Part III: Montaigne – Style and Substance (Literature)

Montaigne called himself—“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal.” He considered himself a bundle of opposites. I do as well. As he said of his own use of anecdotes and quotations, they are not employed by me simply as examples, for authoritative support or for ornament, though hopefully, especially when quoting Montaigne, they do all three. I use quotes for contrast and no longer use quotes as authoritative sources because the source of a quote can be found so easily on the internet. I quote Montaigne mostly to illustrate writing that is both direct and enriched. His style delights and inspires and sets a target for myself which I will never reach. Or even come close. But the effort is worth it.

For Montaigne, the first principle of reading is pleasure. The world is also “a strange and magical place, constantly changing.” In that, he echoed Bruno, but he was concerned about the minutiae of life as well as violent conflict and uninterested in any portrayal of the cosmos, though he did appear to prefer Copernicus to Ptolemy. His style is always energetic, even when it is laid back and quiet. But what most stands out in Montaigne is that style, the manner of expression, is every bit as important as the substance expressed. I just wish I was as patient and as creative.

Montaigne did not invent the essay form; he gave it its name and set a model for anyone after to follow. An essay is relatively short. It is usually informal. It is intended to instruct, to stimulate and to entertain. I personally always remember the first purpose and just as often forget the second and third. Some of the best contemporary examples are found in The New Yorker, but the ones in The New York Review of Books often have the same shortcomings as my own essays do. The best part of an essay is its flexibility because it can be used for a movie or book review, a report on a music performance or an excursion, sports reporting or discussions of a serious ethical issue.

Essays are also easy to change: “in truth, what are these things I scribble but grotesque and monstrous bodies pieced together of sundry members, without any definite shape, having no order, coher­ence, or proportion, except by accident?” But you cannot say in a prose essay what you can say in poetry – see the end of my discussion of the Sotah ritual as being about jealousy rather than infidelity and see how the Browning poem, which ends the essay, says what I wanted to say so much more directly, more pithily, more briskly, livelier and with greater compression and usually much more energy. 

I try to copy Montaigne by inserting casual anecdotes, but just as often forget to do so. Sometimes I engage in personal recollections, but I do so fearfully, with hesitation and guardedness. I do have digressions, but often the whole blog or essay is a digression for what I often set out to write. And I very much try to achieve a degree of intellectual insight. That is the value of comparison – to show differences and respect differences, not only in style but in quality. How else can we learn? But I am like a golfer who gets a score of 94, not too bad, when Montaigne scores 62 on a par 65 course.

My children and some readers want me to write more from experience, but I lack Montaigne’s boldness. They argue, with some justification, that an essay is impersonal and my dips into a few personal stories are just a tease. Even worse, it is an impersonal form with a pretence of intimacy. They believe it is a reflection of a refusal to engage personally on a deeper level.

That’s not quite or always true and there are different forms of intimacy than the interpersonal kind. When I was an undergraduate in Pre-Meds and had just been woken up to the vast literature that I absolutely personally had to read, especially poetry which I had lost touch with since Grade Six when I had Elsie Pomeroy as my teacher. (She wrote the biography of Charles G.D. Roberts.) I wrote an essay for my English professor who was an expert on T. S. Eliot.

I claimed that, after reading a great deal of his poetry and many of his essays on the quality required of poetry, that, except for his early poems, Eliot was just a master technician and craftsman. The reasons could be found in his antisemitic essays and his contempt for the very audience he said poetry had to reach. I fell totally and absolutely in love with the university when my professor, who, given his own writings and absolute love for Eliot, did not share my conclusions, nevertheless gave me an A+.

In an essay that T. S. Eliot wrote on Montaigne, which I never read when I was an undergraduate, in 1925 he opined, as Adam Gopnik pointed out, “Montaigne is just the sort of writer to provide a stimulant to a poet; for what the poet looks for in his reading is not a philosophy—not a body of doctrine or even a consistent point of view which he endeavors to understand—but a point of departure.”

But whoever treats Montaigne as simply a stimulant, as a substitute for pot or alcohol, for “uppers”, opioids or opium, misses the point. Montaigne did not write primarily to stimulate you, but to invite you to enter his world of colours and shapes and sizes and weights and a vast world captured by an incisive eye and mind totally willing to tolerate and confront the contradictions and contrariness of his own character. Only an egoist would use Montaigne primarily as a stimulant for one’s own thoughts and imagination. That is the Montaigne I would like to imitate, but recognize I do not come close. 

