Reading “Reading Montaigne” 2

A few more preliminary matters.

I had the good fortune, a few weeks ago while in Bordeaux, to visit Montaigne’s Chateau.  I have venerated the man and his work for many years.  That I visited while taking part in a small conference devoted to Thompson Clarke’s “The Legacy of Skepticism”, and so a conference devoted more broadly to the problem of skepticism, made the visit reverberate existentially even more than it would have.  I guess you could say I was vulnerable to the call of Montaigne in a way I was unprepared for, even though I was excited to go and expected the visit to be meaningful.

At one point I stood in Montaigne’s library, described by him in considerable detail late in “The Kinds of Association”.  The library’s ceiling was openly crosshatched by large, rough beams, into which Montaigne had carved his favorite sayings in Greek and Latin.  The first beam in the central section of the ceiling bore, “Per omnia vanitas”, the second, “Quantum est in rebus inane” (the title of this blog).  I hardly exaggerate when I say that this blog began in Montaigne’s library, as I stood beneath those beams to take a photograph.  Various seeds of ideas I have carried a long time, many planted long ago by my teacher, Lewis White Beck, during countless mornings over coffee, watered by Thompson Clarke and the conference, were given the increase by Montaigne and his library.  I am still—obviously—working to find a way to say something about what began growing that day and am still jealously guarding its continued growth.  It is always dangerous to speak, to write, too early:  but sometimes speaking, writing, is itself necessary to find your way to what you have in you to say.  (Don’t folks talk to plants to make them grow?)

A Montaigne essay is a field of interest.  (Emerson learnt this from Montaigne.)  It is a field of interest in which he participates disinterestedly.  The field of interest has a focal object (now concrete, now abstract), and Montaigne writes out of an intent absorption in that object.  It is Montaigne’s profound interest in the focal object that makes possible his disinterestedness.  This is crucial.  So often the focal object of Montaigne’s field of interest is himself; that does not forestall disinterestedness.  Montaigne drives his essays forward by means of a sustained willingness to re-encounter his focal object; one look does not suffice, he vets first impressions.  The instinct authority of the focal object obliges his experience—but the focal object does not reveal itself fully or declare the whole of its authority at any single moment of experience.  Montaigne will suffer contradiction or the appearance of contradiction rather than to disoblige his experience.  All this makes writing about Montaigne hard.  He writes what he writes where and when (in the essay) he writes it, addressed to whatever his focal object happens to be.  Quoted outside of that essayistic location, outside of that address to the focal object, what Montaigne has written is not clearly what he has written.  Sentence after sentence seems designed for citation.  But it is unclear any can survive it.  The fish that glinted multipotently beneath the water, in rainbow extravagance, is in one sense the same fish that lies in bleak grey contortion on the wet deck.  But is it in every sense the same fish?  (Emerson will push this phenomenon of quotable unquotability even further in his own way, as will Cavell in his own, different way.)

3 responses

  1. I look forward to reading your posts on Montaigne. I recently completed a project where I wrote 107 essays in 107 days on Montaigne’s topics. I think the solution to his quotable unquotability is to maintain his context as best possible and to track his changing viewpoints. My essays can be found at

  2. i just began Montaigne’s essays yesterday, in a serious way. In the past I have only leafed through. I am wanting to read Bakewell’s book, have you read it?

    glad to hear someone else enjoys Montaigne

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