Who was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne? Was he a French nobleman, mayor of Bordeaux, who lived from 1533 to 1592? Was he the author of Essais, a collection of 107 “tries,” “experiments,” or “tastes” of understanding? Was he Shakespeare’s inspiration for the character of Hamlet, immobilized by his constant weighing back and forth of options? Was he listed on the Index of Prohibited Books from 1676 to 1854 because the Essais attributed too many feelings and understandings to animals? Has he been the touchstone for writers as divergent as Descartes, Pascal, Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, T. S. Eliot [“Of all authors, he is the least destructible”], and Helene Cixous? Or, on a more mercenary note, is he the antidote to the dull, formulaic writing of standardized testing in American academic institutions in the twenty-first century? Montaigne writes in “On Repentance”:
I cannot fix my subject. He is always restless, and reels with a natural intoxication. I catch him here, as he is at the moment when I turn my attention to him. I do not portray his being; I portray his passage; not a passage from one age to another or, as the common people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must suit my story to the hour, for soon I may change, not only by chance but also by intention. It is a record of various and variable occurrences, an account of thoughts that are unsettled and, as chance will have it, at times contradictory, either because I am then another self, or because I approach my subject under different circumstances and with other considerations. Hence it is that I may well contradict myself, but the truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. Could my mind find a firm footing, I should not be making essays, but coming to conclusions; it is, however, always in its apprenticeship and on trial. (235)
What Montaigne seems to invite us to do, then, is to take as many looks at him as we want. Montaigne is who he is right now, the moment I give my attention to him. At this particular moment, two authors have written new books that essai, or try, to fix their object on the most moving of movable targets. Shouldn’t a writer who revealed everything be easier to understand, rather than harder? Perhaps that is why Montaigne is difficult, for in looking at him we see ourselves.
The first such look is Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, Or, A Life of Montaigne (Other Press 2010). Bakewell writes, “The idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official, and winegrower who lived in the Perigord area of southwestern France from 1533 to 1592” (3). For Bakewell, the starting point in looking at Montaigne is his political and economic position of advantage. As a politician, landowner, and winemaker, Montaigne had the means to spend twenty years examining his thoughts. But, according to Bakewell, Montaigne was different because “Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements. Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events, although he could have…; he lived through a religious civil war which almost destroyed his country over the decades he spent incubating and writing his book” (3).
In Saul Frampton’s When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing With Me?: Montaigne and Being In Touch With Life (Pantheon 2011), Montaigne is a survivor, a recent victim of two great losses in his life, the death of his father and the death of his best friend, Etienne de La Boétie in 1563. According to Frampton, “La Boétie influenced the Essays in a number of important ways. He left Montaigne his books and papers, which served as the foundation of his library. He provided a Stoic model to which Montaigne initially attempted to adhere, and his death created an absence that Montaigne attempted to fill with writing. He says that he would have preferred to write letters rather than essays, yet lacked an addressee: ‘For I cannot talk to the wind’” (28).
The two books could not differ more regarding the exigencies that led to Montaigne’s Essais. For Frampton, Montaigne’s dissatisfaction with Stoic resolve led him to seek writing as an alternative, but he found the straightforward dispositio form inadequate. “In his essay ‘Of Friendship’, begun a few years after his letter was first published, and nearly ten years after La Boétie’s death, Montaigne refers to the ‘faint and forceless’ discourses that ‘stern antiquity have left concerning this subject.’”(36–37). For Bakewell, the Essais spring more extemporaneously than for Frampton. “This is why Montaigne’s book flows as it does: it follows its author’s stream of consciousness without attempting to pause or dam it. A typical page of the Essais is a sequence of meanders, bends, and divergences. You have to let yourself be carried along, hoping not to capsize each time a change of direction throws you off balance” (Bakewell 35). Bakewell’s Montaigne is fascinated by his experiences because they might help him to answer life’s bigger questions. She writes, “They rarely explain or teach anything. Montaigne presents himself as someone who jotted down whatever was going through his head when he picked up his pen, capturing encounters and states of mind as they happened. He used the experiences as the basis for asking himself questions, above all the big question that fascinated him as it did many of his contemporaries. Although it is not quite grammatical in English, it can be phrased in three simple words: ‘How to live?’” (4)
Bakewell’s Montaigne is the philosophical skeptic, vacillating between the two great philosophical theories of the day, Epicureanism and Stoicism. Frampton’s Montaigne is influenced not by philosophy but by death, and, in a very real way, the failure of philosophy to create an all-encompassing system by which one may live one’s life. While for Bakewell, Montaigne is saved through his questioning, Frampton’s Montaigne is more human than human, a man who examines his bowel movements and his smells. I like Bakewell’s Montaigne, the urbane philosopher, the man of the world. For Frampton, Montaigne was not of or from the world, he was in it. “My book and I proceed in agreement,” Montaigne writes. While most scholars agree that Montaigne’s purpose in writing was not to provide an objective correlative of events, few go so far as to claim that Montaigne’s writing was not meant to be correlative at all, objective or not. Writing about experience is the experience. While for Bakewell, “surviving love and loss” is just one of the attempts to answer the question “How to live?” for Frampton it is the exigency that led Montaigne to write in the first place.