I recognize that bracketing tales of personal intimacy is a con job for it implies indirectly that my readers are my true intimates even though I repeatedly insist that I really, in the end, only write for myself, to clarify my own thinking. When I read Montaigne and find he thought the same, I am emboldened.

Montaigne, however, unlike myself, is a brilliant wit. He pursued health like a hypochondriac, but he had good reason since he suffered from the same medical problems as his father, especially kidney stones; doctors then were mostly quacks. Therefore, he loved health but hated doctors. As he wittily commented, Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures.” He also wrote, “Super-celestial opinions [was he mocking Bruno?] and under-terrestrial manners [this could easily be Martin Luther] are things that amongst us I have ever seen to be of singular accord.” He could have made a fortune as a stand-up comic or a comedy store writer. But he didn’t need the money.

As far as I am concerned, Montaigne’s most brilliant insight was to challenge the concept of essences in each of us, namely that each individual had a true essence, sometimes phrased, as in Aristotle, as a potential unique to oneself. That is, we have the duty and responsibility to bring out this quality. Instead, he threw out that idea that he had expressed in earlier writings and became convinced that each of us is a bundle of contradictions.

“All contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.”

What a contrast with shorthand judgements that I myself frequently make, namely that some people are introverts and others extroverts, some risk-prone and some risk averse. Instead, these people should be viewed as expressions of the self, suited to a particular time and circumstances, or unsuited if they are on a self-destructive trajectory,

I myself am prone to ferret out the shortcomings of writers and commentators. When I read a book or hear a dvar Torah on a passage, my critical antennae grow sharp, my intellectual nails become like talons and I become impatient to rip into the inconsistencies and inadequacies of an author. And so I often fail to grasp and appreciate any rich nuggets of wisdom that may happen to be there.

As readers should know by now, I have a soft spot for lists and charts and comparative tables. In spite of the distortions that result, I take pride in the revelations that I have assembled. However, as Adam Gopnik, one of the best imitators of the Montaigne style in contemporary prose, noted in a review of a book on Montaigne, “Lists are the giveaways of writing. What we list is what we love, as with Homer and his ships, or Whitman and his Manhattan trades, or Twain and steamboats. That beautiful and startlingly modern list of mixed emotions suggests a delectation of diversities—he likes not knowing what he feels or who he is, enjoys having ‘wise’ and ‘ignorant,’ insulated by nothing but a comma, anchored together in one soul’s harbor. They bang hulls inside our heads.” What a delight to read such excellent prose!

Look at this observation on Montaigne. “Although those epigrammatic sentences can be arresting—’Nothing is so firmly believed as that which a man knoweth least’—Montaigne doesn’t think epigrammatically. What makes him astonishing is a sort of ‘show all work’ ethic that forced thought as it really is, mixed in motive and meanings, onto the page. He seems wise, more than smart or shrewd—wise without being smart or shrewd. He can be embarrassing, as he was often thought to be in his time, in a way that recalls less a polished columnist than a great diarist, like James Boswell or Kenneth Tynan, incapable of being guarded, the way shrewder people are. When he writes about the joys of having sex with cripples, we feel uneasy, nervous, and then enlightened. Whatever he’s telling, he’s telling it, as Howard Cosell used to say, like it is.” Gopnik is a contemporary Montaigne.

His observation: essayists may tread where scholars dare not. And thus they convey wisdom more than truth, insight more than syllogistic argumentation, and thereby demonstrate that the fictional imagination can be very grounded and not necessarily soar into flights of fancy or magical worlds.

“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting. Hamlet says:

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. And the balancing of opposites, the rhythm of assertion and counter-assertion, the sudden questioning turns, all of it seems irresistibly like Florio’s Montaigne, notably in the springy, self-surprised beat:

How often do we pester our spirits with anger or sadness by such shadows and entangle ourselves into fantastical passions which alter both our mind and body? What astonished, flearing, and confused mumps and mows doth this dotage stir up in our visages! What skippings and agitations of members and voice!”

What better an introduction to Shakespeare – and to Marlowe.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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