Montaigne

I was all set to write a post on Gaudy Night, but I’m just not sure I have it in me tonight.  Soon, though, I’ll write on the book.  For now, I thought I’d give you some of my favorite quotations I’ve come across so far in my Montaigne reading (I’ve read 30 out of 107 essays so far).  The best parts of Montaigne are when he’s writing about himself or his essays.  Here is his explanation for why he started to write:

Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.

But I find — “Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind” — that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

I find this description completely and thoroughly plausible, and I’m certain if I ever were to live in retirement with nothing to do but follow the twists and turns of my mind, my mind would give birth to “chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” as well.  Nothing sounds more hellish to me than living in isolation with my own mind, in fact.  Montaigne’s brilliant move, of course, is to make something great and beautiful out of that isolation.

The following self-description really resonates with me:

I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments.  Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do.  The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself …. This, too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgment.

I love Montaigne’s very strong sense of his changeability; he makes me feel a little less crazy that there is very little I feel I can confidently say about myself.  He makes me feel better about my faulty memory, too:

There is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory.  I can hardly find a trace of it in myself: I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!  All my other endowments are mean and ordinary: but I think that, where memory is concerned, I am most singular and rare, worthy of both name and reputation!

I have a bit of trouble believing that his memory is quite so bad, though …  here he strikes a similar note:

I can see — better than anyone else — that these writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge — even that was during his childhood — and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it: a little about everything and nothing about anything, in the French style.

These are very self-deprecating passages, and yet I never get the sense that Montaigne is being falsely modest or that he doesn’t fully believe what he is saying, however exaggerated it seems. He really believes his memory is awful and his writings are like ignorant ravings.  But I trust him to describe his good qualities accurately as well without worrying whether he is sounding boastful.  I’m not sure there’s another writer who can capture the reader’s trust quite like Montaigne does.  It’s passages like these that will make you trust him:

…whatever these futilities of mine may be, I have no intention of hiding them, any more than I would a bald and grizzled portrait of myself just because the artist had painted not a perfect face but my own.  Anyway these are my humours, my opinions: I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed.  My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me.  I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed.  I feel too badly taught to teach others.

Reading this passage, I come to trust Montaigne — and to fall in love with his writing.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

12 responses to “Montaigne

  1. I so love Montaigne! I always forget what a great sense of humor he has and he usually directs it at himself. His isolation and his lack of learning are gratly exaggerated, but I don’t fault him for playing humble. It makes him more endearing.

  2. I’m afraid I really don’t know much about Montaigne–only that he was an essayist. For someone writing so long ago (I had to look up his birth and death dates), he is certainly accessible. I will have to try some of his essays (I’m sure he must be in the Lopate book). Thanks for sharing those quotes.

    • What a wonderful post–I haven’t read Montaigne since college, and since “I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is,” I don’t remember enough to know that I should read more. Now I do–thanks!

  3. zhiv

    Nice post. You’ve been holding out on us: you’ve read 30 essays and this is your first post? Unless I missed something–

    The retreat to idleness and contemplation makes me think of meditation, but he didn’t have a system, apparently, to achieve real calmness of mind. And it sounds like his goal was really to go off and write essays… that would firmly establish him as a timeless literary classic, so there’s that.

    I don’t know much about Montaigne, except that his father’s educational system made it so that no one spoke anything but Latin to him until he was 5 years old, or something like that. I love that story, and I’m guessing that he must have remembered some Latin.

    Please tell us more!

  4. That final quotation (except maybe the last sentence) ought to stand as a banner above the blogworld! What lovely quotes you’ve chosen from his work, Dorothy. As I may have mentioned elsewhere, I never got on with Montaigne at all when I read him, but you do make me curious as to why I didn’t, and what obstacle got in the way.

  5. verbivore

    I suspect I love Montaigne for his honesty, like you I don’t think he was being falsely modest, but genuinely interested in cataloguing his failings and what he felt he actually understood. He was such a careful writer, too, wanting to make sure he noted an experience as accurately as possible.