Frampton’s book is titled, When I am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know That She is Not Playing With Me?, but it is Bakewell who helps us understand why this sentence is so important. Bakewell connects this sentence to why the Essais were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books for almost two hundred years.
This seemingly casual remark proposes a shocking idea: that we may be cut off by our very nature from seeing things as they are. A human’s being’s perspective may not merely be prone to occasional error, but limited by definition, in exactly the way we normally (and arrogantly) presume [an animal’s] intelligence to be. Only someone with an exceptional ability to escape his immediate point of view could entertain such an idea, and this was precisely Montaigne’s talent: being able to slip out from behind his eyes so as to gaze back upon himself with Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment. Even the original skeptics never went so far. They doubted everything around them, but they did not usually consider how implicated their innermost souls were in the general uncertainty. Montaigne did, all the time. (Bakewell 129)
While Montaigne’s musings on the animal world seemed innocuous at first, they eventually were recognized as a challenge to the religious and scientific authorities of the seventeenth century. While the history of Descartes’s frustration with Montaigne is well documented, Bakewell brings the conflict into a new focus. Montaigne’s easy familiarity with the animal world compels Descartes to make distinctions and categorization. “Montaigne’s animal stories and his debunking of human pretensions would prove particularly irksome to two of the greatest writers of the new era: Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal.... Descartes was interested in animals mainly as a contrast to human beings. Humans have a conscious, immaterial mind; they can reflect on their own experience, and say ‘I think.’ Animals cannot” (136). Without Cartesian classification and division, the academic world could not operate as it does today: fields of study, universities and colleges, deans and department chairs, even student majors are all influenced by this impulse. But as Frampton writes, “Montaigne, by contrast, operates with an older, less cutting-edge, yet perhaps more venerable intellectual instinct: that of proximity. Rather than defining and dividing things, Montaigne wants to bring them together, get near to them, close to them, not least to himself” (9). For Montaigne, there was a space where the mind did not have to be divided, and that space could be accessed through writing. As I’m typing this review, I have four screens open on my computer: my personal email, my university email, my Facebook account, and this review. I have opened several “selves,” but they all operate within simultaneous proximity. Bakewell seems to understand the implications of the Essais and Montaigne’s concept of proximity for the net culture of today. “Having created a new genre by writing in this way, Montaigne created essais: his new term for it. Today, the word essay falls with a dull thud. It reminds many people of the exercises imposed at school or college to test knowledge of the reading list: reworkings of other writers’ arguments with a boring introduction and a facile conclusion stuck into each end like two forks in a corncob. Discourses of that sort existed in Montaigne’s day, but essais did not. Essayer, in French, means simply to try. To essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl” (8). As I shift among my own personal emails to my family, my directions to my students, my inside jokes and memories with my friends, and my scholarly writing, these changes of direction are not unlike the drawing together of self and experience that Montaigne practiced 431 years ago. Trying to analyze why Montaigne wrote the way he did is as slippery as trying to understand the man himself. According to Bakewell, “The changes of direction are partly explained by this questioning attitude, and partly by his having written the book over twenty years.... Revising earlier drafts of the Essays over and over again, he added material as it occurred to him, and made no attempt to box it into an artificial consistency. Within the space of a few lines, we might meet Montaigne as a young man, then as an old man with one foot in the grave, and then again as a middle-aged mayor bowed down by responsibilities” (36).
One such writer who weighs the balance on the side of Montaigne’s questioning attitude is composition scholar Paul Heilker, who claims that Montaigne offers students in composition a corrective to the thesis-driven, formulaic papers of standardized testing, which, while they call themselves essays, are in fact, the opposite of what an essay can/should be. “Following his meticulous undoing of the classical dispositio form, Montaigne developed a different method of arrangement for his new manner of writing; one he claimed was ‘accidental’ and based on ‘fortune.’ Perhaps as a result of their radical departure from the expected norms of rhetorical composition, these texts did strike their author as being ordered purely by chance” (22). The reason for using the Essais as a form for writing in today’s classroom is that they offer a corrective to the view that a student’s knowledge is stable, has always been stable, and will always be stable. According to Heilker, the five-paragraph essay, thesis-support form, is as limiting for writing about the complicated issues that students find themselves researching as a haiku would be for all of poetry, and thus, the writing forms promoted by standardized testing do not allow for the changing nature of knowledge. “Montaigne’s epistemological skepticism required a textual form based on the ‘posture’ or position of the writer/knower, which must necessarily and perpetually change over time as he explores and confronts an unstable reality, which must necessarily and perpetually change over time in search of truth or knowledge, which must necessarily and perpetually change over time” (Heilker 28). The issues that students write about are larger than what they can write about in one paper, for one class, for one semester, for one year, of a brief period of their lives called “college.” Since the essai does not claim to have this kind of authority, essais provide students with an “honest” genre regarding the nature of knowledge and its creation.
