Tuesday, December 04, 2018

'Nothing Like Montaigne to Make Things Better'

We seldom know the lasting impact of our words. Something I wrote a long time ago has moved a young reader to read Montaigne for the first time, and I’m tempted to say my job is done. That’s the goal: introducing people to essential books while suggesting, even obliquely, that they avoid crap. Who else will do the job? Not schools, critics, most readers or the publishing industry, that’s for sure.

I admire Montaigne for his large, elastic, skeptical mind. In A Stroll with William James (1983), Jacques Barzun writes that it is “unnecessary to hold incompatible convictions cached in distant parts of the mind. This keeping a double set of books is technically called Fideism. Pompanazzi, who named it in the sixteenth century, argued that he was not a heretic, because ‘I believe as Christian what I cannot believe as a philosopher.’ Many fine minds—Montaigne, Pico della Mirandola, Pascal [no fan of Montaigne], Sir Thomas Browne—have been fideists.” Human sensibility is not renowned for consistency. Beware of it. Lenin and Mao were consistent.

Speaking of inconsistency, it’s reassuring to know that Tolstoy, that embodiment of human contradiction at the level of genius, when he died in the railway station at Astapovo had two books with him – The Brothers Karamazov and Montaigne’s Essays. Cyril Connolly writes in Enemies of Promise: “If I were to arrange a row of busts around a library and crown them with sacred myrtle, I would begin with Montaigne.” “In taking up his pen,” William Hazlitt writes of Montaigne, “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.” And another enthusiast, Lewis Thomas, in “Why Montaigne Is Not a Bore” (The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1979), writes: “For the weekend times when there is nothing new in the house to read, and nothing much to think about or write about, and the afternoon stretches ahead all bleak and empty, there is nothing like Montaigne to make things better.”

You’ve tried Montaigne and he bored or disappointed you? Hard to believe. I’m disappointed in you. Of course, in his essay “Of Books” he writes: “I can do nothing without gaiety; if one book wearies me I take up another.”


-Z. said...

Your goal of "introducing people to essential books" is met in my case. I've added about bazillion books to my lengthening list through reading your blog (and read several). So thanks!

Damian said...

I see that you wrote last year that you were reading Montaigne: A Life by Philippe Desan. What did you think of it? I'm always glad to read anything about Montaigne, but I was put off by Jeffrey Collins' review in the Wall St. Journal:

"Philippe Desan’s “Montaigne: A Life” is animated by the purpose of detonating this carefully cultivated image. It is an effort at disenchantment. Montaigne’s informality and transparency, in Mr. Desan’s telling, were rhetorical strategies and triumphs of artifice. Montaigne’s exploration of the private self was not a natural impulse but an adjustment required by the defeat of his considerable political ambitions. Previous biographers, Mr. Desan argues, have piously replicated the self-portrait of the “Essays.” He seeks to drag the solitary genius back into his social milieu, exposing his conventionality. Montaigne claimed to have portrayed himself “naked” to posterity. Mr. Desan removes the last of his garments."