Jun 16th 2008

The Great Montaigne still Haunts his Chateau

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

BORDEAUX-- The windows are open to the elements. The stone walls have not changed for 800 years. The stairs are worn with grooves from millions of footsteps over the centuries. But Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the man who invented the modern essay, spent much of his life in this small, gloomy room thinking, reading and writing. A visitor senses his ghostly presence and wonders how he kept warm.

"He would pace for hours, glancing at the exposed ceiling beams where he had inscribed quotations from his favorite writers," said Alicia Bourdin, manager of Chateau de Montaigne Historic Site, my guide for a recent visit to his estate near Bordeaux. "He found them inspirational."

Ms. Bourdin pointed to a spot on the beams where four epigrams from the ancient Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus are written, and they sum up Montaigne's searching mental state:

"I decide nothing." "I understand nothing." I suspend judgment.\#52#I examine.\#48#MsoNormal\#43#MsoNormal\#40#c1">The chateau itself burned down and was rebuilt to a different design in the 19th century. It is now privately owned and occupied. But the nearby tower, topped by the study, has magnetic power for Montaigne fans. The tower dates from the 13th century but Montaigne's father acquired the property and the noble title in the 1500s.

I was drawn to the chateau by the current revival of interest in Montaigne's writings. The late film director and fan of the classics Orson Welles once called Montaigne "The best writer who ever lived", and readers have a wider choice of Montaigne extracts with each passing year.

French publishers have long looted Montaigne's works, now slicing and dicing his prose in slim volumes for the television generation.

For more determined minds, the publication last year of a 1,975-page volume, the complete Essais plus 800 pages of explanations, indexes and commentary was a cultural event in France when it appeared. I tried to buy it at the chateau but it was not stocked there. A salesgirl told me where to find it but warned "Il vous coutera la peau des fesses!\#48#MsoNormal\#43#MsoNormal\#40#c1">Indeed, at a Bordeaux bookshop I found the beautifully printed book, its off-white paper stock, its elegant typeface and its biblical binding. I was tempted to add it to my library but decided against the 78 euro price tag.

Several new publications by English-language Montaigne specialists are also attracting attention. Prof. Terence Cave of Oxford University recently brought out "How to Read Montaigne". The latest, "The Fabulous Imagination: "On Montaigne's Essais", by Prof. Lawrence Kritzman of Dartmouth University, is due out in September.

How does a thinker from the 1500s keep his momentum going? Montaigne is a "very modern writer", Prof. Kritzman told me in a long talk by telephone from New Hampshire last week. "He anticipated many of the issues discussed today by critical thinkers." Among those are gender identity, physical beauty, laws and how they change, the meaning of language, and what it means to lead a good life.

Prof. Kritzman pointed out that Montaigne lifted taboos on many touchy subjects -- fear of impotence, lying, the meaning of existence, how to educate children, and how to deal with death. One of his classics discusses the pros and cons of keeping up conversation while having sex.

Modern essayists from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Roland Barthes, John Updike, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley owe him a debt of gratitude.

Montaigne could be erudite but he could also be witty, as in his description of the best marriage: Bring together "a blind woman and a deaf man." Or his warning that "whoever is weak of memory should not try being a liar." Or his contrast of university rectors to happy laborers and concluding, "I would like to be more like the laborers".

I believe he also invented gallows humor, citing in one essay wisecracks from men about to be strung up. One refused to sip from the same cup as the hangman, fearful of unknown disease. Another directed the death wagon to take a longer route to avoid a shop where he owed money. Yet another was offered freedom if he would marry one of the village spinsters. He declined. "She limps," he said. The trap door was sprung and the spinster presumably limped off home alone.

The 107 Essais, written over an intense eight-year period, established a new literary form - introspective reflections on a range of subjects from cosmic to the commonplace. His writings were an extension of the intellectual bond he had with writer Etienne de la Boëtie, who died suddenly at 32, leaving him adrift.

He retired to the family chateau and resorted to inner dialogue, coining the term "Essai" (from the Latin exagium, the act of weighing), to continue the development of his ideas. He called it "the dialogue of the mind with itself". Others have called it a collection of letters to a friend. Had la Boëtie lived, the essays might never have been written.

