Reading Montaigne 1.00: To The Reader

While reading Montaigne intensely, it’s impossible not to take a moment to note the sheer complexity of the language machine that goes to work with this single letter. Think of Montaigne as a proto-blogger 1 and the brief reader’s note at the head of his collected essays exemplifies why. Montaigne writes:

This book was written in good faith reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive.

If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.

This is, as I pointed out years ago 2, sound advice for bloggers who wish to do more than regurgitate or pontificate. In one form of its best (and to the degree that the term means anything), blogging operates in an oddly public private space characterized by an inherent tension in the medium that both calls for heightened attention and seduces the ego. In an extension of Montaigne, some of the best blogging consists of an author struggling intensely with her subject in full view of the audience. It isn’t really private journaling or writing for oneself—despite great advances in the technology powering personal web publishing, it remains easier to leave our words on the computer or the paper where they were composed—but it isn’t necessarily public writing either, because those same bloggers are purposefully not pursuing publishing through the gatekeepers of traditional publication and don’t pretend to strain for a mythical posture of objectivity.

With that in mind–and it’s always in my mind–I was disappointed to see Nick Hornby making unnecessary diversions to bash blogs in a recent “review” 3 that includes How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Answers 4, Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, which I’ve been enjoying over the last few weeks. In his column, Hornby goes out of his way to draw the implication that blogging is “nicely written, light, amusing, and disposable,” though he admits that “some blogs are better than others.” In both cases, Hornby’s description is sometimes true. But who cares? The more interesting area to explore is how blogging, as a mechanism and in some ways a form, continues in a tradition that traces back to Montaigne, the same tradition that informs the book Hornby is referring to when he quietly slags blogs: Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days.

But I don’t want to drag out the direct parallels between Montaigne and blogging any longer– the comparison here is already substantially longer than Montaigne’s actual introduction, which I quoted almost complete above. There are other important aspects of this first introduction to the first collection of essays to consider, such Montaigne’s deep, nearly obsessive preoccupation with his self and an early form of literary meta-cognition, thinking about his own thoughts and process of thought. Of course this inward focus isn’t in itself unique or new to Montaigne, who makes clear his debt to early philosophers and authors such as Seneca and Plato, but it becomes something unprecedented when combined with his publicly private form and the intentional way he tries (not always successfully) to avoid writing prescriptively for others. On a purely personal level, I admire Montaigne’s dedication to this idea, a way of writing—a way of looking at oneself and the world—that I know from experience is much harder to sustain than it might seem.

The confluence in Montaigne’s writing of the intensely personal, reflective assessment that resists the natural impulse to build from observation to didacticism 5 with an identifiable writing style characterizes the best essays. No matter how outlandish the literary stylings might become–Anders Monson’s mindbogglingly great essays in Neck Deep and Other Predicaments 6, including one in the form of an index to a book-length essay that doesn’t exist spring to mind—or how colloquial or deceptively so the writing is–and here it’s necessary to invoke David Foster Wallace with pieces like “Shipping Out” 7 and “A Ticket to the Fair” 8—they remain essentially texts in which skilled writers reflect on the very act of experiencing their own lives in ways only they, necessarily, can.

The best essays share in the best aspects of great poetry; one doesn’t just read them, but experiences a kind of communion, coming as close as possible to watching another’s mind at work. The best essays–and Montaigne’s exemplify this–are works of art that contain in themselves the process and context of their making in accessible ways. They are akin to a painting or a sculpture in which the intermediate steps are more visible. The best essays have epiphantic moments, as do poems, but decidedly and intentionally shine a light on the route(s) the author traveled to get there with a luxuriousness that poems do not afford. This doesn’t make such essays better than the best poems—poetry remains my first love—it makes them different.

  1. not the proto-blogger, as it’s rather more complicated than that; if it’s reasonable to compare Montaigne’s essays to blogging, it’s also reasonable to compare any number of earlier people putting pen to paper to write letters and journals with half—or more—of an eye toward publication []
  2. I don’t remember the first time, but I did discover an earlier reference to my doing so in, of course, my blog []
  3. I use the quotes not to diminish Nick Hornby’s regular “What I Read” column, which I’m happy to see has returned after a hiatus, but to recognize that what he does isn’t exactly “reviewing” []
  4. Bakewell’s book site, ISBN: 978-1590514254 []
  5. it comes all too naturally to me anyway []
  6. Graywolf Press, ISBN: 1-55597-459-7 []
  7. Harper’s PDF []
  8. Harper’s PDF []

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