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A New Montaigne

Montaigne in Motion

by Jean Starobinski, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, 348 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Michel de Montaigne—who does not know that charmed name? Once it was Eyquem, but Michel dropped his father’s surname in favor of Montaigne, the noble property that he inherited as Pierre Eyquem’s oldest son. (But what glory did a name bring, Michel asked later in his Essays.) Once a law student, then a judge in the high court of Bordeaux, he resigned that post even before he knew he would have no son to whom to pass it on. (“I speak not as judge…but simply to converse,” he wrote later in his Essays.) During the religious wars of the last decades of the sixteenth century, he did not turn his back on the world: his health and curiosity took him as far as Rome; he served twice as mayor of Bordeaux and several times as mediator between Catholic prince and Protestant prince. But much of the time he stayed on his estate with his family, reflecting as he went about his daily affairs (he said his freest thoughts came when he was on horseback), reading in his tower library, and composing and recomposing his Essays.

Published in lengthening editions from 1580 to 1595, three years after Montaigne’s death, the Essays were new in name and relatively new in genre. Their cast of characters ranged from emperors to wet nurses, from Greek warriors to widows of the Indies; their subjects went from cruelty to sleeping, from coaches to thumbs; quotations from classical authors were found on many pages. Yet Montaigne assured his readers in his first dedication and often afterward that the subject of his book was himself, told about in all honesty and with naturalness, concreteness, and intimacy. “Everyone recognizes me in my book, and my book in me.”

Slippery in meaning and argument, moving in surprising association from one example or idea to the next (“My ideas follow one another, but sometimes it is from a distance”), Montaigne’s Essays have become a test for critical interpretation in our own time. For some, the task has been a traditional one of intellectual history: the reader takes a major theme, such as skepticism, reason, nature, or melancholy, and develops a coherent position for Montaigne by tracking it through the essays and indicating where, and how, it changed from his early writing to his late. Here the emphasis falls on Montaigne’s dialogue with the classical and Christian writers whom he read and reacted to.

For others, the task has been that of traditional social and cultural history: to see the Essays as a reflection of, and on, the great issues of life in sixteenth-century France—commercial exchange, family conflict, social mobility, religious intolerance, and the like. Here Montaigne’s view of the culture around him is analyzed without much attention to questions of literary form and intention. For still other readers, it is the author himself who is the prey, the “moi” who declared himself “consubstantial” with his book. He is brought to life once again in the detail and language of the Essays, his personality interpreted perhaps psycho-analytically—as a timeless Montaigne—or according to prescriptions more particular to his century.

In recent years, yet another approach has emerged, which plays down the Montaigne behind the Essays and brings to the foreground the acts of writing and invention. Here the leaps and disjunctures in the text are seen as bearers of meaning; and tensions in language, argument, and metaphor provide central clues. Material from beyond the Essays—say, from Erasmus’ theory of rhetoric or from nominalist philosophy—can be used to deepen their meaning, but particular emphasis is put on the ways Montaigne’s readers decide what his text is about. Montaigne often wondered who those future readers would be, and warned, “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I.”1

With Jean Starobinski, we have one of Montaigne’s most remarkable and attentive readers, a critic whose approach includes and transcends the categories I have listed. His cultural range resembles that of Montaigne himself, though the profession in which he was trained, along with literature, was medicine rather than law. From his base at the University of Geneva, he has devoted himself to writings as separate in time and genre as Sophocles’ Ajax and Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony; he has continued his research on the history of medicine, and published major and influential studies on the thought and imagery of eighteenth-century France. For him interpretation requires an egalitarian relation between text and critic; it is not an act of conquest or even mere appropriation. He seeks to understand, to savor the singularity of a text and its bristling resistance to the present, even while asking his own questions and reconciling its language with his own.2

Throughout he has been pursuing another conflict in human experience and thought, that between the self and others, between the inside and the outside—indeed, between insiders and outsiders. In his first work (in the 1940s) on Kafka, he was already concerned with the predicament of solitude and the need to find a path to the outside world, and in his book on Montesquieu in 1953, his knowledge of medicine gave an original cast to his formulation of the issues. Over the years, that formulation has become more complex, as his texts have changed, along with his sense of where the new cracks occur in the social body. Thus Montaigne in Motion begins not so much with solitude as with Montaigne’s case against lying.

