Angela Kelsey

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book 18 of 24 books in 28 days: michel de montaigne: the complete essays

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 28, 2010


The picture of this book, Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays, doesn’t do it justice.  At 2.5″ thick, and 1284 pages, it’s pretty daunting.  After my less than scholarly foray into Boswell territory, how to approach Montaigne?

I chose four essays to read with the help of Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, which will have a post of its own soon. Lopate devotes a section if his book called “Fountainhead” to Montaigne’s essays “On books,” “On a monster-child,” “On some lines of Virgil.”  I read these and the last essay of my big collection, “On experience.”

I was delighted to find Montaigne engaging in questions of truth, memory, writing, and visibility.  I really can’t do better than to quote him.

from “On books”

On revealing his own thoughts:  “I have no sergeant-major to marshal my arguments other than Fortune.  As my ravings present themselves, I pile them up; sometimes they all come crowding together: sometimes they drag along in single file.  I want people to see my natural ordinary stride, however much it wanders off the path.”  He continues, “I freely say what I think about all things–even about those which doubtless exceed my competence and which I in no wise claim to be within my jurisdiction.”

On why he reads: “I also like reading Cicero’s Letters to Atticus, not only because they contain so much about the history and affairs of his time but, even more, so as to find out from them his private humours.  For as I have said elsewhere I am uniquely curious about my authors’ soul and native judgment.”

On interiority over exteriority: “Now the most appropriate historians for me are those who write men’s lives, since they linger more over motives than events, over what comes from inside more than what happens outside.”

On truth: “We can see . . . what a delicate thing our quest for truth is when we cannot even rely on the commander’s knowledge of a battle he has fought nor on the soldiers’ accounts of what went on round them unless, as in a judicial inquiry, we confront witnesses and accept objections to alleged proofs of the finer points of every occurrence.  Truly, the knowledge we have of our own affairs is much slacker.”

from “On some lines of Virgil”

On no self-censorship: “I have moreover bidden myself to dare to write whatever I dare to do: I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot published.  The worst of my deeds or qualities does not seem to me as ugly as the ugly cowardice of not daring to avow it.”

On being known: “I hunger to make myself known.  Provided I do so truly I do not care how many know it.”

from “On experience”

On self-study: “Whatever we may in fact get from experience, such benefit as we derive from other people’s examples will hardly provide us with an elementary education if we make so poor a use of such experience as we have presumably enjoyed ourselves; that is more familiar to us and certainly enough to instruct us in what we need.  I study myself more than any other subject.  That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.”

On unreliable memory: “The slips by which my memory so often trips me up precisely when I am most sure of it are not vainly lost: it is no use after that its swearing me oaths and telling me to trust it: I shake my head.”

On (though I’m sure he wouldn’t call it this) mindfulness: “When I dance, I dance.  When I sleep, I sleep; and when I am strolling alone through a beautiful orchard, although part of the time my thoughts are occupied by other things, for part of the time too I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the delight in being alone there, and to me.”

Filed in Books, Writing

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