As a child, Montaigne was taught to speak Latin as his first language, highly unusual in a world of rapidly changing French and local Gascon. Even servants were ordered to speak only in Latin when within his hearing. Added to his classical Greek later in life, the result was an easy fluency for access to great works of the Romans and Greeks. He amassed a huge library for his era, numbering about 1,000 volumes, 200 of which survive in the Bordeaux Municipal Library.

In his wide reading he filtered out the best of Pliny, Cicero, Seneca, Xenephon, Plato, Socrates, Sextus Empiricus and others, interspersing their best lines within his essays.

Prof. Kritzman recalls being told early in his career that he would begin to grasp Montaigne only as he aged. "I think that is true," he says now.

Writing in a recent Times Literary Supplement in London, Oxford Prof. Ian MacLean seems to agree. He noted that Montaigne's writings can move "jerkily" as in thought processes, to communicate their vehemence, irony, playfulness or immediacy. But, he concluded, it is "well worth expending the diligence that Montaigne required of his reader".


If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.
Apr 17th 2019
On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw. “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.” “This place leaves no one untouched. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in front of the burning monument. “We will rebuild,” said the Rector of Notre Dame, “we will rebuild.”
Apr 15th 2019
High-level political purges are gathering pace in Russia. The latest evidence came in late March, with the arrests of Mikhail Abyzov, a former minister for open government affairs, and – two days later – Viktor Ishayev, a former Far East minister and ex-governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Unsurprisingly, the arrests of such senior figures is having a chilling effect among the country’s elites. The authorities have now arrested or imprisoned three former federal government ministers and a supporting cast of regional officials
Apr 8th 2019
The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.
Apr 8th 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be on a roll. He has sent a rocket to the dark side of the moon, built artificial islands on contested reefs in the South China Sea, and recently enticed Italy to break ranks with its European partners and sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s unilateralist posture has reduced America’s soft power and influence. China’s economic performance over the past four decades has been truly impressive. It is now the main trading partner for more than a hundred countries compared to about half that number for the United States. Its economic growth has slowed, but its official 6% annual rate is more than twice the American rate. Conventional wisdom projects that China’s economy will surpass that of the US in size in the coming decade. Perhaps. But it is also possible that Xi has feet of clay.
Apr 2nd 2019
"......as prime minister, May called a snap election in the name of helping her deliver Brexit. She openly dismissed anyone opposing Brexit – which at the very least meant the 16.5m who had voted remain – as “playing games with politics”. In hock to the hardline Brexiteers within her own party, May pushed a for a version of Brexit that would make this small group of around 100 or so individuals happy, regardless of what millions out in the country thought."
Apr 1st 2019
The financial crisis occurred in 2008 because deficient regulation allowed huge risks to develop within the financial system itself. But the depth of the subsequent recession, and the long period of slow growth that followed, was the result not of continued financial system fragility, but of the excessive leverage in the real economy that had developed over the previous half-century. Between 1950 and 2007, advanced economies’ private-sector debt (households and companies) grew from 50% to 170% of GDP and adequate growth seemed attainable only if debt grew far more rapidly than nominal GDP. After the crisis, loan growth turned negative and remained depressed for many years, not because an impaired financial system lacked the capital to extend credit, but because overleveraged households and companies were determined to pay down debt even if interest rates were zero. The same pattern was observed in Japan in the 1990s.
Mar 28th 2019
The American people should have known that something was awry when President Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, announced on Friday, March 22, that he had received special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and would provide a summary of its findings to certain congressional leaders over the weekend. We should have asked: Why Barr’s summary and not Mueller’s? Presumably, Mueller had attached one to his report. It turned out there was a propagandistic reason for this unusual arrangement: Barr issued the best possible interpretation of Mueller’s report – from the president’s standpoint – including perhaps even a twist on what Mueller had said and intended. This allowed the president and his backers to propagate and celebrate what Mueller didn’t say: that the report’s conclusions were a “total exoneration” of Trump. In fact, even Barr’s brief summary, quoting Mueller’s report, said, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Mar 26th 2019
"The 2020 campaign could easily devolve into street violence at Trump’s instigation."
Mar 26th 2019


 

BEIJING – The global economy is weakening, in no small measure because of a deep, widespread sense of uncertainty. And a major source of that uncertainty is the ongoing Sino-American “trade war.”