Saturday, March 06, 2004

An Assay

My dear sister gave me a gift certificate last April for my birthday and one of the books I got was The Complete Essays of Michel De Montaigne translated by M.A. Screech (what a wonderful surname of someone whose occupation is words!). I was hot to have Montaigne's essays then. The package arrived with another couple of books in it and they all promptly went on the shelves and were forgotten. But for some reason lately I have been thinking about Montaigne again (probably sparked by a passing reference in a magazine or book). This morning I pulled the 1269 page book from my shelf intent on reading at least one essay. And of course, where should the hefty tome fall open to but "On Books." I did not immediately delve in, however. I had never read Montaigne before so began the introduction to first learn a bit about the man. A word about introductions to "classic" works, they are generally too long and would serve the reader better as an appendix or and afterward (afterword?). What I want in an introduction is not a full analysis of a book I haven't read yet, this does me no good since I don't know what the heck the introducer is talking about. What I want in an introduction is a brief biographical outline of the author I am about to read with a bit about the author's influences, a little history of the book and only a tiny hint of one or two of the more important aspects of the book I am about to read. I have read introductions that assume because the book is a classic it is fine to tell you, the reader who has not read it before, that the main character who is loved by all dies tragically in the end. While it is likely that I have a general idea of the plot of the story before reading it, I don't want to know how it ends! Have a little respect here for the reader. Not everyone, including English majors, has read Anna Karenina or Tess of the D'Ubervilles, nor is everyone reading the book a student, so don't give it away! Save discussion of the ending and of the book's meaning, themes and other in depth details until after I have finished reading when the end will not be spoiled and the rest will make more sense. All this to say I read about ten pages of the introduction before I declared, "Enough already!" and flipped to "On Books." But before I get to the essay itself, let me say I learned where the word "essay" came from. Montaigne (1533-1592), as you may or may not know, is considered the father/founder/inventor/originator of the personal essay as we know it. Before Montaigne people didn't spend much time writing about themselves. So for Montaigne the "essays" were "'tentative attempts' to 'assay' the value of himself, his nature, his habits and his own opinions and those of others--a hunt for truth, personality and a knowledge of humanity through exploration of his own reactions to his reading, his travels, his public and private experience in peace and in Civil War, in health and in sickness." Montaigne declared "I am myself the matter of my book." But his study is not a study of himself as subject, but an "assay" of himself by himself (assay, Middle English, from Old French essai, assai: an analysis or examination; an attempt, an essay; to examine by trial or experiment, put to a test; to evaluate, assess). Interesting, ,oui? The essay "On Books" made me laugh, nod in agreement, exclaim. It is not the standard high school five-paragraph essay nor is it the longer college-type essay with a clear introduction containing a thesis, a middle argument and a concluding end. Montaigne sort of rambles into his topic first by saying that he loves to use thoughts and ideas and quotes from others but not attribute them because then he can laugh if his readers flog him for an idea that is not his but Plutarch's or Seneca's instead. Because he doesn't often cite his sources (obviously copyright law hadn't been invented yet) the editors at Penguin have been kind enough to footnote everything and to translate any Latin Montaigne glibly tosses off. But the notes and translations are well done and not overly intrusive. Montaigne claims he loves books but is not a scholar. He admits that if he gets tired of one book he will put it aside and seek out something more interesting, returning to the other book only when he finds himself "gripped by boredom at doing nothing." Montaigne may not be a scholar, but he certainly is a reader. The remainder of the essay consists of Montaigne telling us what kinds of books he likes and why. He likes books that give him "plain delight" like Boccaccio's Decameron and Rabelais, but says he has outgrown his childhood delight of Ovid, having now an "aged and heavy soul." He also turns his gaze on poetry, philosophy and history. When discussing history books he takes a jab at the majority of historians who lie between the "simple" who present all the information and let readers come to their own conclusions, and the "outstanding" who are able to choose what is worth knowing. The ones in the middle are not to be trusted because they "bend history to their own ideas" and "take on the task of choosing what is worth knowing, often hiding from us some speech or private action which would have taught us more; they leave out things they find incredible because they do not understand them." Montaigne must have had a magic eight ball or something. In another part of the essay, Montaigne pokes fun at contemporary writers who take "three or four plots" from great long gone writers and jam them all into one story and "so burden themselves with matter" in their "lack of confidence in their ability to sustain themselves with their own graces: they need something solid to lean on; not having enough in themselves to captivate us they want the story to detain us." Who hasn't been stuck in a book like that? What I liked best about the essay is Montaigne's seeming sense of not taking himself seriously. You know that he does, but he comes across as so humble and unassuming and charming. And even though the books he talks about are all what we would consider "the ancients," the essay has a very modern feel and sensibility. Reading a Montaigne essay, I can't help but compare his essay style with the style that has evolved. In some places it has become too personal (think Reader's Digest and many "women's" magazines). And in others has turned into a more formal kind of animal (think school, think newspapers and "important" magazines). When I was in grad school I had the opportunity to teach a class that is the bane of every student--Freshman Composition, or Expository Writing 101. Every semester for two years I worked hard at trying to inspire the students to write at least one decent essay that broke free from five-paragraph prison. Some learned to fly while others could only manage a crawl. But even among the ones who flew, if they ever turned in an essay like Montaigne's I would have marked it up. Where is your thesis? What is the point? Where is your conclusion? The class was meant to prepare students for writing in their chosen discipline those formal term papers no one ever likes to write. But thinking back now, what benefit was there for the students in this; to foster in them creative thinking but to squash the creativity out of their writing. Perhaps encouraging 17, 18 and 19 year olds to write essays like Montaigne would have been a disaster, but I wish I had known enough then and been brave enough to at least give it a try and at the very least ask them to read a Montaigne essay or two. I plan to read more of Montaigne, to work my way through all of the essays. I hope you don't mind and will bear with me if I share them with you here. I will attempt one a week and will try to let you know ahead of time what it might be in case you'd like to read it too.