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The Hidden Lesson of Montaigne

The art of the introduction is dying. It used to be that when you opened, say, a Penguin or Oxford classic you’d find a short, engaging tour d’horizon, quirky in the English style and focused on essentials. It predisposed you to give the author an even break. Today you bang your knee instead against belabored essays by scholars who think “foreground” and “background” are verbs. They lecture you on the narrow historical context they’ve banished the book to and its ordained place in the author’s development; then it’s on to mind-numbing debates about which manuscript or folio or annotated edition or critical commentary (their own) is to be preferred.

What they never tell you is why you should read the book. Doesn’t it occur to publishers that while this scholarly detritus may have a place in footnotes and appendices, it does not constitute an introduction, whose function is, well, to introduce? When any of us presents someone or something to another person, the first thing we try to convey is why he, she, or it might matter. You must try this, you must meet her. But apparently publishers have concluded that appeals to taste or pleasure or (why not) truth are bad for the college market, so we are left with these grim checkpoints guarding the border between the us and the author, protecting him from any embrace. I forbid my students to read them.

What a delight, then, to come upon Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, an engaging introduction to the life and thought of Michel de Montaigne, and a pleasure to read. Here is a writer whose love for her subject is so infectious that some readers might abandon her halfway through and plunge straight into the Essays. It is not the sort of introduction that would have been written a half-century or more ago, when it could be assumed that readers would be familiar with Montaigne and his place in the historical unfolding of European philosophy and literature.

Bakewell begins at ground zero, much as Montaigne did, without assuming anything more than that her readers have an interest in themselves and a desire to live well, which she addresses by cleverly organizing her book as a series of suggestions Montaigne makes for doing just that. (“Don’t worry about death,” “Give up control,” “Reflect on everything; regret nothing,” “Be ordinary and imperfect.”) She’s generous toward her subject, keeping herself out of sight and never dumbing him down, or dumbing him up into the kind of systematic philosopher he mocked. The connections she makes between his life and his thought are unforced, and her deft discussion of the historical background, especially the twists and turns of the Wars of Religion, is as detailed as it needs to be but not more. She is an excellent guide for first-time readers of the Essays today.

Why today? Because her Montaigne is so congenial to contemporary tastes. We live in a self-revealing age that prefers memoirs to fiction or poetry (unless they are confessional), reality shows to imaginative dramas, and “friend”-ship mediated through a public website to the companionship of conversation. People who agonize about this blame the “me generation” or mass culture, but Bakewell is right to point instead to Montaigne as the figure who first made self-exposure a legitimate and even fashionable activity. This did not endear him to the Catholic Church after his death, and it rattled nineteenth-century English publishers, who brought out suitably bowdlerized editions “purged of anything distressing or confusing” to the female sex.

But who today can fail to be charmed by a book, especially a five-hundred-year-old one, that begins:

This book was written in good faith, reader…. If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray.

And what follows is so wonderfully idiosyncratic and familiar at the same time that it’s hard not to believe this profession of transparency. When Montaigne tells us that he is lazy, inconstant, voluptuous, self-absorbed, diffident, something of a hypochondriac (he suffered terribly from kidney stones), and likes making love standing up, who are we to doubt him? And don’t we have similar faults and fears and quirks? The reaction of the British journalist Bernard Levin to the Essays is typical of readers over the centuries: “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ‘How did he know all that about me?’” And Bakewell’s response to that question is equally typical: “The answer, of course, is that he knows it by knowing about himself.”

That answer, though, begs a more interesting question. Why did Montaigne think we needed self-knowledge, and what would it mean to have it? Socrates and Saint Augustine gave very different reasons for thinking that self-knowledge brings happiness, but what they both meant was knowledge of the human condition—of what it is to be a soul in a body in time. Bakewell’s Montaigne is after something different, which is knowledge of his particularity. It is by knowing what distinguishes me from others, not what I share with them, that I attain a useful enlightenment for the never-ending process of self-fashioning.

