Montaigne as Survivalist



Eric Mader



My trade and my art is living.



Lecteur, ceci est un livre de bonne Foy.  If I remember correctly, and I believe I do, this is the way the Russian occultist Mme Blavatsky quoted Montaigne as an epigraph to her Isis Unveiled.  I believe none of the editions of the Essais had the first sentence quite like this, but for Blavatsky that wasn't all that important.  Mme Blavatsky wrote massive, wandering works in very short periods of time, of which Isis Unveiled is a good example.  One moved from one thing to another: the soul, the afterlife, occult powers of metals, the reality of ghosts, the lost Book of Books, the cycles of reincarnation--all this in the first hundred pages.  

     Mme Blavatsky sets the stage for my own wayward reading of Montaigne, just as Montaigne's "[Warning] to the Reader" (my translation of Au lecteur) set the stage for Blavatsky's rambling.  Montaigne became much more interesting to me when I noticed how actively he was engaged in a particular part of the art of writing, one I feel is often important in our consideration of literary texts: the survivalist part.  The arts of textual survivalism are not often enough raised to the level of discussion.  I've always thought the best answer to Sartre's title "Why write?" was found not in his text under that title, but in his autobiography The Words.  In The Words Sartre explains that if he had ever suspected as a youth that the human world could end someday, he would never have begun writing.  If the world were to end, he explains, there would be no one left for him to occupy.  As a youth, Sartre apparently became interested in writing because writing was a means of preserving his identity through a sort of viral/textual occupation of the reader.  His texts--in other words, Sartre himself--would proliferate on the bookshelves of the libraries of the world: he would be safe because, through readers, he could live on.  But if the human world were to end, no more Sartre.  I believe we have a similar case with Montaigne, and I believe such cases ought to be discussed in a forthright way: we are dealing here with writing, with text, understood as a means of survival of the self; we are dealing with a kind of textual survivalism. 

     I have Montaigne's Essais right next to me here.  If we are to take Montaigne's word for it, he himself has weathered at least four centuries to get here, because it is he himself that is made present in his book, and it is to him I have been giving the gift of life for a month now.

     There is an obvious paradox in this assertion by Montaigne, and it is likely the first paradox the thoughtful reader encounters: Montaigne professes that his book is about himself, and yet not one of the essays is simply about him.  The longest essay is in fact about someone else, and many of the most interesting essays are about abstract states or conditions.  This leads Auerbach in Mimesis to give less attention to the personal, survivalist aspects of Montaigne's work (even though the passage he most closely looks at is the one in which Montaigne elaborates his "painting" metaphor), and to insist that Montaigne is writing about l'humaine condition.  (309)  One of our problems in discussing Montaigne lies precisely in the term "about" and its ambiguities.  One may of course use the term "about" as in the following sentence: "In the essay 'Of friendship,' Montaigne writes about his relationship with Étienne de la Boétie."  We usually use the "about" to discuss the manifest content of a piece of writing.  We may thus rewrite Auerbach's assertion thus:  "In writing the Essais, Montaigne wrote about l'humaine condition in order to write himself."  But is this much of a breakthrough in our understanding?

     Montaigne preserved himself for beyond-the-grave motion as best he could, as best as the technology of his period allowed.  Had Montaigne lived today, he may have sold his estate to pay for carefully freezing himself at death, in hopes of one day being revived.  Montaigne's project is a sort of sixteenth century version of gene mapping, freezing, or some kind of immortality cybernetics.  Montaigne's is a literary alchemy of the self.  The power of Jean Starobinski's book on Montaigne rests in his having focused attention on Montaigne's efforts to define a self that could be constructed and preserved in language.  My own thesis takes much from Starobinski, and I will be looking into how both Montaigne and language were modified in order to make this meld. 

