The Fabulous Imagination

The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne's Essays

LAWRENCE D. KRITZMAN
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/krit11992
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    The Fabulous Imagination
    Book Description:

    "This is one of the few books on Montaigne that fuses analytical skill with humane awareness of why Montaigne matters."-Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities, Yale University

    "In this exhilarating and learned book on Montaigne's essays, Lawrence D. Kritzman contemporizes the great writer. Reading him from today's deconstructive America, Kritzman discovers Montaigne always already deep into a dialogue with Jacques Derrida and psychoanalysis. One cannot but admire this fabulous act of translation."-Hélène Cixous

    "Throughout his career, Lawrence D. Kritzman has demonstrated an intimate knowledge of Montaigne's essays and an engagement with French philosophy and critical theory. The Fabulous Imagination sheds precious new light on one of the founders of modern individualism and on his crucial quest for self-knowledge."-Jean Starobinski, professor emeritus of French literature, University of Geneva

    Michel de Montaigne's (1533-1592) Essais was a profound study of human subjectivity. More than three hundred years before the advent of psychoanalysis, Montaigne embarked on a remarkable quest to see and imagine the self from a variety of vantages. Through the questions How shall I live? How can I know myself? he explored the significance of monsters, nightmares, and traumatic memories; the fear of impotence; the fragility of gender; and the act of anticipating and coping with death. In this book, Lawrence D. Kritzman traces Montaigne's development of the Western concept of the self. For Montaigne, imagination lies at the core of an internal universe that influences both the body and the mind. Imagination is essential to human experience. Although Montaigne recognized that the imagination can confuse the individual, "the fabulous imagination" can be curative, enabling the mind's "I" to sustain itself in the face of hardship.

    Kritzman begins with Montaigne's study of the fragility of gender and its relationship to the peripatetic movement of a fabulous imagination. He then follows with the essayist's examination of the act of mourning and the power of the imagination to overcome the fear of death. Kritzman concludes with Montaigne's views on philosophy, experience, and the connection between self-portraiture, ethics, and oblivion. His reading demonstrates that the mind's I, as Montaigne envisioned it, sees by imagining that which is not visible, thus offering an alternative to the logical positivism of our age.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51251-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Lawrence D. Kritzman
  4. INTRODUCTION: Montaigne Is Theory
    (pp. 1-26)

    It has often been said that the French think too much and that they have invented a theory for almost everything. Montaigne represents the beginning of a philosophical tradition in French letters in which ontological and epistemological concerns intersect. In his exploration of the self Montaigne poses the same questions that Socrates posed in antiquity and that modern psychoanalysis had adapted: How shall I live? How can I know myself? By posing these questions Montaigne, like Socrates before him, sought to explore the unexamined life independently of what one might refer to today as the normative constraints of what it...

  5. PART I MONSTER THEORY
    • 1 MONTAIGNE’S FANTASTIC MONSTERS AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF GENDER
      (pp. 29-50)

      As early as the essay “De l’oisiveté” (I, 8) (“Of Idleness”) Montaigne informs the reader of the necessity of controlling the movement of his mind. Instead of producing a sense of spiritual tranquillity, Montaigne’s retirement from public life paradoxically generated intense psychic activity embodied in amorphous images of “chimeres” (chimeras) and “monstres fantasques” (fantastic monsters). The condition of idleness allows the imagination to wander about fortuitously so that the mind’s performance, as it is recounted in the text, represents a psychic “reality” whose sheer excessiveness translates the unreal or fantastic qualities of the work. Accordingly, the essayist’s apprenticeship to a...

    • 2 REPRESENTING THE MONSTER: Cognition, Cripples, and Other Limp Parts in “Des boyteux” (III, 11)
      (pp. 51-70)

      The relationship between the exemplum of cripples and the theme of causality is central to Montaigne’s representation of the monster in the essay “Des boyteux” (III, 11) (“On Cripples”). The question of causality is discussed early in the essay in order to set in motion an epistemological critique whose target is the weakness of human reason. Montaigne specifically focuses on the defects of human understanding and our need to shift attention away from things (choses) in order to reflect more closely on their causes (causes). Nevertheless, by engaging in this wordplay the essayist ironically links things to causes and thereby...