It is a common view today, at least among literature scholars of a certain bent, that for Montaigne the basic point of the Essays was simply to have written them, to have created a mental and literary space where, as Bakewell puts it, he “questioned himself again and again, and built up a picture of himself—a self-portrait in constant motion.” In writing, Montaigne became himself, and all he urges on his readers is to do the same—to become themselves. The most he has to teach us is that we are only what we make of ourselves, that we are perpetually in flux, that we cannot look to others as models, that no one can take a bath for you. All of which means that, in the end, Montaigne’s lifework has “no great meaning, no point to make, no arguments to advance. It does not have designs on you; you can do as you please with it.” And what reader today will be sorry to hear that?

But is this Montaigne? I don’t really think so. The great value of How to Live is that it will get people reading him again, acquaint them with his life and times, and give them a foretaste of what the essays, taken independently of each other, have to offer. But those readers who then step back and ask themselves what holds the Essays together, and what Montaigne’s deeper intentions were, will start to suspect that there is more to this extraordinary project than Bakewell lets on. They will especially start to question whether she’s made the right assumption in taking Montaigne and his professions of transparency at face value. For if ever there was a book that had designs on its readers, it is the Essays.

Anyone who reads that work slowly and straight through, an exercise I recommend, will be struck by how much energy Montaigne expends trying to convince us how little energy his book cost him. He wants us to take it as a kind of inner dictation, the unedited transcript of his thoughts as they moved randomly from seemingly banal subjects (“Of Thumbs”), to the writers and statesmen of antiquity, over to the latest travelogue of distant lands, and then back to himself, his habits, his defects, his digestion. This is, of course, impossible. Even someone who can’t afford psychoanalysis and only keeps a journal knows that all streams of consciousness are composed, and certainly a course of self-examination like Montaigne’s, which lasted a lifetime and was then rendered into artful, disarming prose, is a masterpiece of composition, not a chronicle of spontaneity. But Montaigne is determined that we ignore this.

It’s crucial that we do, otherwise we might begin to doubt that he is presenting himself “in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion.” We need to forget that there is no better way to hide yourself than to say you are revealing yourself. When a sensible girl hears a young man say, “Look, I’ve got to be honest with you,” she steels herself for the coming lie. She is rarely wrong. Readers need to be just as cautious with authors who say they are baring their breasts, and Montaigne’s most penetrating readers always have been. That other master of deception through confession, Rousseau, knew one when he saw one: “I place Montaigne foremost among those dissemblers who mean to deceive by telling the truth. He portrays himself with defects, but he gives himself only lovable ones.” T.S. Eliot, though resistant to Montaigne’s allure, or perhaps for that very reason, appreciated his cunning:

Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences; or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.

When I play with my cat, Montaigne famously wondered, how can I be sure she’s not just playing with me? The same might be asked of Montaigne the author. Once we get past the charming anecdotes and reveries, essay after essay turns out to be darker and more paradoxical than it seemed at first blush, and about much more than Michel de Montaigne. But you must stay alert to see what he is doing—and not doing. For instance, Bakewell seriously misleads her readers when she says that “the Essays has nothing to say about most Christian ideas,” as if silence about certain things isn’t sometimes the loudest way to speak. And what are we to make of the remark that Montaigne shows no interest in Jesus Christ, that “he writes about the noble deaths of Socrates and Cato, but does not think to mention the crucifixion alongside them”?

Let me submit that the Essays, which Montaigne began the year of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and finished while his Catholic and Protestant neighbors in Bordeaux were still slitting each other’s throats, are about little else but Christian ideas, and that it’s unlikely that the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord and Savior slipped his mind. Countless tales he tells mock Christian ideals, though they are prudently set in ancient or foreign settings.

Instead of expressing his disgust with Christian martyrdom—and, implicitly, the crucifixion—he tells us about the Sicilian father who killed his daughters to keep them from marauding Turks, the Portuguese Jews who threw their children into a well rather than let them be converted, the Roman wives who killed themselves when their husbands fell out of favor, and the men of Astapa, Spain, who burned to death everyone in their besieged city, then threw themselves onto the pyre. And instead of attacking directly the cruelty of monastic self-discipline, he dismisses as futile similar efforts by unnamed “Stoics,” of whom there were only an educated handful at his time. Montaigne’s contemporary readers would have had no trouble discerning the real target of these stories, and certainly the Catholic Church didn’t. It placed the Essays on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1676 and didn’t remove them until 1854.

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