1 January 2011

In praise of Michel de Montaigne...

Firstly, a good New Year to you all! I trust that over the festive season, you've all swollen up like sultanas which have been given a thorough dooking in the pudding wine. At Christmas, I often give friends and family members books which I've enjoyed but which a number of factors might have prevented or dissuaded the recipients from ever opening. On this blog, I've previously encouraged my readers to consider acquiring a copy of possibly my favourite Scottish novel, James Hogg's brilliant, humorous, fascinating - but often intimidating looking - Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.  This year, I thought I'd recommend one of my very favourite books, which for mysterious reasons escaping my ken, I've not mentioned even once in this blog's two year life. If you are looking to invest your Scroogemas dough in a hearty tome, let me suggest the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. First published in 1580, the allure of this doorstop text is unlikely to be enhanced by the common tendency to publish editions with very stern-looking portraits of the author on the front, beard like a tumble-dried terrier, head like a spent match and dressed like a neckless parson. A French nobleman, Montaigne is often overlooked by those of us subjected to a (mis)education, fixated on "Enlightenment" figures and boasting only a high-handed and ignorant condescension towards anybody  who wrote and thought anything before the middle of the 1700s.  Montaigne is a sharp rebuke to those minded to imagine that the past was full of fools. The essays touch on a bizarre gamut on concerns, the philosophical to the anecdotal, the ancient and the 16th century contemporary. It is not a book to sit and read through, but one to pop in and out of; happily left to linger beside bed or on bookcase, awaiting a friendly reader and sympathetically spent half hour.

In his own (to my mind, properly bonkers) autobiographical Confessions, the relentlessly strange Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggests that Montaigne took care only to admit to attractive faults. The wriggling kernel of sourness neatly captures much about the author of the Social Contract, but also demonstrates that he recognised a fundamental quality of Montaigne's writing. Even in translation, his prose has a confiding quality, a human warmth and interest and eclecticism. It is almost as if, from the mass-printed font of popular prose, one might refigure the hand that first scribbled it out, and from the hand, retreat further up the arm to reach the man himself.  For those who haven't encountered him before, you may have heard a quote or two demonstrating his scatological egalitarianism. He cautions, delightfully, that "upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses". However, it would be a dreadful mistake to reduce that man to his occasional sphincter gags. He has much to say on a wide range of topics, whether on the conquest of the "New World", religion, reflections on the armour of the Parthians or Montaigne's claim that in life he had a particularly acute sense of smell - and that his soup-straining face-furniture would sook the fragrances of the world into it, leaving the smacking kisses of ladies' mouths, gluey and greedy, clinging lingeringly there. As memory serves, he even suggests that as a result of codpieces and concealment, young ladies of his day developed unhappily inaccurate hopes and expectations about the relative proportions of the male member, and recounts how inadequate he felt when he awoke in the morning, having proved an ineffective lover. What one is left with is an impression of a very human personality which has been sustained across the centuries by a technology as simply as paper and ink, even as the social order Montaigne knew and his body have fallen into dust. In Montaigne's hands, what might have been a dead letter finds startling vitality.  With all of our minds touching on the passage of time at this time of the year, it really is an astonishing to think about  the achievement of this simple literary technology. The English poet Philip Larkin wrote that what will survive of us is love. Some might regard it as a drear prospect, one which may shift significantly in our lifetimes, but it always struck me as an interesting alternative counterpoint to Larkin's axiom ~ What might survive of us is paper.

If my peaty self was ever invited on Desert Island Discs, there's be no question about which book I'd add to the pile. In a second's beat, I'd be tucking the Essais in alongside my Bible and my Shakespeare to stave off isolation and despair. To bring the Essais would be to bring company. If you are curious, I very much commend them to you.  

In more general blogging terms, abnormal service to be resumed shortly...


  1. "...Montaigne is often overlooked by those of us subjected to a (mis)education, fixated on "Enlightenment" figures and boasting only a high-handed and ignorant condescension towards anybody who wrote and thought anything before the middle of the 1700s."

    As a fan of the essais and doubtless of pre-1700 figures such as Stair or Mackenzie, I'm sure you're aware of Montaigne's indebtedness to the leading scholar of his time:

    "Bucanan, que ie vis depuis a la suite de feu Monsieur le Mareschal de Brissac, me dit qu'il estoit apres a escrire de l'institution des enfans, & qu'il prenoit l'exemplaire de la mienne..."

  2. Ratzo,

    I very much appreciate that timely reminder of the learned George Buchanan. Its not a period of history which I've made much of a study of. As I've remarked here before, in my education I received a scanty and eccentric historical impression, obsessed with the Germanic and totally neglecting the Scottish. Sometimes, I wish I'd begun my higher education with an MA rather than a law degree, to take the edge off of my ignorance.

  3. Buchanan's De Jure regni Apud Scotos ought to be in every Scottish home (improbable as that sounds).

    There's an excellent version out recently, edited by Roger Mason -


  4. Thank you for these recommendations. I have downloaded these books onto my new Christmas present, the Kindle.

    For those with Kindles or other eBook devices, the books in question are available for free on the marvelous Project Gutenberg

    The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner - http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2276
    The Essays of Montaigne - http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3600

  5. Thanks for the suggestion, Ratzo. I shall be adding it to my bookshelf imminently...

  6. Paul,

    The world seems awash with these cunning kindle devices. Do let me know how you fare with them, particularly the James Hogg.