Friday, November 19, 2010

`Like a Philosopher and Friend'

“I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics.”

In a blindfold test, this might be mistaken for the confessions of a solipsist, the sort of self-absorbed twit for whom “blog” is a four-letter word for “me.” In fact it comes from “Of Experience,” Montaigne’s final essay, and thus illustrates the fine line dividing ego and art, self-centeredness and self-knowledge. When reading a flannel-mouthed blogger or blog-commenter who proclaims himself a lineal descendent of the man who defined essai and, in the process, what it means to be human, my respect for our bottomless delusional capacity is renewed.

Montaigne mingles friendliness, the promise of good company, with an implied indifference to the reactions he elicits in readers. He seeks neither to make us love him, as a sycophant might, nor to gratuitously offend us with contrariness – two strategies common among writers with niggling gifts. He is gracious but never cloyingly ingratiating, and his self-confidence seldom turns cocky. He’s too preoccupied with the task at hand – tracing the nature of his nature in sentences reflecting every illumination and blind alley – to fret over “audience.” This is where Sarah Bakewell goes wrong, in How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer and in her posting on The Paris Review blog:

“There seems no end to the appeal of the essayist’s basic idea: that you can write spontaneously and ramblingly about yourself and your interests, and that the world will love you for it.”

Montaigne did not write “spontaneously and ramblingly.” His was not a Romantic or Beat temperament. He was an inveterate rewriter. His essays wander and digress with care and precision, unlike much of Bakewell’s book and post which are blemished with fuzziness. I enjoyed much of How to Live but found it frustrating because it could have been improved by more attention paid to the master’s lessons. When writing about himself, Montaigne is simultaneously writing about us, drawing general truths from particulars and giving the eerie impression of discovering who we are. The world “loving” him for it would have made no sense. Hazlitt limns Montaigne wonderfully in “On the Periodical Essayists”:

“He does not converse with us like a pedagogue with his pupil, whom he wishes to make as great a blockhead as himself, but like a philosopher and friend who has passed through life with thought and observation, and is willing to enable others to pass through it with pleasure and profit. A writer of this stamp, I confess, appears to me as much superior to a common bookworm, as a library of real books is superior to a mere book-case, painted and lettered on the outside with the names of celebrated works.”

Bakewell rightly praises Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and, among other heirs of Montaigne, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne and Laurence Sterne, but also lauds “the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris” – mediocrities all. Even worse, Bakewell betrays a remarkable depth of ignorance in referring to Samuel Johnson as “pompously classical.” As Johnson writes in The Rambler #137:

"Nothing has so exposed men of learning to contempt and ridicule as their ignorance of things which are known to all but themselves.”

1 comment:

Hydriotaphia said...

Browne for one was quite keen to be seen as NOT an indebted disciple of Montaigne writing-

In a peece of myne published long ago the learned Annotator/commentator hath paralleled many passages with other of Mountaignes essays, whereas to deale clearly, when I penned that peece I had never read 3 leaves of that Author & scarce more ever since.

But i do think you're being quite harsh in your judgment of Bakewell's interpretation. 'Pompously classical' seems quite an apt description of Johnson.