     I will insist that Montaigne attempted to preserve his self through a series of intentional encounters with a wide variety of things: everything from thumbs to presumption to Virgil.  Montaigne was thus actively constructing the self in difference: in difference to the web of objects in the world of which he was part.  These encounters were not preserved on film or in fossil impressions, but in written text.  In sixteenth century France, of course, to be a mere writer was below Montaigne's social station.  But Montaigne felt a sort of "anxiety of influence" from his friend La Boétie (not to mention Plutarch and Seneca) and La Boétie was a soul "of the old stamp," an anachronism in other words.  I believe Montaigne was a man of "the new stamp," and I also believe he had at least an intuitive awareness of this.  Montaigne, facing the death of his friend of the old stamp, in a France still on the border of the old and the new, is thrown personally into an awareness of the movement of history, and must define himself in this movement, in this brief and transitional moment.  His father dies, and he himself is without an heir.  The latter fact throws him all the more violently onto the void of the future.  He is surrounded by liars and scoundrels, hearty and proud of their dishonesty.  He retreats into solitude and hatches the idea of writing.  This soon becomes a project of self-preservation: preservation against the uncertainty of what rages around him.  Montaigne's strategy for self-preservation is founded on his adoption of the following moves:

     1)  "Honesty," which makes him stand out against the background of liars around him, thus attracting necessary readers.  This is one of the main reasons for his "honesty." 

     2)  "Difference":  Montaigne defines himself as floating in a web of difference--different aspects of life, different problems, different and often contradictory ideas--and thus establishes the difficulty of determining his self.  He personally insinuates himself into his reader's being, and thus destabilizes his reader in turn, forcing the reader to stabilize his or her own being.  Because of the intimacy between Montaigne and his reader, the reader is pressured to stabilize Montaigne as well, as part of the project of engaging with him as reader.  (T.S. Eliot, struggling to get a grip on this slippery essayiste, ended by calling him "a poisonous gas," and went on to make the case for the superiority of Pascal.)  One does, for example, stabilize him historically in the very act of labeling him the first writer to actively destabilize himself.  As Montaigne was with La Boétie--two men in one soul--so he attempts to be with his reader, and is somewhat successful.  To engage Montaigne's portrait of his self, the reader must engage the indeterminacy of his own self: it is a project undertaken at the meeting of these two slippery selves.

     3) "Future readers":  This would be the totality of readings over time, or the fact that readings always change with time or place.  I think it is a mistake to say that Montaigne places the responsibility for unifying himself on his text.  He places it rather on his many readers, which is to say he places it on human beings, who will hopefully continue to raise him as an object of study and who will constantly re-decide who he is over the course of history.  The only necessary precondition for this is people who are able and willing to read his text, as reading always implies interpretation.  Montaigne's frequent flirtations with the reader, and his challenge that the reader decide who he is, pushes the reader to do it.  We serve Montaigne.  He thus throws himself over the collective movement of history, and occupies it like a virus, as all writers do, thought Montaigne does it more so than others.  If he cannot ensure a monolithic identity of virtue and public service in the turbulent and--according to him--particularly corrupt sixteenth century, he will establish a tenuous and disseminated one over the whole future.  But as Montaigne is a proud aristocrat, and not a fungus, he feels some shame for this attempt.

     I will move randomly through the Essais, treating them as a body rather than as separate works, in order to elaborate on these three tactics: "honesty"; "difference"; "future readers."  My focus is not what Montaigne writes about, but how he writes himself in the process of this varied writing about.



I. "Honesty"


As stated above, Montaigne uses honesty in order to distinguish himself from the liars and sycophants he claims are surrounding him.  This honesty, he claims, is part of his very essence, to the extent that he would probably endure great pain before being able to tell a lie.  "Truly I am not sure that I could bring myself to ward off even an evident and extreme danger by a shameless and solemn lie." (24)  Montaigne frequently expresses shame over his essays, however; presumably over their personal contents.  In the famous passage from the essay "Of idleness," in which Montaigne describes the originary experience which led to his writing, he even makes shame the goal of this writing.  He had returned to his estate in order to relax and "let [his] mind entertain itself in full idleness."  This relaxation brought forth not the repose he had hoped for, but rather "so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself." (21)

