Saturday, February 04, 2006

Between the Classical World and the New World

Working my way through The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, John O'Brien offers an essay, "Montaigne and Antiquity," in which he examines Montaigne's use of Plutarch and Seneca, the Latin poets, Plato and Aristotle, etc. Montaigne uses classical literature and thought both to support his own arguments (sometimes even by taking the original out of context and putting his own spin on it) and as a jumping off place for his own ideas. Here I learned that Montaigne's original essays were not written with paragraph breaks. The only breaks in the text were often quotes from the likes of Virgil and Ovid among others, making them stand out from the surrounding French and forcing the reader to stop and take notice. And so I find that in my reading of Montaigne I have done him a bit of a disservice by not always paying close attention to the Latin quotes. My translation breaks Montaigne into neat paragraphs for easy reading so when there is a break for a Latin quote (followed immediately by the English translation, since, unlike Sylvia, I am not ambitious enough to actually learn how to read Latin), the break is not very dramatic and at times felt like an intrusion on the main event. From O'Brien's essay I learn that there are scholars who read the original Latin texts that Montaigne did and then read Montaigne in his original French gaining for themselves an understanding of Montaigne's sources and his understanding of them as well as the playfulness with which he at times invokes them. I would love to be able to read Montaigne in French but I am one of those sad people who has no facility with language other than my native one and sometimes my skill with that one is questionable. After four years of Spanish and frequent visits to Mexico you'd think something would have stuck. Likewise with three years of German and a German-speaking nextdoor neighbor. I took a semester of French once and feel very lucky to have gotten out alive. So it is unfortunate that I discovered the bibliography at the end of the book and see that the majority of Montaigne related books and essays happen to be in French. Drat. O'Brien's essay on antiquity goes along quite nicely with the essay that follows it by Tom Conley on Montaigne and the New World. The Americas were discovered before Montaigne but it wasn't until his time that they were really getting explored and the general European population was learning and reading about them. In a world that seems to grow smaller everyday, it is hard to imagine what the discovery of the Americas meant to Europe. Conley suggests that for people like Montaigne the New World showed them the gaps in biblical and classical texts and forced them to question their world view. Conley suggests that the discovery and exploration of the New World gave Montaigne the opportunity to question classical thought, European culture, particularly French culture and politics, and his conception of self and his place in the world. He was able to connect the unknown out there to the unknown within. So Montaigne ends up nicely positioned between the classical past and the New World future in which he often finds the supposedly civilized Europeans more barbarous than the cannibal barbarians of the Americas. He understands that the New World people have much to teach the people of the Old World if only they would pay attention. Too bad they found the gold more important.