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".


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