     How are we to read this combination in Montaigne of a pride in honesty and a shame for the manifestation of that honesty, a shame bound up in the very work?  This issue becomes more complicated when one begins to realize there is little in Montaigne of the truly monstrous as far as concerns his presented person (one may compare Montaigne's "montrousness" with that of Rabelais) and that in fact he acknowledges, already in the "[Warning] to the Reader," that he is not only an average man, but that he cannot even present himself "entire and wholly naked," as doing so would be offensive. (2)  Montaigne's honesty is thus undercut by a need to meet his audience halfway.  Language itself ensures this halfway aspect of Montaigne's honesty, because language is always already socially determined before any individual speaks it.  But these limitations of language, and the troubles Montaigne has in constructing himself in language, should not obscure the fact that Montaigne did not actually intend present the whole item, but rather engaged in a limited self-construction that could take on a social life of its own.  There is an interesting give-and-take here that sets this self-construction in motion.  Montaigne must attract his readers by advertising for a circus display of the monstrous--a scandalous tell-all.  This flirtation is already present in the Au lecteur, and shows up throughout the Essais, as when Montaigne asserts: "many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends to a bookseller's shop." (750)  The case in the Au lecteur is particularly enticing.  Montaigne, a Gascon aristocrat of some importance, writes to the public:


My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed.  Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

     Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject. (2)


Because of the tense and changing relationship of the public and the private in aristocratic life at the time, a situation made more extreme by the denunciations and secretiveness bred by the Counter-Reformation, such a statement by an important nobleman would do little but set readers immediately to reading what was going to be revealed.  Montaigne's "honesty" may be in line with his usual character, but here it functions not so much as an essence as it does as a selling point.  This discovery allows a more reasonable interpretation of Montaigne's shame.  Because the monsters are never really displayed, Montaigne is not really ashamed for their sake.  Rather, Montaigne is ashamed for having to resort to such an exposé of his "domestic and private" life in order to preserve himself in the public memory.  I hinted above that La Boétie's influence was crucial here.  Unlike La Boétie, Montaigne realized that the times did not favor a glorious name for the classically virtuous.  He realized that the virtuous would more likely be swindled out of existence.  Montaigne thus resorted to the honest, self-exposé method, which he knew would be successful to some extent, but on account of which he felt somewhat ashamed.  This, however, was not the only side to his particular shame. Since Montaigne never really gives the full exposé he promises, so he must also feel ashamed for not even living up to the promise of his flirtations.  He writes:


There is no description equal in difficulty, or certainly in usefulness, to the description of oneself.  Even so one must spruce up, even so one must present oneself in an orderly arrangement, if one would go out in public.  Now, I am constantly adorning myself, for I am constantly describing myself. (273)


The last sentence here can be read both as an observation on the limits of representation in language, and as an anxious acknowledgment of the tame and socialized nature of Montaigne's self-construction.  Throughout the Essais Montaigne uses what could be called "technical difficulties" as covers for his refusal to acknowledge the personal agenda of his project.



II. Difference


As biology has become more advanced, attention has moved away from describing organisms in terms of their individual characteristics, and has moved toward describing them in terms of the ecological niche they occupy.  An opossum is no longer just a marsupial with a pink tail, the female of which carries its young on its back, but is rather an organism that functions in a certain way in relation to the other organisms in its ecosystem.  This is what I have in mind when I suggest that Montaigne attempted to define himself in difference.  Montaigne had a sense of his identity as being founded in a web of relations with the things making up his niche.  As this particular niche existed over both space and time, and was both social and private, Montaigne's identity could only be defined in terms of all four of these realms.  This understanding of identity is perhaps one of the reasons Montaigne did not simply write an autobiography or memoirs, but made essais on a wide variety of topics.  It is also this understanding of identity that makes Montaigne particularly interesting for those engaged in postmodern criticism.

     The most compelling mental picture I've gotten of the Montaignesque self comes in Starobinski's Chapter 6:


What Montaigne conveys to us is not ever more minute detail about the vague reality that his mind seeks to grasp, but ever more ample views of a mind and a body preparing themselves for the act of understanding.  Here it may not be out of place to recall the notion of "muscular sense," or "proprioceptive sensibility" (Sherrington), terms used by physiologists to designate the way in which the body judges its posture by way of information about the state of contraction of various muscles. . . .  Self-knowledge, for Montaigne, is the "exquisite" proprioceptive sensation of the movement whereby he sets out in search of self-knowledge. (227)


