Essaying Montaigne

Essaying Montaigne: A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading

Volume: 5
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Essaying Montaigne
    Book Description:

    John O’Neill reads Montaigne’s Essays from their central principle of friendship as a communicative and pedagogical practice operative in society, literature and politics. The friendship between Montaigne and La Boétie was ruled neither by plenitude nor lack but by a capacity for recognition and transitivity. As an essayist Montaigne is an exemplary practitioner of a technique of difference and recognition that puts all certainties of history, philosophy and culture in the balance of weighted comparison. The essayist reveals how every absolute subjectivity or authority is shaken by its internal weakness once we move inside the contrastive structure of domination in politics, gender and race. O’Neill’s reading of the Essays strives to be faithful to the phenomenology of their embodied practices of reading-to-write-to re-read and re-write. From this standpoint he engages the principal critical readings of the Essays over the last century that have examined with great brilliance their history, structure and psychology. Whether the structure is evolutionary, structuralist, Marxist or psychoanalytical, O’Neill provides close readings of Montaigne’s literary critics. By bringing to bear the ethico-critical practice of ‘essaying’ to resist the subjection of the Essays to dominant criticism, O’Neill reminds readers that Montaigne’s appeal is in how he survived bloody cultural war with a balance of modesty and tolerance, invoking compromise where others practice violence.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-305-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface to the revised edition
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. To the Reader
    (pp. 1-11)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Society and Self-study: the Problem of Literary Authority
    (pp. 13-32)

    Montaigne is said to have withdrawn from public life in order to find himself in theEssays. But if this were true, then Montaigne would have indulged a greater vanity than any he had encountered in public life. Fortunately, he knew himself better than to attempt the life of a literary recluse. For he knew that he was by nature given to society and friendship. Indeed, he considered himself nothing apart from France, and less than half of that beautiful friendship with La Boétie, whom it was his sorrow to survive:

    There are private, retiring, and inward natures. My essential...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Literary Anxiety and the Romance of Books
    (pp. 33-50)

    Montaigne loved books and gave up his life to writing one of his own. Yet he speaks disparagingly of many books; and especially of his own. This has permitted several critics to imagine that Montaigne did not have his heart in theEssaysand to argue that he gave to them only the residual energy of a sick man, one withdrawn from society and essentially incapable of action. Nothing could be less true. TheEssaysare the living incarnation of thought and sensibility, the embodiment of a literary spirit whose hold upon this life never slackened, even in the worst...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Rival Readings
    (pp. 51-68)

    In ‘essaying’ Montaigne we mean to stay as close as we can to Montaigne’s reflective practices as a writer and a reader not only of the classics but especially of his ownEssays. We consider Montaigne a rival reader of theEssays. This is not an afterthought, but an activity proper to the literary competence of an author. From this standpoint we are able to evaluate the less reflective practices of rival critics whose views on the style, composition and sense of theEssayswill be considered at length further on. We do not, however, claim complete reflexivity for our...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Writing and Embodiment
    (pp. 69-86)

    Montaigne’s consciousness of being a writer develops as the deepest finding within his self-inquiry.¹ He is not concerned with any conventional introspection of his motives for writing. Such an address, as we have seen in To the Reader, is never more than a pretext that waits for its fulfilment in those sudden moments of comparison, of metaphor, and in asides dispersed throughout theEssays. As an essayist, Montaigne experienced what Barthes claims to be a modern literary experience:

    But in our literature, it seems to me, the verb is changing status, if not form, and the verbto writeis...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Reading and Temperament
    (pp. 87-105)

    Writers are readers. This is not because they have no thoughts of their own, but precisely because they seek a thought that is their own: or rather, thought that becomes their own through the conversation of minds to be found in reading. To be sure, Montaigne begins by leaning heavily on his predecessors. To the extent that this is so, he can hardly be said to have found his vocation as a writer. Yet there are few vocations that are truly born in a moment; though we indulge the practice of retrospectively finding their moment of inspiration. Or else, because...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Paradox of Communication: Reading the Essays Otherwise
    (pp. 107-125)

    In two very challenging articles¹ Anthony Wilden has presented a reading of theEssaysin which their literary project is analysed in terms of Montaigne’s nostalgia for the lost plenitude of La Boétie’s friendship. We propose now to set out Wilden’s complex use of Marxist (Lukács) and Freudian (Lacan) interpretation and then critically to evaluate his arguments regarding Montaigne’s concept of self and social relationships.² Wilden’s approach to theEssaysdepends upon the strategy of locating Montaigne in a particular socio-economic context – substantifying him as an ideologist of bourgeois individualism. The force of this practice derives for Wilden from its...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Portrait of the Essayist Without Qualities
    (pp. 127-152)

    It is a commonplace of the interpretation surrounding theEssaysthat they are dominated by Montaigne’s self-portrait. Such commentaries are generally developed without much attention to the intrinsic difficulties in the project of selfanalysis.¹ It is therefore a welcome occasion to consider at length the issues that are raised by Butor’sEssay on the Essays² where the imagery techniques and intentionality of the self-portrait are absolutely central but lack any adequate analytic use. In following Butor’s argument, as we propose to do, we shall also have occasion to reconsider some of the major problems in any commentary upon theEssays,...

  12. CHAPTER 8 On Public and Private Life
    (pp. 153-176)

    TheEssaysoblige us continually to refer not only to the problem of their origin – but to the generative place of their common places (topoi). We must, then, essay the division between Montaigne’s public and private life. Here, and elsewhere, we encounter readings of Montaigne’s conscience as a writer and politician which go to the very heart of theEssays.¹ For this reason, we need to be careful in their exercise.

    The problem we shall now focus upon is Montaigne’s treatment of the relation between the public and private conscience of a man of politics.² Montaigne was a courtier in...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Civilisation, Literacy and Barbarism
    (pp. 177-199)

    TheEssaysrequire a lively reader. They have certainly challenged many a critic, and it is to the continuing rivalry over a pair of essays that we now turn, namely, the essay ‘Of Coaches’ (III: 6) which must also be read with the essay ‘Of Cannibals’ (I: 31). We begin with a plain account of the essay ‘Of Coaches’ avoiding as nearly as possible any elaborate gloss upon its construction. We shall then come to grips with some contemporary readings of the essay. Our purpose is not to be purely polemical. Rather, we are interested in the natural rivalry that...

  14. CHAPTER 10 On Living and Dying as We Do
    (pp. 201-221)

    It is only in the life of a human being that the question about the meaning of being human can be asked. This is not to say that each of us asks this question. Rather, it is more likely that we dwell in the midst of the answer that others have given to this question without much imagining that there will ever come a time when we shall have to ask for ourselves what it means to be human in order to go on living, or to bring our lives to a close. Of course, in a daily way we...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 223-243)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-260)
  17. Index
    (pp. 261-264)