Sunday, January 25, 2015

`No Ink in the World, or No Blood in His Flesh'

“`...your self is always evolving,’ says Desan. `He doesn’t believe in the frozen self. ... As Montaigne tells you, what I say today is different from what I say tomorrow. But that does not mean that what I say tomorrow is better than what I say today.’” 

Such a rarity, a French-born academic who gets Montaigne. Speaking is Philippe Desan, a professor in Romance languages and literature at the University of Chicago and general editor of Montaigne Studies. His audience is a class of students at the Center in Paris, the University of Chicago’s base in Europe. The writer, Carrie Golus, notes: 

Of the 108 essays Montaigne wrote during his life—`As Montaigne tells you,’ says Desan, `he will only stop when there will be no ink in the world, or no blood in his flesh’—the students were assigned four for today’s class, `To the Reader,’ `Of Books,’ `Of Giving the Lie,’ and his final work, `Of Experience.’” 

In darker moments, I weaken and come to suspect that the essay as a form has been all downhill since Montaigne invented it in the sixteenth century. I can’t think of another literary form that started at so high a level of accomplishment (I know, I know, Plutarch, Seneca and Yoshida Kenkō are wonderful, but something else entirely). But for three or four conspicuous exceptions, the essay today when not brain-dead is prostituted. Sad that a form so elastic, so accommodating of varied gifts, so perfectly expressive of the human species, is permitted to rot from within. Of course, progress of any sort is always a flattering fallacy. Montaigne writes in “Of Books” (trans. Donald Frame): 

“If this book wearies me, I take up another; and I apply myself to it only at moments when the boredom of doing nothing begins to grip me. I do not take much to modern books, because the ancient ones seem to me fuller and stronger.” 

As Desan says of Montaigne, “He doesn’t believe in the frozen self.” He writes as our contemporary and as the contemporary of Plutarch and Seneca. Never chaotic, never arbitrary in the flow of his thought, Montaigne’s prose mirrors his sensibility. The membrane between books and life, his and ours, is highly permeable. Writing in 1918 in his journal, The Gray Notebook (New York Review Books, 2013), the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981) observes: 

“I never tire of reading Montaigne’s Essays. I spend hours and hours with them at night in bed. They have a calming, sedative effect and usher in a delightful rest. Montaigne’s wit almost never runs dry; he is endlessly full of surprises. One source of surprise derives from Montaigne’s precise estimation of the insignificant position man occupies on earth.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

You key into an important debate. People of a scientistic (not scientific) hue, far from believing in the frozen self go far beyond Montaigne to assert that there is no continuity at all in the human self. They will even assert that it is ridiculous to give credence to legal contracts as there is no such thing as a continuous person. Thus the legal basis of our society is eroded.

Such is the pass to which the erosion of the human person by scientism has come. No free will, no moral responsibility etc etc