Starobinski presents Montaigne in Motion as the complement to his book Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l’obstacle.3 Both Montaigne and Rousseau denounced the world for its dissimulation and hypocrisy, its masks and veils. How then did they come to deal with it? Indeed, how did they accept that they were themselves using the tricky medium of language to publish books for the unreliable world to read? Rousseau never did, says Starobinski. He was ultimately alone, his own audience, writing to know himself: the menacing world was for him an obstacle that allowed him to turn in on himself and affirm his innocent sincerity. Montaigne took a position more congenial to Starobinski: he decided that with the right safeguards and understandings, he could accept appearances as legitimate and enter into relations with other people that enhanced rather than falsified his sense of himself. This is the “movement” that Starobinski traces in Montaigne. It is not an orderly philosophical quest for the solution of the problem of skepticism; it is a struggle with experience, with living and writing, that stirs up the essays from start to finish.

Starobinski organizes his book around seven great themes that Montaigne felt he must examine and somehow resolve: friendship and the need for an audience; the meaning of death; freedom and obligation; the body; heterosexual love; the workings of language; one’s duty to engage in public affairs. In each case Montaigne denounces the falsity and deception that surround these subjects, and then finds his own way of renewing their meaning. Starobinski traces the steps by which he does so, carefully listening to everything Montaigne says, analyzing some of the essays in detail and drawing on some of Montaigne’s letters. Events from the sixteenth century are only occasionally evoked, apart from those that are mentioned by Montaigne himself, and few contemporary voices are heard that Montaigne has not himself chosen to record. With one notable exception—to which I will return—Starobinski works primarily with the clues that Montaigne himself has provided.

The long and beautifully constructed first chapter of Montaigne in Motion can serve to illustrate Starobinski’s approach. After presenting Montaigne’s condemnation of the political and social world in which lies and artifice have become the rule, Starobinski considers the meaning of his withdrawal in 1571 to his tower library. To retire in this way was not in itself odd. Humanist notions and gentlemanly ideals of leisure made it a legitimate thing to do. Montaigne’s solitude was to be for him a new birth, an occasion of inner truth and sincerity, for the discovery of a stable identity, a true self, and a capacity for moral decisiveness. But it didn’t work out that way. His reflections in the tower, among other experiences, led him to alter his idea of identity. He recognized that he had little hope of being a moral hero. He accepted that writing about himself for others could itself be a form of action and that it need not be a lie.

To begin with, his solitary leisure brought not disciplined reflection, as he had hoped, but “chimeras,” “fantastic monsters,” and “a melancholy humor…very hostile to my natural disposition.” Perhaps the true self was not a stable and constant essence but was mixed and inconsistent. Later, Montaigne characterized this situation, this “gloom of solitude,” as the setting for undertaking his Essays—“for meddling with writing. And then, finding myself entirely destitute and void of any other matter, I presented myself to myself for argument and subject.” Starobinski shows us that Montaigne is here shifting the task of establishing a truthful identity from a dialogue with himself to the composition of his book; he is recognizing that readers, “others,” are necessary to assure a faithful portrait.

