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Montaigne, Essays
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Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 (making him about 30 years older than Shakespeare; 200 years younger than Boccaccio), and died in 1592, at the age of 59. He came from a prosperous family; they lived at the family estate, Château de Montaigne, near Bordeaux (in southwest France), which his grandfather had bought (not inherited, note) in 1477. Montaigne's mother, Antoinette López, was a descendant of Spanish Jews; his father, Pierre de Montaigne, a lawyer with very firm (and quite eccentric) ideas regarding young Michel's education and upbringing: as a baby, Montaigne was sent to live with a peasant family so that his earliest memories would be of humble surroundings. He was brought up to speak Latin before French (one of the very last people, if not the last, to grow up with Latin as his native tongue). Montaigne received his early education at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, and then studied law at Bordeaux and Toulouse.

Some other useful dates:

  • 1554 Pierre de Montaigne (Michel's father) elected mayor of Bordeaux; Michel also becomes active in public life as a counselor of the Court des Aides of Périgueux
  • 1557 M. appointed counselor of the Bordeaux Parliament
  • 1558 meets Étienne de la Boétie, who becomes his dearest friend and the subject of "On Friendship" (which we don't read).
  • 1563 de la Boétie dies, aged thirty-two; M. is devastated, and never again (by his own acount) forms a close relationship.
  • 1565 M. marries Françoise de la Chassaigne, with whom he has one daughter; four other children die in infancy.
  • 1568 Pierre (Michel's father) dies
  • 1571 M. retires to the family Château, where he lives the life of a country gentleman, and writes the first two books of his Essais (he is the inventor of this genre, incidentally: thus, you owe your labours in L&R in part to him).
  • 1581 M. leaves retirement to become mayor of Bordeaux.
  • 1586 M. retires again; extensively and repeatedly revises his first two books of essays, and writes a third
  • 1588 Second (revised) edition of Essais published
  • 1592 M. dies, aged 59
  • 1595 Third (RE-revised) edition of Essais published

From about 1577 on, Montaigne suffered from kidney stones--called in French la maladie de la pierre [pierre=stone], which, you'll notice, has the interesting side effect of resurrecting Montaigne's father as the avatar of Montaigne's pain and suffering in later life. This pun did not escape Montaigne, and nor did the stones, which dominate his imagery in the later essays.

About the Essais
As I noted above, Montaigne invented the genre of the essay, though it has certain traits in common with its antecedent genres, the lettre intime and the commonplace book (jotted notes from one's reading, arranged under headings). The word itself comes from Fr. essayer, "to try":they are, thus, attempts on the topics they set out to address, rather than exhaustive treatments of them; each essay constitutes an experiment in critical response, in which Montaigne sets out a topic and tries himself on it, with the twin goals of measuring himself against the topic and of ferreting out what ideas and impressions the self can bring to bear on that context. Thus, the essay ultimately reflects less on the topic (the purported object of the critique) than on the critical subject: the "self" of the writer.

Montaigne's Essais appeared in successive editions, each one much worked on and added to since the prior version; Montaigne never erased or crossed anything out, but only added. (What does this say about his concept of the self?) His motto, often quoted, was: Que sais-je?--"What do I know?"

Unfortunately, the book we use does not indicate which paragraphs are from which editions or when later material was added. Thus, we are effectively reading the 1595 edition. As you read, bear in mind that though you are deprived of the chance to see the seams, you are reading a perpetual work-in-progress.

Study Questions

  1. What is the function of the note "To the Reader" that precedes the essays? How does this preface compare with Boccaccio's prologue, or other prologues that we've read? How does it set the tone for the work that follows? What claims does it make? Do you buy them? What dualities are implied (e.g., "naked" vs. "clothed"), and what do they mean--that is, how is Montaigne setting up a working vocabulary here?
  2. If this is again "self"-writing --like, on some level, all the works we've read since Augustine--how can we make sense of it alongside those other works? If Augustine looks within himself to find God, where is Montaigne looking, and what does he find? How does he justify this turn to the self as subject?
  3. Pay attention to the way Montaigne writes about the mind and the body. What is mind? What is body? What relationships obtain between them? Track the examples Montaigne uses, and chart the network of bodily functions/allusions: eating, defecating, copulating, reproducing, etc. Are there metaphors at work? How do they relate to a third crucial category: text?
  4. What is the author's attitude towards cultural difference in "On Cannibals"? What status does he give to "nature"? What is the relationship between "nature" and "culture"? How does Montaigne's position compare to those of other authors we've read who describe the encounter with other cultures (Herodotus or Thucydides, various books of the Bible, Euripides, Homer)?
  5. What does the author mean by the terms "art," "nature" and "culture"? What relationships obtain among these three terms? How do they interact with one another? Which terms are privileged and why?

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