Montaigne sets out in search of self-knowledge by looking to the world, by flexing his muscles in relation to the many things in the world.  He ensures the continued existence of his self by recording the original activity of these encounters.  He had already described the impossibility of attaining self-knowledge by allowing the mind to wander in itself.  Allow the mind to close in on itself, and it becomes as a horse running wild in the pasture. (21)  Already in this image of the horse (quoted above from "Of idleness") there is the exteriority of an outdoors.  The self is always present where one is not looking, or rather--and this is Montaigne's most developed realization--it is present in the margins and the means of the act of looking: it is always present in interpretation.  Montaigne will thus unify the mind in the collective results of an endless looking at everything.  "My book is always one," he writes.  And adds shortly after: "Myself now and myself a while ago are indeed two." (736)

     Montaigne has his own image for this method.  Describing a painter in his employment, Montaigne writes that he would "[choose] the best spot, the middle of each wall, to put a picture labored over with all his skill, and the empty space all around it he fills with grotesques, which are fantastic paintings whose only charm lies in their variety and strangeness."  Montaigne sees in this painter's method a reflection of his own: "I do indeed go along with my painter in this second point, but I fall short in the first and better part; for my ability does not go far enough for me to dare to undertake a rich, polished picture, formed according to art." (135)  What are these monsters if not manifestations of the unassimilable and unseen parts of the self--"chimeras and fantastic monsters"--that Montaigne wishes to capture?  At the focal point of Montaigne's gaze lies the object of contemplation, but this object is of minor importance: it is as a Rorschach blot.  In Montaigne's description of the object, in the complex movement of his language around and about the object, the true maker comes forth.  It is in his activity as interpreter of the myriad objects of the world that Montaigne hopes to find his self.  But he himself could never see that self--he was always different from it--and so it would have to suffice to preserve its motions in the register of his book.

     As we have seen above, Montaigne is locked in a double bind between the need to present himself as he is, and the need to make this presentation socially acceptable.  The necessary difference between Montaigne's public portrait and his private self is the site of the most tension in the Essais: a balance must be achieved, because a tilting too far either in the direction of the public or in the direction of the private would ruin the project.  It is in great measure this careful balance that establishes the muscular tension of Montaigne's style.

     In Montaigne's balancing act, he has a number of tricks he performs in order to keep the hooting and incredulity to a minimum.  Consider the following lines: "In modeling this figure upon myself, I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape.  Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones." (504)  Self-created social masks eventually become the real thing, if we are to believe Montaigne.  And not only has Montaigne's over-colorful self-portrait influenced the real man, but after his death the "original" colors will be gone for good, and the more colorful version will be all that's left.  Montaigne convinces himself that his private being has slowly fused with his public portrait, so that when the private being fades away there will be nothing lost.

     Another similar ruse, which I have quoted above, involves making the verbs to adorn [se parer] and to portray [se décrire] synonymous.  "Now, I am constantly adorning myself, for I am constantly describing myself."  (273)

     Over such bridges between public and private, Montagne attempts to ensure his continued private existence within the public realm.



III. Future readers


I feel it is too large a topic to develop here, but there would seem to be several interesting parallels between Montaigne's relationship with La Boétie and his desired relationship with the reader.  These parallels are at least worth mention.  I will raise the following facts for consideration, without attempting to follow up on them: 1) Montaigne, using a classical trope, claimed that La Boétie and he shared a common soul.  2) On his deathbed, La Boétie asked Montaigne to make a "place" for him, presumably the same sort of place Montaigne would later try to preserve for himself. (Starobinski, 46-47)   3) Montaigne tries to ensure this place for La Boétie by dispersing La Boétie's literary works among a number of readers.  4) Montaigne claims he knows La Boétie's true worth, while La Boétie's literary works can only be compared to "the bark and the leaves": "The true juice and marrow of his worth have followed him, and all we have left is the bark and the leaves." (Starobinski, 43)  For one, it is interesting to consider this "bark and leaves" metaphor in connection with Montaigne's fixation on "adorning" or "painting" himself.  But the crucial question seems to me: Are we being asked to take Montaigne's place the way Montaigne took La Boétie's?  La Boétie transferred to his friend Montaigne the responsibility of ensuring him a place, and Montaigne in turn seems to me to be transferring to his readers the responsibility of ensuring himself, Montaigne, a place.  But because we did not personally know him, Montaigne must do the impossible: he must ensure that we become "as one soul" with him.

