Saturday, May 21, 2005

Reading About Montaigne

I have not ditched Montaigne, neglected, yes, but not ditched. He is one of the books I'm juggling. For some reason I thought I'd just be able to breeze right through his 200 page essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" in a few days. Hah! I also had to contend with finishing Marcel Tetel's Montaigne because I had run through my allowed renewals and had to turn it back in to my public library. I had checked it out hoping that it would be more biography than criticism but was immediately disappointed. There were some bits of biography and history sprinkled throughout like the tidbit that the Essays was placed on the Index in 1676 and possibly as early as 1640 in Spain. (The Index, in case your history is a little rusty, is the Catholic Church's list of banned books.) I found that to be quite interesting because Montaigne considered himself a good Catholic. But I can see how his questioning and his tolerance (He believed that he had the fortune to be Catholic only because he was born in France. If he was born in the jungles of Borneo he would have happily followed a different religion.) I also managed to glean a better understanding about why Montaigne is so concerned with death and dying and suicide. His father had had kidney stones and suffered terribly before it killed him (that kidney stones used to kill people was a surprise for me). Montaigne was terrified that he too would get "the stone." And he did. Montaigne had his first attack of kidney stones in 1578. He died in 1592 but I have found no information about whether or not it was because of the kidney stones. I do know that in spite of all his contemplations of suicide, he did not kill himself. Aside from an interesting sentence here or an informative paragraph there, Tetel was dry and boring. The book was first published in 1974 (Tetel published a revised edition in 1990 but that is not the one my library owns). Once in a while he'd write something that would catch my attention and my drooping eyelids would flew open. Take, for instance when he was analyzing the structure of an essay:

On the surface, disorder seems to reign, but the apparent ramblings of a mind operating through associations in a stream-of-consciousness process, always controlled, attest to the organic unity of the essay. In other words, whatever is mentioned, far from being disparate, always has a bearing on the central theme further to illuminate it, like the spokes of a wheel converging toward the hub.
Two things that caught my attention here. First, the surface disorder, the rambling and the appearance of disparity. I have stopped in the middle of an essay many times wondering what in the world the example Montaigne just provided had to do with the topic under discussion. Sometimes it would be obvious, sometimes I gave up, deciding that Montiagne being the inventor of the essay could write whatever he wanted and couldn't be held to the clarity of purpose we expect today. But now it appears that I need to try harder on the more baffling ones. The second thing that caught my attention was the spoked wheel metaphor. That has been used before by another writer but I couldn't quite remember who--Wordsworth, Coleridge? Whitman maybe? I dashed downstairs to the library and pulled Major British Poets of the Romantic Period from the shelf. This is a hefty tome left over from college days. I searched. And found nothing. As for Whitman, all I have is a paperback copy of Leaves of Grass that has seen better days and contains no notations. I tried an internet search but of course it is too broad. I am probably mis-remembering anyway and even if I did find it, it most likely would have no bearing on Montaigne. Still, if it rings a bell for you, let me know. My favorite thing Tetel said is less a reflection of Montaigne but more of an observation of writers (emphasis added):
In Montaigne's case, the very act of writing about himself, of setting himself apart from others, of publishing himself his so-called self-portrait and confessions already casts some shadows on any claim to modesty. Indeed, modesty belongs only to those who do not write.
That was good for a chuckle. Enough of Tetel. He is now back on a shelf, gathering dust until another unsuspecting person calls him forth. I have very high hopes for the The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne which I plan on acquiring sometime next month. In the meantime it's back to the Essays themselves and my hope that maybe next week I'll be done with "An Apology for Raymond Sebond."