Essay Mondays: Montaigne


Aww, well. One of these Mondays I'll focus on an author who's a new discovery for me, but this week I can't resist singing the praises of an old favorite yet again. I wrote my undergrad honors thesis partially on Montaigne's "Of experience," but I had forgotten what a great old codger he is, and how much I enjoy spending time with him and his rambling, provocative, great-spirited essays.

Lopate obviously knew what he was doing in choosing "On some verses of Virgil" for his collection; it's a perfect showcase of all Montaigne's trademark strengths and eccentricities. One of the things that struck me when I was studying him in college was how suited this 16th-century Frenchman seems to the tastes of my generation: not only is his style frank and conversational, laden with quotes and outside cultural references (often left un-sourced, since the author assumes any quote from, say, Catullus, will be instantly recognizable to his audience - and if it's not, he doesn't really care), but the structure of his essays strike me as familiarly labyrinthine. "Let me begin with whatever subject I please," he writes, "for all subjects are linked with one another." "On some verses of Virgil," for example, resembles a Simpsons episode in the way it wanders around its main subject: beginning with a lament about his old age and failing health, it gradually works around to a lively discussion of male versus female sexuality, poking fun at both sexes and becoming progressively bawdier as he warms to his theme. In characteristic Montaigne fashion, he brings in a plethora of illuminating examples of customs from around the world and throughout history, employing them as stepping-stones in his hilariously meandering thought process:

       What mischief is not done by those enormous pictures that boys spread about the passages and staircases of palaces! From these, women acquire a cruel contempt for our natural capacity.
       How do we know that Plato did not have this in mind when, imitating other well-constituted states, he ordained that men and women, young and old, should appear in one another's sight stark naked in gymnastics?
       The Indian women, who see the men in the raw, have at least cooled their sense of sight. And although the women of the great kingdom of Pegu, who have nothing to cover them below the waist but a cloth slit in front and so narrow that whatever ceremonious modesty they seek to preserve, at each step they can be seen whole, may say that this is a device thought up in order to attract the men to them and divert them from their fondness for other males, to which that nation is altogether addicted, it might be said that they lose by it more than they gain and that a complete hunger is sharper than one that has been satisfied at least by the eyes.

As much as some of his conclusions are ridiculous (of which he was completely aware - his enjoyment of testing readers' credulousness was the subject of my thesis), I so admire Montaigne's lusty curiosity. So too, I love his willingness to muster any odd conglomeration of evidence - from classical antiquity to contemporary far-flung lands to examples from his own experience - to support whatever idea he may be exploring at the moment, only to turn about a few pages later and muster a different set of evidence in support of the exact opposite contention. In this essay, for example, he makes the Chaucerian claim that women are earthier and more sexually omnivorous than men, only to turn about forty pages on and promote the idea that women are naturally passive, made to receive male desire rather than express their own. His tangible enjoyment in exploring both options is obvious: Montaigne is often more about the process of arguing than the point being argued.

After his playful exploration of sexuality through the ages and nations, he drifts off on a beautiful little tangent about how good writers and thinkers benefit the languages in which they write and think, only to return to his sexuality theme in a more expansive and slightly more serious mood, making the heartfelt argument that our cultural shame around sex is misplaced and unnatural, and we really have enough to be worrying about without creating more problems for ourselves on top of those Nature provides.

Alas, poor man! You have enough necessary ills without increasing them by your invention, and you are miserable enough by nature without being so by art. You have real and essential deformities enough without forging imaginary ones. Do you find that you are too much at your ease unless your ease strikes you as unpleasantness? Do you think you have fulfilled all the necessary duties to which nature obligates you, and that she is wanting and idle in you unless you take on new duties? You are not afraid to offend the universal and indubitable laws, and are proudly intent on your own laws, which are partial and fanciful: and the more particular, uncertain, and contradicted they are, the more you devote your effort to them.
In short, whoever would wean man of the folly of such a scrupulous verbal superstition would do the world no great harm. Our life is part folly, part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to the rules leaves out more than half of it.

And above all, this is what I love about the man: his great, humanist soul, always so curious about, and so deeply, humanely interested in, himself and the world around him. Re-reading "On some verses of Virgil" motivates me to revisit other favorite corners of Montaigne's work.

Up next: One essay by Abraham Cowley (which I didn't quite get to this week), one by Joseph Addison, and three by Richard Steele. I haven't read any of these men before, so I will be FORCED into writing about a new-to-me essayist for once.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • I read the Montaigne you talk about when I read Lopate for school! But I remember next to nothing, so it definitely sounds like he is an author to revisit.

  • Yay for Montaigne! Completely enjoyed your post. I love how he uses a certain topic as a jumping off point into other things. It's been awhile since I've read this essay, but is my memory serving correctly that he doesn't spend much time on Virgil?

  • Rebecca: I bet you'd like him if you got further into him, especially considering your interest in diving into the cultures & thought processes of earlier eras.

    Stefanie: Haha, hardly any time at all on Virgil! :-D Such a classic Montaigne trick.

  • More Montaigne here, please! Humanist old codgers are one of my favorite types of people! Wonderful job on the quote selections, Emily.

  • I will say that there are times I wish I were reading the selected instead of the complete Montaigne, but still, he is amazing, and I love his writing. I love the idea of trying to write himself onto paper -- of trying to capture who he is by writing down his thoughts, as contradictory as they are. What a wonderful project and what an interesting mind.

  • Montainge is one of those rare writers who becomes your friend when you read him - what you do is enter into a conversation with him.
    Thanks for the blog about this very good man.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography