Friday, August 03, 2018

'Successful Introspection'

A lovely sentence I want to quote for its own sake:

“Montaigne requires an afternoon light, and a mind content with the private life, with reason and nature and good sense.”

Without context, the grammar is fuzzy. Does Montaigne require those things or do we require them in order to read his Essays satisfactorily? The latter, I think, given the preceding sentences in George Edward Woodberry’s essay “Montaigne” (Literary Essays, 1920):

“Though the herald of the modern age, Montaigne was deeply implicated in the past, in what man has been. In the Essays one finds the lees of antiquity, and somewhat the lees of life; it is the book of an old mind, of an old man, of a retirement from the world; to read it justly, the reader must have lived.”

Woodberry (1855-1930) was an English poet and critic with unfortunate timing. His work hasn’t survived the corrosive arrival of Modernism. He was a nineteenth-century man, heir to Romanticism. He favored Shelley, Emerson and Poe. He was born the year Leaves of Grass was published and died the year of Vile Bodies, and I probably won’t pursue his other work. But he wrote that irregularly iambic sentence, with echoes of Henry James (“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language”) and Emily Dickinson, and that’s more than most writers ever do. It’s beautiful. (I think of critics who knock Ralph Ellison for publishing one novel -- one of our best.) I copied it into a notebook and let it marinade for a couple of days.

Why “afternoon”? In Houston in summer, afternoon sunlight is stark and blinding. Perhaps an English summer is more muted. But that’s probably being too literal. “Afternoon” is just right, as is the rest of the sentence. Read Montaigne contentedly, best in quiet and solitude (how do people read in coffee shops?), as Montaigne wrote in his tower. “Content with the private life”: once mayor of Bordeaux, Montaigne retired. His life was no longer public. Now he turned the lens inward.     
In 1983, Guy Davenport wrote the introduction to a reissue by North Point Press of Montaigne’s Travel Journal, later collected in Every Force Evolves a Form (1987). In it he writes: “We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.”

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