  6. I am not familiar with Montaigne, but his honesty and humbleness is so appealing! I love: “where I seek myself, I cannot find myself…” So very true!

  7. Stefanie — he IS funny and so entertaining. I’m so grateful he wrote what he did because basically the whole genre of the personal essay owes its existence to him, and what a wonderful genre it is!

    Danielle — he is in the Lopate book, and the essays in there are really great. I definitely recommend giving them a read when you get a chance. He’s very accessible and his writing feels very modern (at times at least). I first read him in a college class and I’m very grateful for it, because otherwise, I might not have read him myself. That class (on the personal essay) changed my reading habits entirely.

    Jane — he’s definitely worth reading more in, especially if you enjoyed him in college. What got such a great personality and writing style — so unique and so charming.

    Zhiv — no, this is the first time I’ve posted on Montaigne. I kept meaning to, and yet other posts got in the way. The truth is, though, I think his best essays are yet to come — he gets more personal and kind of finds his stride as he goes along. A lot of the early essays are on subjects such as warfare and politics and they have their merits, but they aren’t his best work. The story about speaking only Latin until he was 6 is true (he describes it in his essay “On Educating Children”). He says his father offered him a great education, but he was too lazy to do much with it and his “failure” is not his father’s fault. He says he has nothing to show for his education — as soon as he went to school, his flawless Latin got corrupted, he never recovered, and eventually he lost it entirely. Obviously, though, he has much to show for his education … I think you might like Montaigne, Zhiv; he has such a wonderfully open, adventurous, wandering style — you never know where you’re going in his best work.

    Litlove — now that’s an excellent idea; after I finish writing this comment, I’m going to put that quotation up on my blog permanently! Perhaps you read the wrong essays? At the wrong time? I love Montaigne so much it’s hard for me to believe not everyone could, given the right circumstances — but that’s just me being a little extreme! :)

    Verbivore — exactly. I admire that impulse to get it exactly right, no matter if it involves saying bad or boastful things about oneself. I’m sure, in fact, that there are passages that sound as boastful as the ones I quoted sound self-deprecating. The point is to be truthful, no matter what.

    Debby — there are so many things he says that ring true, and his honesty IS very appealing. I’m looking forward to reading and posting on him more.

  8. It seems a necessary condition for knowledgeable people to be aware of their shortcomings and lack pride in their strengths. People who believe they know so much already, are rarely driven to put effort into learning more. People who accurately assess that they know much, but there is a vastness of things yet unknown, seem to be more inclined to probe out what that expanse of things needing to be understood.

    Ditto everyone else on your selection of quotes!!!

  9. Funny. Another friend of mine just finished reading Montaigne and suggested I’d probably like him. Reading the quotes you’ve chosen here, I’m guessing he’s right.

  10. adevotedreader

    I’ve read a few of Montaigne’s essays, and enjoyed them immensely. I love his self-deprecation and gentle humour.

    I especially like “Only fools have made up their minds and are certain.” and “that confessing an error which he discovers in his own argument even when he alone has noticed it is an act of justice and integrity, which are the main qualities he pursues; stubbornness and encourage are vulgar qualities, visible in common souls whereas to think again, to change one’s mind and to give up a bad case in the heat of the argument are rare qualities showing strength and wisdom.”

    I’m thankful for the reminder of Montaigne’s appeal, and must try to read the rest of his essays this year.

  11. Bikkuri — I think you’re absolutely right. I like it when people can talk about their strengths without boasting and without getting all awkward about it. It’s a sign that somebody has some insight.

    Emily — I think you’d like him too. Unless you turn into a huge fan, you might want the selected essays rather than the complete essays (which is hundreds of pages long), as not all of the essays are so interesting, but really, he’s a wonderful writer and I think a great model for anyone wanting to write personal essays of any sort.

    Devotedreader — those are fabulous quotations! He’s so insightful and has such great wisdom. I hope you enjoy the rest of his essays if you do decide to read them.

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