Some Underdeveloped Thoughts on Montaigne’s Style

What should be said about the way Montaigne writes?  He writes essays–as he says, if his mind could gain a firm footing, he would not make essays, he would make decisions, but his mind is always in apprenticeship and on trial.  On apprenticeship and on trial:  what Montaigne says of his mind I apply to his words.  His words are on apprenticeship and on trial.  His words are apprenticed to his subject, they are on trial by their use.  The question is:  will this word do?  Do what it needs to do, stand the test it must stand, carry the burden it must carry.  Above all, his words must portray passing, not being.  They must be capable of illumining the moment of obligation in experience, where ‘moment’ means both a brief period of time and an important point in a course of development.  But they must be able to do so in a way that does not make of the moment of obligation anything that steps free of the experience, that steps free of time.  Even the moment of obligation in experience passes.  So his words must be chosen in such a way that they do not arrest time or run from it.

One of the deepest peculiarities of Montaigne’s essays is that they too pass in time, in his time and in the reader’s time.  Consider the way in which most essays are organized spatially and not temporally, even where on occasion their logico-rhetorical form is temporal.  Most essays are written in such a way that the entire essay is to be understood as ultimately present to the reader’s mind all at once, in a timeless present, as it were.  The introduction to the essay is not earlier than the body, or the body earlier than the conclusion; no, the introduction is above the body, which in turn is above the conclusion.  Although it may take the reader time to work from top to bottom, all the parts of the essay are compresent, and understanding it means coming to hold all its parts together in compresence, in what Augustine might have called the present of the present, available to one contemporary summary observation.  But Montaigne’s essays pass.  The introduction become the past of the body which becomes the past of the conclusion.  Each part jettisons the earlier part, takes its place in the present.  The essay is thus not available to observation, but instead to memory, where it is still not present all at once, but rather passes in review.

Now I should say that I am not venturing into the metaphysics of composition or of reading here.  Instead I am picturing two different processes and two different understandings of composition and reading.  The crucial idea is that the parts of Montaigne’s essays replace each other, they do not exist together with the other parts.  That does not mean that the earlier parts do not bear on the later, but rather that they bear on the later parts in a different way.  Montaigne changes as he writes the essay.  Sometimes he intends to change; sometimes he just does.  And the moment of obligation in his experience changes too.  So what he writes now may not agree or harmonize with what he wrote earlier.  But since what he is presently writing supplants what he wrote earlier, he sees no reason to treat the disagreement as vitiating the essay.  The essay may contradict or be in tension with itself but it does not contradict and is not in tension with the truth.  The conclusion of his essay concludes the essay but it is not a conclusion in the logical sense.  The essay starts and ends but its beginning is not a function of its ending in any argumentative sense, although the beginning and the ending are thematically united, united by subject.

The essay I have been leaning on as I have written this is Montaigne’s “Of Repentance”.  I have been leaning particularly on its opening paragraphs.  That essay’s title provides a way of focusing what I have been struggling to say.  Montaigne’s words are always in apprenticeship and trial.  Because of this, Montaigne writes so as not to have to repent for his essays:  He does not teach, he tells. He tells us what he sees as he sees it.  What Montaigne tells now may contradict what he told earlier, or at any rate may not chime perfectly with it, but what he tells now never contradicts him–he remains always in creative fidelity to himself.  He also remains in creative fidelity to the relevant moment of obligation in experience.  But he does not worry about remaining in creative fidelity with what he has already told; that is, in an important sense, gone.  He did his best with it as he does with what he is telling, but he is no longer responsible to it.

Spending time trying to unify a Montaigne essay wastes time.  If an essay is out of agreement with itself, then it is.  There is no deeper unity.  But that does not mean that each essay is out of agreement with itself.  It may be that the later parts of the essay are such that, although they do not follow from the earlier, they follow the earlier, in the sense that they progressively enrich and deepen the creative fidelity of Montaigne’s treatment of himself and of his subject.

Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary.  The world is but a perennial movement.  All things in it are in constant motion–the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt–both with the common motion and with their own.  Stability itself is nothing more than a languid motion.

5 responses

  1. in northrop frye’s scheme in ‘anatomy of criticism’, predominantly spatial rather than temporal organization would be classed as a predominance of ‘opsis’ (‘the spectacular or visible aspect of drama; the ideally visible or pictorial aspect of other literature’: one of his extreme examples is plato’s use of (logical) diagrams like the line and the cave, as somehow being in concordance with the ‘ideally visible’ structure of thought induced by plato’s prose) as compared to the element of ‘melos’ (‘the rhythm, movement, and sound of words; the aspect of literature which is analogous to music, and often shows some actual relation to it’).

    frye does mean ‘melos’ to name a range of values rather than a specifically ‘musical’ one, but i find it interesting to think that, if asked, i would say montaigne’s prose is EXTREMELY unmusical in that extended sense. perhaps that has something to do with the sort of temporality his style has, or with the sense in trying to discover or establish unities in it?

      • when i delve into prose-poetics in roughly this period i usually run into the distinction between ‘ciceronian prose’ (or style) and… the other one, which i always forget the name of. i think it was a common trope among humanists or the sorts of people who would have been waging an ‘ancients and moderns’ conflict? i wonder if montaigne touches on it anywhere.

      • I don’t recall. Two fun things in this connection are Erasmus’ On Copia of Words and Ideas, as well as the contemporary, wonderful apologia for amplitudio, Alexander Theroux’s, Theroux Metaphrastes. Theroux rates Montaigne a fellow traveller.

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