But Thomas Newkirk urges readers to remember that the Essais were composed and revised over twenty years. Newkirk believes that we should take Montaigne’s claim… “I cannot fix my object; `tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness: I take it as it is at the instant I consider it…” much more literally than readers usually do. Montaigne composed three distinct versions of the Essais between 1571 and his death in 1592: the original version published in 1580, a revision published in 1588, and a third version, published by Marie de Gournay and poet Pierre de Brach three years after his death, based on Montaigne’s handwritten comments in the margins. The fluid, often contradictory, style of the work is due more to do this ongoing revision process than to the skeptical stance emphasized by Heilker. Newkirk writes, “Montaigne is more commonly cited by compositionists (for example, Heilker; Newkirk; Spellmeyer) as an exemplar and advocate for the open, digressive, exploratory form of essay writing, often placed in opposition to the closed, agonistic, thesis-driven versions of the essay promoted in schools and universities. There often seems an element of projection, even wish-fulfillment, in [composition scholars’] construction of Montaigne who, so we imagine, led an ideal writerly life—freed from the constraints of fixed genres, with time for contemplation, and serenely indifferent to the material realities of publication” (300). Bakewell likely would see Newkirk’s attention to “wish fulfillment” not as a failing, but consistent with a long line of typical responses to Montaigne. For Newkirk, writers who see Montaigne’s digressions outside of the extensive revisions are misreading Montaigne. “An examination of Montaigne’s  additions allows readers to more reliably imagine him as a writer and to view the essays as texts constructed over time” (300).
But even as he argues for this more “reliable” reading, it is difficult for Newkirk to sustain his claim. Reading all the revisions taken together “allows readers to recover the asymmetry between the experience of reading and the activity of writing, although it is tempting to imagine a synchronization between Montaigne’s exploratory composing process and our movement along with him—that reader and writer are dancing together” (Newkirk 300). Perhaps what is happening to Newkirk here is close to what Bakewell describes as the relationship between Montaigne and his readers: “Mostly it remains a two person encounter between writer and reader. But sidelong chat goes on among the readers too; consciously or not, each generation approaches Montaigne with expectations derived from its contemporaries and predecessors. As the story goes on, the scene becomes more crowded. It turns from a private dinner party to a great lively banquet, with Montaigne as an unwitting master of ceremonies” (9).
For several years now, I’ve been trying Montaigne with students, measuring their reactions, recording their responses, watching a new generation react to the Mayor of Bordeaux. The following are three recent student reactions to reading and writing about Montaigne: The first example is what I normally get, that the Essais are drastically different from the reading to which they are accustomed, “I didn’t get a nice little package from Montaigne with a thesis, some main points, and a conclusion.” The second example demonstrates how this disorientation can help students make connections to the Essais and the writing that they already do in other social contexts, “He is so scatter-brained; he jumps from one thing to another, although they do relate, it just keeps me thinking how he started talking about that. It reminds me of myself talking to a friend. We will begin on one subject and end up on a totally different one.” And the third example demonstrates how students see this difficulty as having generative benefits, “I put key to page and on the third try I am able to type my name, a good sign, but not what I was hoping for after an hour of searching and tinkering. My essay and I proceeded in agreement, that this would not be an essay at all but an experiment in typing and a lesson in organization.”
As much as I enjoy reading student writing on Montaigne, I eventually realized that I had only been looking at Montaigne through the eyes of others myself: through Heilker, through Newkirk, through my students, and now through Bakewell and Frampton. So this summer I turned my own attention to Montaigne. After reading Bakewell’s realist portrait and Frampton’s more cubist approach, I thought my experience reading a 1580 copy at the Houghton Library at Harvard University would be more like Frampton’s. I thought the pages would be deteriorating, the binding tattered. It wasn’t. It was jet black leather with gold tipped pages and looked more like a Franklin Library edition of the Essais than a relic from the sixteenth century. It was official, important. It suggested that it be taken seriously. As I started reading the original French, I felt the weight of his “warning” more acutely. This section is most often translated as “This, reader, is an honest book. It warns you at the outset that my sole purpose in writing has been a private and domestic one. I have had no thought of serving you or my own fame; such a plan would be beyond my powers” (Cohen 24). But this time the “warning” was more palpable than before. If we see ourselves in Montaigne, who is it that we are looking at? Do we see Bakewell’s version of ourselves or Frampton’s? Why is looking at Montaigne so compelling? Perhaps because of what he wrote in “On Friendship,” about his friendship with La Boétie, “If I were pressed to say why I love him, I feel that my only reply could be: ‘Because it was him. Because it was me.’” (97).
James P. Beasley is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Florida.
Sarah Bakewell. How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne. New York: Other Press, 2010.
Saul Frampton. When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing With Me? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life. New York: Pantheon, 2011.
Heilker, Paul. The Essay: Theory and Pedagogy for an Active Form. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essais de messier Michel seignevr de Montaigne, chevalier de l’Ordre du roy. Houghton Library, Harvard University. 1580.
_____. Essays. J. M. Cohen, trans. London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Newkirk, Thomas. “Montaigne’s Revisions.” Rhetoric Review. 24:3 (2005) 298–315.