Even more powerfully, he suffered two losses, which intensified in him the tendency to redefine himself and his moral aspiration. One was the death of his father, Pierre Eyquem, the other of his close friend Etienne de La Boétie. Montaigne tried to keep the memory of each man alive through publication. He issued a small collection of poems and translations that La Boétie had been able to complete before his early death. He published a translation of Raymond Sebond’s Natural Theology, which he had promised his father. But he still felt there was much more to be said. Starobinski follows closely Montaigne’s words about La Boétie to see how the survivor reconstructed the relationship. Montaigne had once had an incomparable intimacy with La Boétie, an intimacy that isolated them from the deceptive world, a “complete fusion of wills,” a stable unison of souls and self-revelation (“He saw for me, and I saw for him”). Now the intimacy was broken, the relation asymmetrical, and Montaigne was pushed toward a future in which he would write about La Boétie for the world.

And also write about himself. Starobinski notes the parallels between Montaigne’s way of talking about La Boétie, a presence “so entire and alive” within Montaigne, and his way of talking about himself in the dedication to the first edition of the Essays. He hopes that those who read him after he dies—and Montaigne thinks this will be soon—will through this book be able to keep their knowledge of him “entière et vive.” Pierre Eyquem and La Boétie are each “instigators,” justifiers, of Montaigne’s act of writing, so Starobinski suggests, but only in the ways they incite his memory; they are not moral examples. In life La Boétie had urged Montaigne to adopt ancient models of virtue and strive to imitate them; in death he loomed too large in virtue to be imitated by Montaigne, who now found himself weak and irresolute. Finally, Montaigne discarded the entire idea of guidance by example. Who even knew which to choose among the variety of admirable types? Instead, Montaigne would write about himself as honestly as he could, in all of his fragmentation and changeableness, and thus hold to the truth for which he had initially rejected the world of false appearance.

  1. 1

    The classic study of Montaigne’s intellectual history, with much attention to his reading of ancient and other sources, is Pierre Villey, Les sources et l’évolution des Essais de Montaigne (2 vols.; Paris: Hachette, 1933). The standard biography is Donald M. Frame, Montaigne: A Biography (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965); Frame has also made a fine translation of Montaigne, used by Arthur Goldhammer in his translation of Starobinski’s book and in all citations from Montaigne in this review: The Complete Works of Montaigne (Stanford University Press, 1957). An excellent and well-rounded appreciation of the Essays is Richard A. Sayce, The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972). An erudite study in the tradition of intellectual history is M.A. Screech, Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays (London: Duckworth, 1983). The social and cultural background is given emphasis in Géralde Nakam, Les Essais de Montaigne, miroir et procès de leur temps. Témoignage historique et création littéraire (Paris: Nizet, 1984). Among the newer approaches are Margaret McGowan, Montaigne’s Deceits: The Art of Persuasion in the Essais (Temple University Press, 1974); Richard Regosin, The Matter of My Book: Montaigne’s Essais as The Book of the Self (University of California Press, 1977); Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1979); Lawrence D. Kritzman, Destruction/découverte: Le fonctionnement de la rhétorique dans les Essais de Montaigne (French Forum Publishers, 1980); Antoine Compagnon, Nous, Michel de Montaigne (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980); Robert Cottrell, Sexuality / Textuality: A Study of the Fabric of Montaigne’s Essais (Ohio University Press, 1981); Jules Brody, Lectures de Montaigne (French Forum Publishers, 1982); François Rigolot, Le texte de la renaissance des rhétoriqueurs à Montaigne (Geneva: Droz, 1982); and Gérard Defaux, ed., Montaigne: Essays in Reading, special issue of Yale French Studies, 64 (1983).

  2. 2

    Among Starobinski’s illuminating essays on approaches to criticism and his own critical practice are “La littérature. Le texte et l’interprète,” in Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora, eds., Faire de l’histoire (3 vols.; Paris: Gallimard, 1974), Vol. II, pp. 168–182; “On the Fundamental Gestures of Criticism,” New Literary History, 5 (Spring 1974), pp. 491–513; and “Criticism and Authority,” Daedalus, 106 (Summer 1977; special issue on “Discoveries and Interpretations: Studies in Contemporary Scholarship”), part 2, pp. 1–16.

  3. 3

    Gallimard, 1957; second edition, 1971.

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