Wednesday, August 7, 2013

about the summer reading and montaigne #1: stream of consciousness

This year’s summer reading is a mix of eras, styles, topics and genres. Pride & Prejudice is widely acknowledged as a classic masterpiece. As you read, think, and take notes on this book, pay close attention to how Jane Austen describes the details of marriage as a cultural custom and how she develops a conflict. What is it about her style that makes an “old” story so attractive to new audiences? (Pride & Prejudice was released as a feature film in 2005; give your imagination the chance to “see” the book first, then check out the movie’s imdb entry—does the cast look/act/speak as you imagined?)

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 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.
Excerpt from:

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.


  1. On the first part, involving Pride and Prejudice, I had actually seen the movie as well as the BBC version before I read the book. So, naturally I imagined a mix of the cast from both films. However, the movie itself had made minor tweaks to a character's, in lack of a better word, character. Darcy was less haughty and Collins was less silly.

    On the other (completely different) hand, a similarity I noticed between Poisonwood Bible and Pride and Prejudice would be the presence of traditional gender roles and accepted oppression of women; whether it be in society or family. This social custom of sexism is shown by Nathan Price's self-assigned superiority over that of his wife and daughters; a characteristic of his own Christianity. In both stories, you see beginning beliefs change over time as they're revealed as hypocritical: Elizabeth's initial judgment of Mr. Darcy as well as Leah's faith in her father and his religion are altered by experience and self-realization. (Personal note: Despite Leah's "enlightenment" and finding of her own faith, I still could not appreciate her character. It may be my own personal bias, but I can't easily forgive those who are naive to such corruptions as her father.)

    As for the essays of Montaigne, I will give him credit for his "tries" and "attempts." I always viewed stream of consciousness being like a flowing river of thoughts, but, whilst reading his essays, I felt as if I was drowning and had forgotten how to swim.

  2. Pride & Prejudice is an "old" story, but Jane Austen's writing allows the reader to follow Elizabeth instead of looking down on her. As a reader, we look through her eyes with all of her biases and prejudices influencing what's going on both mentally and physically. In addition, this story has various themes, but the theme of true love is huge in our modern culture, so that also makes it more enticing to the modern generation. The reality of it is people's emotions and feelings are never dated.

    In the Poisonwood Bible, the father was governed by religion, but the people in Africa were governed by their historical culture. This was a huge struggle within the book. In addition, politics were oppressive and all of the problems came down on Africa. The other countries coming to Africa said they were "helping them" when in reality they were just creating excuses for themselves to continue what they were doing, which was taking all of Africa's natural resources and leaving the people with nothing. As for the role of women in Africa, women had to do all the hard work, but yet they couldn't go to school and had various other limitations. Women were not as valued as men in both the United States of America and Africa.

    The essays of Montaigne are very interesting, but quite confusing! Brenna captured my feeling perfectly towards his stream of consciousness.

  3. One of the many reasons Pride and Prejudice is continually read over multiple generations is because the theme of women’s empowerment still resonates with women today. The fact that Elizabeth turns down multiple marriage proposals because she would rather be independent than marry a man she didn’t love simply for a higher position in society struck a chord in female readers throughout the past decades and still strikes a chord in female readers today. In addition, there is a unique humor that Jane Austen is able to include in her novels, just by creating a character like Mrs. Bennet, whose eccentricities and sometimes sheer ignorance of Mr. Bennet’s pacifying yet sarcastic comments leave the reader laughing and sometimes even embarrassed for her. In addition, Jane Austen’s characters are extremely deep, even the minor ones. Even though Pride and Prejudice revolves mainly around Elizabeth and her relationships, the personalities of the other characters in the book seem to be perfectly illustrated with only a few comments from them in dialogue or a short written description. Though Pride and Prejudice may have an “old” style, it is the beautifully written content and themes that captivates new audiences and keeps it described as a “classic.”

    I agree with Brenna’s similarity between Kingsolver’s writing and Austen’s about the theme of sexism, but in comparing Barbara Kingsolver’s writing with Austen’s, Kingsolver also portrays women as weak-willed under a man’s rule through most of the book as Mrs. Price submits numerous times to staying in Africa at the demand of her husband. On the contrary, Jane Austen uses Elizabeth’s characteristic stubbornness and strong will to portray that women are not helpless to oppressive men, but can be independent and in charge of their own lives without them.

    As for the excerpt from How to Live, the first couple of lines of the excerpt should have been made known to Mr. Gatsby before he began his relentless attempts to turn his love and life with Daisy back into what it was before he went off to war.

  4. Jane Austen's "old" story is still so popular today because it contains three things that readers always thirst for: love, drama, and strong women. It is no doubt that readers enjoy the book because of these factors. If you take a step back and analyze every movie or show you have ever watched there is bound to be a love interest, dramatic setting, and a strong/stubborn character. There is just something about these factors that keeps people hooked.
    The topics of gender, politics, and religion serve as great barriers in the "Poison Wood Bible." These barriers as i chose to call them were felt by each character, but not each character got to pick a fight with them. As for gender and politics, women were inferior and had no important say. Religion was for both men and women and each chose to believe in what they desired even though men held the pastor positions. Kingsolver's take on these issues was much more direct in the character's lives because of the constant disagreements and events due to these disagreements.