     Writing is an excellent medium in which to do this, better, I would suggest, than film or audio.  When Wlad Godzich spoke here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently, he gave a good example of why this is so.  The first writing prevalent in ancient Greece was on funerary monuments.  The inscriptions would read something like: "I, Pandorus of Chalcis, son of So-and-so, the son of So-and-so, ruler over all these lands, am here laid to rest."  As the wayfarer read this aloud, Pandorus was suddenly disinterred and speaking in the wayfarer's very voice.  The personal pronoun "I" becomes the medium of a necromantic relationship with the Other in which the reader is implicated in the very instance of reading.

     Montaigne writes: "I speak to my paper as I speak to the first man I meet." (599)  This implies that in writing the Essais Montaigne amiably established the basis for conversation.  But as one reads this sentence, one is speaking Montaigne's side of the conversation.  One is voicing to one's self Montaigne's "I": "I speak to my paper as I speak to the first man I meet."  One reads these lines in the first person: one voices Montaigne's words as if one were speaking to the "first man [or woman]" one/he meets.  And as Montaigne is not present to hear the reader's responses, one may as well not say anything, but rather continue this "conversation" by reading the rest of the Essais, however many hundred pages that may be.  Montaigne, in the essay genre he invented, thus co-opts the reader as a vehicle for a self-presencing monologue.  One may say that this is to some extent the story of all writing, but it is particularly so with Montaigne.  Montaigne, after all, makes claims to conversationality, like the one quoted above; he makes claims to a lack of artifice, which is meant to put the reader off his guard and bring writer and reader closer.  Montaigne's essays constitute a prolonged wandering of his "I" undertaken through the reader's act of reading.  His project depends of this vehicular aspect of reading: the reader's reading as vehicle for Montaigne's own essaying forth.

     The reader speaks the "I" according to the movement of Montaigne's book.  As the wayfarer exhumed the voice of Pandorus of Chalcis, the reader exhumes the self of Montaigne, and does so in accordance with the magic formulae (the text) that Montaigne wove.  In fact if one does not perform this mass carefully, if one does not raise Montaigne in accordance with his Book, there will be hell to pay.  Montaigne will haunt you!


I leave nothing about me to be desired or guessed.  If people are to talk about me, I want it to be truly and justly.  I would willingly come back from the other world to give the lie to any man who portrayed me other than I was, even if it were to honor me. (751)


     As suggested above, the reader is further implicated in Montaigne's projects by the simple fact that Montaigne destabilizes the bases of the self, thus forcing the reader to question the bases of his or her own self even as she or he is in the process of questioning the bases of Montaigne's self.  This mutual destabilization establishes a union between the reader and Montaigne, a union that will in the end allow for a more complete evocation of Montaigne's self.





It has been a willful acquiescence to Montaigne's desires that has allowed me to give body to this paper.  This may suggest, contrary to my assertion in the last section, that one can in fact respond to Montaigne's voice, that one is not merely the receptacle and vehicle of an ongoing monologue.  But as I have pointed out, Montaigne puts the burden of fixing and maintaining his identity on the readers and interpreters of posterity, and in fixing him as a sixteenth century writer in search of future readers to fix and maintain him, I have remained in a circularity which has fixed and maintained him well.  As for questions concerning my ability, as a twentieth century American, to somehow "accurately" interpret a text from such a distant historical period, one may guess that Montaigne is content to have his identity continually redefined by the interpretive strategies and obsessions of each successive generation, that such a differential identity is the only kind that his conception of identity has ever supported in any case. It can only be the more beneficial to Montaigne, as far as concerns his being-in-the-twentieth-century, that this sort of identity is in line with our current biological and lingustic ideas.  I could conclude this essay by writing triumphantly: "Montaigne lives!"  But he himself has already said so on page one, in my epigraph.


(This paper was written in the spring of 1989 for Professor Jane Tylus' course "Constructions of the Self in Renaissance Literature" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.)



Works Cited


Auerbach, Erich.  Mimesis.  Trans. Willard R. Trask.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.


Montaigne, Michel de.  The Complete Essays of Montaigne.  Trans. Donald M. Frame.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 1965.


Starobinski, Jean.  Montaigne in Motion.  Trans. Arthur Goldhammer.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.








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