The Magazine

What Do I Know?

Montaigne’s persistent search for meaning.

Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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He revealed himself in private postures and habits—eating, enjoying bantering conversation, seducing girls, being lazy, wishing on the whole he weren’t married, enduring the kidney stones that eventually killed him—more freely than any writer before him. His contemporaries, thinking of him as a reincarnation of Stoic philosophy, were a bit embarrassed by all the candor. But there’s nothing self-congratulatory or calculated about it, as there is in Rousseau or some of our own memoir-mongers. He’s as matter-of-fact talking about himself as he is talking about the customs of ancient Scythians.

Bakewell gives us his remarkable childhood (his first language, as arranged by his soldier-turned-humanist father, was Latin), his crucial friendship with the writer Étienne de La Boétie, and his somewhat stormy youth—more impulsively amorous and hot-tempered than you might expect from his wry and imperturbable essays, which he began as he approached 40. The serial editions of the Essais were immediately successful, though it took the French a long time to get used to his pungent and sprawling style. The English, on the other hand, quickly decided he was an honorary Englishman. His whimsical influence is all over English literature.

The German scholar Hugo Friedrich, in his great postwar study of Montaigne, found in the essays a trajectory from his early emulation of the Stoic ideal of rigorous self-discipline and emotionless detachment to a “will to powerlessness,” a renunciation of abstract perfection in favor of a yielding, serene, and supple immersion in the changing currents of life and self. The transition is mirrored in the increasingly formless form and meandering style of the essays themselves. And in Bakewell’s last few chapter titles: Give up control. .  .  . Be ordinary and imperfect. .  .  . Let life be its own answer.

You finally go to him as you go to Shakespeare—not for convictions or causes, but for a sense of the irreducible diversity and mystery of human life. Shakespeare knew John Florio, who made the first translation of Montaigne into English, and the influence of the essays is there: The Tempest borrows freely from a passage in “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne’s defense of the simple lives and virtues of South American Indians. Bakewell cites the scholar J. M. Robertson’s remark that all modern literature since Shakespeare and Montaigne is an elaboration of their joint theme, the “discovery of self-divided consciousness.” Hamlet has been heard from, and here’s Montaigne:

We are all made of fragments so shapelessly and strangely assembled that at every moment, each piece plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.

So there’s some logic in Montaigne after all. Since the fragmentary strangers within are as strange as the strangers without, we can regard both with the same mix of curiosity and sympathy—even very exotic strangers, like cannibals, even cats: “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, rather than I with her?” Bakewell rightly locates Montaigne’s whole approach to life in that question. What he offers is not self-absorption, or even methodical self-examination, but a free, footloose exploration of self that, bravely and honestly done, leads us to
embrace others.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.