Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998. Studying a contemporary author gives readers the chance to ask about the thinking behind the text (as they did in this BBC interview). How are the topics of gender, politics, religion, and social custom dealt with in this book? What similarities and differences do you see between Kingsolver’s writing and Austen’s?
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is in a class by himself. You can’t escape the word essay in school, but the way we use it has nothing to do with the way Montaigne meant it when he titled his book Essays. In school the word suggests three paragraphs of tightly structured sentences with appropriate transitions sandwiched by an introduction and a conclusion. In Montaigne’s French, however, essays literally means “tries” or “attempts.” Today's world of first-person musings on blogs, texts, tweets and facebook pages was preceded by a world in which hardly anyone wrote this way. Montaigne was one of the earliest Western authors to try to capture and organize his thoughts as they occurred.
In 2010 New York’s Other Press published a book by Sarah Bakewell entitled How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’ve never met Ms. Bakewell, but after finishing the book (again) I miss her. Reading How to Live while reading Montaigne’s Essays was like walking through a dark cave with a trusted guide who’s telling you all about what you can't see. Ms. Bakewell explained Montaigne’s writing in the context of his life. I understand Montaigne's ideas and his style more clearly because of Ms. Bakewell's descriptions of the people and events that influenced his thinking and approach to writing.
Following is the first of several excerpts from How to Live that may help shed some light on your reading of Montaigne. NOTE: These excerpts aren't written for children and they may contain words, names or ideas that are unfamiliar. Lector caveo. Yes, I could have been less annoying by avoiding the Latin and simply using the English, “Reader beware.” [And don't get the impression that I know more than a few phrases in Latin; I got this one from an online translator.] However, that would have failed to illustrate the point that there will be things in nearly every text we read that you won’t recognize, and that in the end you and you alone are responsible for making sure that you understand what you read. If you don’t get it all the first time around, or if you don't recognize names like Plutarch, Heraclitus or Seneca, congratulations: you're just like everyone else, including me, who examines something closely for the first time. Don't be shy about getting answers. Look up words and literary allusions, and make sure your references are credible (we'll discuss this further in class). Crowdsource by posting questions and ideas on the blog so we can respond. Send me an email at email@example.com if you get stuck.
Because Montaigne’s writing is so different from a fictional narrative, we should examine it differently. Read the next few posts for new topics to review (or focus on as you fervently read this week). See what insights you can unearth and think about how your notes (see previous post on Active Reading Notes) help you remember and organize the information you read. Post your ideas, observations, questions and criticisms (professionally, please) to the blog.
I will read your comments and contribute to the thread. This is neither a formal assignment nor extra credit. (Question: What’s in it for me? Answers: Getting a head start on mastering material we’ll need to accomplish our goals this year; Meeting our colleagues and creating a sense of community to give us feedback and help us when we need it; and, Experiencing immediate success and understanding instead of just sitting around wishing we didn’t have to read.)
Here is the first excerpt from How to Live (after the jump). I look forward to your thoughts and questions on this.
Bakewell, Sarah. (2010). How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other Press.
In truth, however, you can never retrieve an experience in full. As a famous line by the ancient philosopher Heraclitus has it, you cannot step into the same river twice. Even if you return to the same spot on the bank, different water flows in upon you at every moment. Similarly, to see the world exactly as you did half an hour ago is impossible, just as it is impossible to see it from the point of view of a different person standing next to you. The mind flows on and on, in a ceaseless “stream of consciousness”—a phrase coined by the psychologist William James in 1890, though it was later made more famous by novelists.
Montaigne was among the many who quoted Heraclitus, and he mused on how we are carried along by our thoughts, “now gently, now violently, according as the water is angry or calm... every day a new fancy, and our humors shift with the shifts in the weather.” It is no wonder that the mind is like this, since even the apparently solid physical world exists in endless slow turmoil. Looking at the landscape around his house, Montaigne could imagine it heaving and boiling like porridge. His local river, the Dordogne, carved out its banks as a carpenter chisels grooves in wood. He had been astonished by the shifting sand dunes of Medoc, near where one of his brothers lived: they roamed the land and devoured it. If e could see the world at a different speed, he reflected, we would see everything like this, as “a perpetual multiplication and vicissitude of forms.” Matter existed in an endless branloire: a word deriving from the sixteenth-century peasant dance branle, which meant something like “the shake.” The world was a cosmic wobble: a shimmy.
Other sixteenth-century writers shared Montaigne’s fascination with the unstable. What was unusual in him was his instinct that the observer is as unreliable as the observed. The two kinds of movement interact like variables in a complex mathematical equation, with the result that one can find no secure point from which to measure anything. To try to understand the world is like grasping a cloud of gas, or a liquid, using hands that are themselves made of gas or water, so that they dissolve as you close them.
This is why Montaigne’s book flows as it does: it follows its author’s stream of consciousness without attempting to pause it or dam it. A typical page of the Essays is a sequence of meanders, bends, and divergences. You have to let yourself be carried along, hoping not to capsize each time a change of direction throws you off balance.