  6. PART II DEATH SENTENCES
    • 3 MONTAIGNE’S FRATERNITY: La Boétie on Trial
      (pp. 73-86)

      FRAGMENT D’UNE LETTRE QUE MONSIEUR LE CONSEILLER DE MONTAIGNE ESCRIT À MONSEIGNEUR DE MONTAIGNE SON PÈRE, CONCERNANT QUELQUES PARTICULARITEZ QU’IL REMARQUA EN LA MALADIE & MORT DE FEU MON SIEUR DE LA BOETIE .

      (Lettre datée du mois d’août 1563 et publiée par Montaigne dans La Boétie, La Mesnagerie de Xenophon. Les Regles de mariage, de Plutarque. Lettre de consolation de Plutarque à sa femme. Le tout traduict de Grec en François par feu M. Estienne De la Boetie . . . item, un Discours sur la mort dudit Seigneur De la Boètie par M. de Montaigne, édition établie par...

    • 4 MONTAIGNE ON HORSEBACK, OR THE SIMULATION OF DEATH
      (pp. 87-103)

      In the essay “De l’exercitation” (II, 6) (“Of Practice”) Montaigne tries to find a way around the impossibility of describing the experience of death by foregrounding the relationship between the imagination and the body: “Je n’imagine aucun estat pour moy si insupportable et horrible, que d’avoir l’ame vifve et affligée, sans moyen de se declarer” (II, 6, 375) (“I can imagine no state so horrible and unbearable for me as to have my soul alive and afflicted, without means to express itself” [270]). At the beginning of the essay Montaigne intends to reconcile the phenomenon of death with practice, which...

    • 5 THE ANXIETY OF DEATH: Narrative and Subjectivity in “De la diversion” (III, 4)
      (pp. 104-120)

      Montaigne’s “De la diversion” (III, 4) (“Of Diversion”) dramatizes and exemplifies the manner in which the human subject shies away from the anxiety produced by the fear of death. The essential question raised in this essay is how one should talk about death or, rather, how one can avoid it. If diversion is an issue in this text, it is ultimately the result of the essayist’s inability to become consubstantial with the object of the act of writing itself, namely, death. “Nous pensons tousjours ailleurs” (III, 4, 834) (“Our thoughts are always elsewhere” [633]) proclaims the essayist. According to Montaigne’s...

    • 6 EXCAVATING MONTAIGNE: The Essayist on Trial
      (pp. 121-134)

      In a chapter entitled “Montaigne’s Family Romance” I previously discussed the engendering of the Essays as a compensatory gesture that enabled Montaigne to overcome the loss of La Boétie by transforming a profound feeling of absence into a dialogic endeavor realized through the writing project.¹ I suggested that the representation of the self as a recuperative act for the lost friend constituted an effort to endure the anxiety of separation by becoming “argument et . . . subject” (II, 8, 385) (“argument and subject” [278]) of his creation. This writerly act enabled the essayist to triumph over the nothingness of...

  7. PART III PHILOSOPHICAL IMPOSTURES
    • 7 THE SOCRATIC MAKEOVER: The Ethics of the Impossible in “De la phisionomie” (III, 12)
      (pp. 137-153)

      In “De la phisionomie” (III, 12) (“Of Physiognomy”) Montaigne makes the topos of vision central to the understanding of the essay.¹ From the outset the essayist engages in an epistemological critique that draws attention to our inability to see things as they are:

      Nous n’apercevons les graces que pointues, bouffies et enflées d’artifice. Celles qui coulent soubs la nayfveté et la simplicité eschapent ayséement à une veue grossiere comme est la nostre: elles ont une beauté delicate et cachée; il faut la veue nette et bien purgée pour descouvrir cette secrette lumiere. (III, 12, 1037)

      We perceive no charms that...

    • 8 ROMANCING THE STONE: “De l’experience” (III, 13)
      (pp. 154-192)

      For decades we have upheld the illusion of a logocentric ontology underlying the Essays. Nowhere do critics experience that idealized moment of jubilation of the oneness of Montaigne with his text more than in “De l’experience” (III, 13) (“Of Experience”). More often than not, the critical literature on Montaigne (from Frame to Friedrich to Defaux) adheres to a Neoplatonic concept of mimesis realized through the voice of a subject bound to a preexistent idea.¹ These readers, often following in the tradition of Sainte-Beuve and Thibaudet,² ascribe to the text an ontological priority, a resolution according to which self-reflexivity is anchored...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 193-206)
  9. WORKS CITED
    (pp. 207-214)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 215-228)