After two somewhat lacklaster reading experiences at the end of January, I'm happy for the opportunity to write about a book with which I was passionately engaged: Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is, in my opinion, how literary biography should be written. Or, more specifically, it's the way this literary biography should be written: a perfect match of subject and approach which was a joy from cover to cover.
Given that I just went into my love affair with Montaigne's peregrinatory style of "accidental" philosophizing, I won't wax lyrical about it again. Suffice to say, in starting How to Live the evening after I finished that post, I was nodding and chuckling along with Bakewell's characterizations of the Renaissance essayist, checking to make sure I myself hadn't written her book in a moment of more-than-characteristic narrative fluidity and verve. And indeed, in placing Montaigne's life and work in their evolving historical contexts, Bakewell points out over and over that this was a reaction readers often had to Montaigne himself: they found, in the Essays, a reflection of themselves and their own times, and ignored or rejected those aspects that didn't mesh with their worldviews. Thus, the same writer could be embraced by his contemporaries as a provider of helpful mental tricks in the tradition of Stoical skepticism, while seventeenth-century libertins could read him as a rebellious free-spirit, and early twentieth-century modernists find inspiration in his attempts to analyze his own consciousness.
Indeed, Bakewell's book, while incorporating throughout a thread of traditional biography (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born, grew up unconventionally, wrote steadily, died), interweaves another, equally prominent thread concerned with the intellectual conception and after-life of the Essays: fitting, since Montaigne himself said that he and his book were one and the same. These sections were my particular favorites. It's probably true that any author who is read for five hundred years will be subject to many versions and interpretations, but Bakewell makes a good case that Montaigne's own propensity to look at an argument from all possible perspectives, and chart the bending and winding of his own mind without passing judgment, has lent him to an especially large number of interpretations over the years—often ones he would never have predicted, but which, she argues are nonetheless fascinating for what they reveal of the readers' own times and characters. Two of my favorite examples demonstrate Bakewell's narrative range, which is always engaging and readable but moves with ease from clever and humorous to quite tragic.
In the chapter on late 18th-century reception to Montaigne, Bakewell relates how the Romantics basically invented the idea of literary tourism—the instinct to make pilgrimages to the homes and haunts of writers one admires. One of the sites so honored was Montaigne's château, which left his descendants a bit bemused at all the scruffy, overly-earnest young men suddenly showing up and wanting to tour the old man's tower. The post-Rousseau generation was deeply struck by Montaigne's fascination with people from the New World, interpreting his open-mindedness about the arbitrariness of custom as agreement with the idea of the uncorrupted "noble savage" (conveniently ignoring all the times when Montaigne points out cruel or unjust customs practiced by "savage" peoples). They were also drawn to the heat of his youthful passion for Étienne de la Boétie. Despite their initial enthusiasm, however, many Romantics became disillusioned with Montaigne's insistence on moderation, on keeping an even keel. Bakewell writes,
The poet Alphonse de Lamartine was one such frustrated reader. When he first came across Montaigne he hero-worshiped him, and kept a volume of the Essays always in his pocket or on his table so he could seize it whenever he had the urge. But later he turned against his idol with equal vehemence: Montaigne, he now decided, knew nothing of the real miseries of life. He explained to a correspondent that he had only been able to love the Essays when he was young—that is, about nine months earlier, when he first began to enthuse about the book in his letters. Now, at twenty-one, he had been weathered by pain, and found Montaigne too cool and measured. Perhaps, he wondered, he might return to Montaigne many years later, in old age, when even more suffering had dried his heart. For now, the essayist's sense of moderation made him feel positively ill.
Bakewell goes on to make the intriguing point that, by advocating moderation over the (perhaps sexier but unsustainable) frenzy, be it of war or doomed poetic brilliance, Montaigne was actually proving himself rebellious,
bucking the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love.
Yet the "ecstasy" of war, something Montaigne was forced to see at close quarters throughout the forty years of France's bloody civil wars of the 1560s through 1590s, proved an understandably unconvincing answer to the question "How to live?" as far as he was concerned. A more serious yet still occasionally wry Bakewell does a remarkable job bringing these wars, with their prevalent spirit of religious extremism, to life for the reader. Of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, which left ten thousand dead throughout France, she relates this mind-bending rationale:
In most places, the bloodshed was done more chaotically [than in Bordeaux] and by people who would have been reasonable folk the rest of the time. In Orléans, the mob stopped at taverns between killings to celebrate, "accompanied by singing, lutes and guitars," according to one historian. Some groups were composed mainly of women and children. Catholics interpreted the presence of the latter as a sign that God Himself was in favor of the massacres, for He had caused even innocents to take part. In general, many thought that, since the killings were on no ordinary human scale, they must have been divinely sanctioned.
I am no theologian, but if anything does NOT say "divinely sanctioned" to me, it's little children slaughtering people in the street. Montaigne, too, rejected the romanticized furore tradition, arguing that ideally, even a soldier in the midst of battle should be able to turn away from killing a friend if he recognizes him on the field. Reading about the extremism with which he was surrounded throughout his life gave me new respect for the doctrine of moderation that was one of the most consistent elements of Montaigne's work.
Montaigne's own secularism is an interesting subject, especially in light of this ongoing religious conflict, and it's one Bakewell treats with sensitivity. Although he remained a nominal Catholic throughout his life, the essayist hardly ever takes his arguments in a religious direction, even in cases where one might expect him to do so. Among his answers to the "How to live?" question, one never finds, for example, "trust in Jesus Christ," or "Obey the dictates of the Church." This makes it easy for a secularist like me to relate to the Essays, but Bakewell points out that Montaigne's lack of religious fervor probably doesn't indicate that he was a complete non-believer: hardly anyone was, in sixteenth-century France. More likely, he was moderately religious in a way that didn't intrude much on his day-to-day life, and at the same time was likely attempting to steer clear of trouble with either set of the extremists demolishing his country, by not seeming to hew too closely to the theology of either group.
I could go on in Montaigneanly unending style about How to Live; it brings up a plethora of fascinating points about a favorite author of mine, placing him in his time and place as well as analyzing how his work has been transplanted into other contexts, including our own. There are so many juicy tidbits I didn't even touch on in this post: Montaigne's extremely unorthodox childhood, for example, or the bizarrely strong aversion certain seventeenth-century philosophers felt for the Essays. Instead I'll just say that I gobbled up every page of this book, and was sorry to see it end.