EYE ON EUROPE
MONTAIGNE RISES AGAIN
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
An artist's depiction of the tower
at the Montaigne chateau,
where the great writer worked.
The great Montaigne
still haunts his chateau
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
The stone walls of his study have not changed for 800 years. The stairs are worn with grooves from millions of footsteps over the centuries. The windows are open to the elements. But Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the man who invented the modern essay, spent much of his life in this room thinking, reading and writing. A visitor senses his ghostly presence and wonders how he kept warm.
He would pace the room for hours, glancing at the exposed ceiling beams where he had inscribed quotations from his favorite writers, said Alicia Bourdin, manager of Chateau de Montaigne Historic Site, my guide for a recent visit to his estate near Bordeaux. He found them inspirational.
He liked to take breaks and oversee his workers from this position, Ms. Bourdin said. He was a man of small stature, below average even for those days. This perch gave him a height advantage. Even when out surveying his domain, he stayed on his horse all day to compensate for being so short. Montaignes tiny bed, on display in an adjoining room, indeed seemed sized for a child.
Ms. Bourdin pointed to a spot on the beams where four epigrams from the ancient Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus are written, and they sum up Montaignes basic humility:
I decide nothing. I understand nothing. "I suspend judgment. I examine.
I was drawn to the chateau by the current revival of interest in Montaignes writings. The chateau itself burned down and was rebuilt to a different design in the 19th century. It is now privately owned and occupied. But the nearby tower, topped by the study, remains a point of curiosity for Montaigne fans. The tower dates from the 13th century but Montaignes father acquired the property and the noble title in the 1500s.
French publishers have long nurtured Montaignes works, lately slicing and dicing his prose in slim volumes for the television generation.
For more determined readers, the publication last year of a 1,975-page volume, the complete Essais plus 800 pages of explanations, indexes and commentary was a cultural event in France when it appeared. I asked for it in a Bordeaux bookshop last week and a salesgirl happily climbed a ladder to pluck it off a high shelf. I watched agape, struggling to concentrate on Montaignes lofty ideas.
Eventually she clambered back down to earth and handed me this beautifully printed book, its off-white paper stock, its elegant typeface and its biblical binding. I was tempted to add it to my library. Finally I declined, recalling that I am tying to cut back. She returned to the ladder to put it back as I watched.
Several new publications by English-language Montaigne specialists are also attracting attention. Prof. Terence Cave of the University of Oxford recently brought out How to Read Montaigne. The latest, The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaignes Essais, by Prof. Lawrence Kritzman of Dartmouth College, is due out in September.
The late Orson Welles once called Montaigne The best writer who ever lived.
How does a thinker from the 1500s keep his momentum going? Montaigne is a very modern writer, Prof. Kritzman told me in a long talk by telephone from New Hampshire last week. He anticipated many of the issues discussed today by critical thinkers. Among those are gender identity, physical beauty, laws and how they change, the meaning of language, and what it means to lead a good life.
Prof. Kritzman pointed out that Montaigne lifted taboos on many touchy subjects--fear of impotence, a frank discussion of sexuality, the meaning of existence, and how to deal with death. Modern essayists from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Roland Barthes owe him a debt of gratitude.
Montaigne could be erudite but he could also be witty, as in his description of the best marriage: A blind woman and a deaf husband. Or warning that whoever is weak of memory should not try being a liar. Or contrasting university rectors to happy laborers and concluding, I would like to be more like the laborers.
I believe he also invented gallows humor, citing in one essay wisecracks from men about to be strung up. One refused to sip from the same cup as the hangman, fearful of unknown disease. Another directed the death wagon to take a longer route to avoid a shop where he owed money. Yet another, offered freedom if he would marry one of the village spinsters, declined. She limps, he said. The trap door was sprung and the spinster presumably limped off homeward.
The 107 Essais, written over an intense eight-year period, established a new literary form--introspective reflections on a range of subjects from cosmic to the commonplace. His writings were an extension of the intellectual bond he had with writer Etienne de la Boëtie, who died suddenly at 32, leaving him adrift.
He retired to the family chateau and resorted to inner dialogue, coining the term Essai (from the Latin exagium, the act of weighing), to continue the development of his ideas. He called it, The dialogue of the mind with itself. Others have called it a collection of letters to a friend. Had la Boëtie lived, the essays might never have been written.
As a child, Montaigne was taught to speak Latin as his first language, highly unusual in a world of rapidly changing French and local Gascon. Even servants were ordered to speak only in Latin when within his hearing. Added to his classical Greek later in life, the result was an easy fluency for access to great works of the Romans and Greeks. He amassed a huge library for his era, numbering about 1,000 volumes, 200 of which survive in the Bordeaux Municipal Library.
In his wide reading he filtered out the best of Pliny, Cicero, Seneca, Xenephon, Plato, Socrates, Sextus Empiricus and others, interspersing their best lines within his essays.
Prof. Kritzman recalls being told early in his career that he would begin to grasp Montaigne only as he aged. I think that is true, he says now.
Writing in a recent Times Literary Supplement in London, Oxford Prof. Ian MacLean seems to agree. He noted that Montaignes writings can move jerkily as in thought processes, to communicate their vehemence, irony, playfulness or immediacy. But, he concluded, it is well worth expending the diligence that Montaigne required of his reader.
©2008 by Michael Johnson. This column first posted May 19, 2008.
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