Sunday, February 28, 2016

`Neither a Pedant Nor a Bigot'

“He got rid of the go-cart of prejudice and affectation, with the learned lumber that follows at their heels, because he could do without them.”                                

The most endangered of writerly species is the non-aligned, non-beholden amateur (in the etymological sense), who claims no status as an expert on anything. Environmental factors don’t put him in jeopardy; rather, self-sabotage, a condition brought on by inordinate hunger for approval, threatens him with extinction. Only by stamping Nihil obstat on the orthodoxies of the age does he buy another day of life in print. 

“In taking up his pen, he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind in its naked simplicity and force, that he thought anyways worth communicating.  He did not, in the abstract character of an author, undertake to say all that could be said upon a subject, but what in his capacity as an enquirer after truth he happened to know about it.”                      

The essential phrase is “enquirer after truth.” To enquire is to question unconditionally, without a priori qualifications, accepting that the answer may be unpleasant, incomplete or nonexistent. We attempt, we try, we essay, as did the man who gave us the word and invented the form, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, born on this date, Feb. 28, in 1533. The passages about Montaigne quoted above are from “On the Periodical Essayists” (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819), by one of his wayward students, William Hazlitt, who continues:

“He was neither a pedant nor a bigot. He neither supposed that he was bound to know all things, nor that all things were bound to conform to what he had fancied or would have them to be. In treating of men and manners, he spoke of them as he found them, not according to preconceived notions and abstract dogmas; and he began by teaching us what he himself was.” 

What is most bracing about his Montaigne is his casual audacity, the way he tries on ideas the way some of us try on neckties. His curiosity and indifference to appearing foolish usually trump his desire to please his readers or flatter himself. He is uncommonly common-sensical. He even had the prescience to illuminate the current race for the U.S. presidency, in “Of the power of the imagination” (trans. Donald Frame): 

“A woman, thinking she had swallowed a pin with her bread, was screaming in agony as though she had an unbearable pain in her throat, where she thought she felt it stuck; but because externally there was neither swelling nor alteration, a smart man, judging that it was only a fancy and notion derived from some bit of bread that had scratched her when it went down, made her vomit, and, on the sly, tossed a crooked pin into what she threw up. The woman, thinking she had thrown it up, felt herself suddenly relieved of her pain.”

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