Orienting on Emerson on Montaigne

I am interested in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne in two primary ways:  (1) I am interested in how Emerson understands Montaigne’s skepticism and (2) I am interested in what Emerson learns from Montaigne about how to write, in particular how to write essays.  Emerson says quite a lot, unsurprisingly, about the first; but he says only a little about the second, and that indirectly, by commenting on Montaigne’s style.  But I am convinced that there is quite a bit more to be said about the second question than Emerson himself says, perhaps more than Emerson himself could have said.  I also suspect that the answer to the first question itself sheds light on the answer to the second, since I suspect that the style Emerson learns from Montaigne can itself be described as a skeptical style.

I find Emerson’s style to be itself a puzzle.  That is one reason I hope for help from the Montaigne essay.  What is Emerson doing with words?  Cavell, of course, has quite a bit to say about that, and I may bring him into the discussion at needful moments.  Ultimately I hope to be able to say something about Emerson distinctive use of words, and about Montaigne’s too.

2 responses

  1. i’ve been reading a bit of montaigne (the ‘apology’) for my intro course. and though i’ve read other montaigne, even reread a bit, and gotten something of a feel for his style (particularly in its rhythms, and in the sorts of things with which he characteristically fills pages), i find i often have a hard time ‘seeing’ the style. instead i feel, i don’t know, confronted with an overwhelming amount of arbitrariness, not ordered to my benefit as a reader. which feels like a non-style. speed is a factor, i would guess; it’s a rare mood in which i can go slowly enough without having to force myself to do so – to read as if i were ruminating.

    at least with emerson, i feel there is no doubt – something (special) is going on with the style. (one could feel this even before getting the hang of it – and then just think that something’s obviously going on with the style, even if one can hardly fathom what, so that any given essay falls apart every three sentences or so, like cavell says somewhere.)

    • j., I think I understand both your reactions and that I share them–at least initially. Without trying to say much, it does seem that there is a craft at work in Emerson that can seem missing in Montaigne. I hope I can say something about that as the series of post develops.

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