ways to bring it under control, ways to exercise its dangerous powers more effectively. In this of necessity highly condensed review, I hope to illuminate briefly and consequentially that 1) Invisible riot of the mind, 2) an always incomplete self and spirit, and 3) Montaigne’s clamorous awareness of writing.
Early on, Montaigne considers something new: what he calls “the close stitching of mind to body” (25). Indeed, he is introducing both to himself and his readers a vast and fear-inspiring, hitherto unaddressed uncertainty—that is the mind “whirring about, noting ….I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy” (73). He is presenting the temporary mental derangement Johnson had called the “invisible riot of the mind”. In classical philosophy, the paradigm had been far more stable: “wisdom is a controlled handling of our soul, carried out, on our Soul’s responsibility, with measure and proportion” (93). In his plague-scarred, war-conflicted times, Montaigne encounters a new inner fear and, with no hesitation whatsoever, declares “It is fear that I am most afraid of” (9). He shows a terror of decision making taking over soldiers on the battle field, women in the dining room. This general fear is not of battle or physical pain of which he is intimately familiar given his insistent kidney stones. He explicitly refers to this fear as a “leprosy of the mind,” “a terrifying confusion,” “Inconstancy of his mind,” which can “dominate you and tyrannize over you.” in “an internal strife* (74, 139). The title of this review points to his exquisite awareness of mental displacement: “the cries of a mind which is leaping out of its lodgings” (92). Such loss of mental certainty is to him akin to the drunkenness when one “loses all consciousness and control of himself” (80). Montaigne’s second hobby horse is self or soul, or, what we now call consciousness.
Montaigne certainly introduces readers in a new way to self and soul with which he posits one should commence their studies. Interestingly, he feminizes “soul” throughout. He commits himself unequivocally to his life’s task which becomes these essays: “My own mind’s principal and most difficult study is the study of itself”. He virtually flexes with passion about this commitment: “For anyone who knows how to probe himself and to do so vigorously…reflection is a mighty endeavor and a full one: I would rather forge my soul than stock it up” (111). Virginia Woolf sings his praises: “this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection; this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne”. Ultimately, he confesses rather disappointedly that “I have nothing mine but myself, and yet the possession is, in part, defective and borrowed” (“Of Vanity”). This self-soul is incomplete, unstable, inescapable and imperfect, but it is all he has, all we have, to work with. He calls this “self” many names (because it is many things): “oddments,” “bits and pieces,” “multiple forms,” but In spite of these flaws, Montaigne tells his readers that he is and this is a book whose faith can be trusted, that ”it is his own self that I am painting” (xxii). In spite of uncertainties, he commits his life to that soul which “can see and know all things, but she should feed only on herself” (158). He says that he is not trying to study himself to make people think more of him: I do so ”in order to bring mine lower and lay it down”. Such humility furnishes profound trust in what he says. He wants not a single unified soul or self to own: “What I would praise would be a soul with many storeys, a soul at ease wherever fortune led it” (115-116). His is a remarkable acknowledgement of a gift–this awareness of himself as something he must forge rather than stock up (111). That is, he must make and create and modify that soul, that self which is his life’s study. In the process, he writes in such a way as to provide alternatives to others who might become inflicted with what he has called the “illness of our soul,” its distractibility, its dependence, its flamboyance and its passions (134). Souls “can be controlled and excited by some racing disembodied fancy based on nothing” (146). Overall, Montaigne’s nobility comes through in his courage in facing all of this: “Life is a rough, irregular progress with a multitude of forms” (110).
Ever a purposeful dreamer, Montaigne says of his prose, “I who am more concerned with the weight and usefulness of my writings than with their order and logical succession must not be afraid to place here a little off the track, an account of great beauty” (105). His essays are flooded with digressions about his inadequate writing, how poor his memory is, how common the subject, how second-rate his diction. He laments that his “ability does not go far enough for me to dare to undertake a rich, polished picture, formed according to art” (107). They are, however, compellingly elegant, learned, unpredictable, intimate, experimental and morally important. For one thing, he insists upon the need for writing what can happen rather than pompously showing a bombastic version of what had happened: “I have undertaken to talk about only what I know how to talk about, fitting the subject matter to my capabilities….There are some authors whose aim is to relate what happened: mine (if I could manage it) would be to relate what can happen” (28, 27). One could undertake an in-depth study of his parenthesis and read forever better Modernist fiction. His interruptions combined with self-conscious links to what he had just been saying with a self-conscious allusion to his ejempla draw the reader trustfully to him. Sometimes, he denigrates his own “scribblings,” or, more graphically, “monstrous bodies of diverse members, without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or portion other than accidental…excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always undigested” (“Of Vanity”). Montaigne was aware that his writing was changing, perhaps to compensate for what he had perceived as their insufficiency. He would make up for it by his “intricacies,”’ and make chapters longer, “such as require preposition and assigned leisure” (“Of Vanity”). One of the special beauties of Notting Hill’s edition is that it omits the longer, more reflective, essays from the collection, allowing the reader a free intimacy with his evolving voice over time in a plethora of highly varied topics. An unexpected example of Montaigne’s modern sense of writing occurs in the history of the translation of the Horace quotation in “Of Friendship”: esinit in piscem mulier formosa superne. This is usually translated: “a fair woman in her upper form ends in a fish”. The poet in me reading found something discordant, flatfooted and incomplete in that image, and I searched until I found that the point is that the woman was beautiful above and that her beauty became truncated and deformed below, since at the end of her body appeared that unappealing fish tail. This contradictory image, “A woman, beautiful above, has a fish’s tail” emphasizes Montaigne’s persistent frustration in the artistic process, in the failure of scribbling to render it beautifully. With just this modern sense of fragmentation and incompleteness, Montaigne writing of his dearest friend, catastrophically concludes after his friend’s death, “I was so grown and accustomed to be always his double in all places in all things, that methinks I am no more than half of myself” (“Of Friendship”).
In the course of “scribbling” and revising his three hobby horses, 1) mental imbalance, 2) the challenge of the soul, self, consciousness, and 3) trying to write it all forth, Montaigne had come upon mercury, upon something bouncing, bobbing, rare, and uncontrollable. Recent splendid books, like Philippe Desan, Montaigne: a Life and Sarah Bakewell, Montaigne, How to Live remarkably Illuminate his haunting and significant contemporaneousness. What he found in those years of writing was indeed an independent awareness, or consciousness with which he tenaciously ever struggled, amidst physical pains, the turbulence and warfare of his times as well as his sense of incompleteness. Slowly, it came to me in an Archimedes moment that actually de Montaigne about one hundred years before René Descartes, was recognizing something similar to “Cogito, ergo sum; I think; therefore I am”. Across the centuries, these two men shook hands with what we now consider consciousness. Ever practical and isolated, Montaigne felt it his chore to get to be as ventriloquist close to the consequences of such cognition as he could, without vanity or didacticism. He simply threw himself in, as a “mind which is leaning out of its lodgings”. That position indirectly led to the banning of his writings, since he came to know that in his new intimacies he wouldn’t hide truths about his sexuality, the inconstancy of the human soul and race, or the gluttonous materialism of his times. Knowing himself, his mind, and his consciousness to be his to control led him to find life far simpler and clearer. Rather unexpectedly, he recognized quite openly, “my freedom is so very free” (28). The design of this excellent Notting Hill edition offers us Montaigne pure and free, his language, his zigs and his zags, dubieties and vanities, without trying to give readers any predetermined intellectual conclusion or framework. This edition allows his essays to sing and play on, so that we readers may do what Picasso suggested: discover joyfully and not tediously seek after.
—Linda E. Chown