Bill Long 11/21/04
Reflections on the Essay Form
Those who are conversant with the intellectual history of the West will recognize that my literary forebear and progenitor in the essay form is the French Renaissance scholar Michel Montaigne. It wasn't until recently, however, that I really began to think about the way that he wrote and the way that I write and to use these insights as a means of probing the genre of essay and my own approach to writing. I will provide here a brief analysis of one of his essays, On Sadness (1.2), to reflect on how I am both informed by and differ from this greatest of essay writers.
A Word on Montaigne
The best modern English translation of his works is by M.A. Screech in the Penguin series. Montaigne lived at a time of increased religious animosity brought about by the Protestant Reformation (beginning around 1517) and the Catholic reaction to it. While the Calvinists/Lutherans were touting the virtues of the Lutheran/Reformed faith and giving fuel to insurrectionaries to wanted to rebel against Catholic powers, Montaigne was content with his Catholic faith and with the political institution of kingship. At age 35, when his father died, he retired to his ample familial estates in southwest France to begin to write. After thrashing about for a while, he arrived at the subject that would most stimulate his creativity: the self. It would be Montaigne's feelings, his reaction to various phenomena, his insight into people and human life that was the key to his creativity.
Though the topics for his essays emerged from the world of the 16th century, the alembic through which he sifted his thoughts was the world of classical antiquity. He holds the distinction of being one of the few people in any century after the 10th to have Latin be his first language. He was instructed in it before he even learned his native French. As a result, quotations from Virgil, Tacitus, Seneca and many others flow from his lips like nursery rhymes from a preschool teacher. The classics were living realities for him. They taught moral principles but, even more, they presented different approaches or angled insights into the affairs of his own day. I, who consider myself a modern-day polymath, am humbled and nearly undone by the depth and precision of the insights he draws from the classical past.
Understanding Montaigne's "Form"
Struck as I am by his ability to bring immense learning to practical use, I am aware of the different ways that he and I use knowledge from the past. The issue before him in his essay on "Sadness" is how we should comport ourselves emotionally in the face of sometimes immense loss. It is a strikingly and even hauntingly modern theme.
Three things characterize his method in this essay. First is the observation that he is investigating the subject with awareness of how it relates to his own approach to sadness. "I am among those who are most free from this emotion (p.7)." Then, at the end, "Violent emotions (which he has just described) like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by arguments (p.10)." This method was revolutionary in his day and is instructive in ours. Essays are attempts, attempts at relating the world "out there" to our felt reality of living. We should all be so clear on the relationship of our subject to ourselves.
Second is the way he uses his sources. His essay consists of a string of thought-provoking quotations from classical antiquity in which he describes the various ways that violent emotion overtook people--in and after battle or even in the painting of images. His classical allusions are arresting, as are his brief remarks. For example, he takes the two Latin words from Ovid describing Niobe's petrified sadness after the loss of her 14 children ("Diriguisse malis"--Petrified by such misfortunes"), and comments, "By this they expressed that sad, deaf, speechless stupor which seizes us when we are overwhelmed by tragedies beyond endurance (p.8)." His words not only probe the reality of sadness then, but they allow us to explore the hidden folds of loss in our own lives.
Third, and this is the only minor difference I have with Montaigne, he brings together quotations that really don't say the same thing or don't really develop the theme. That is, he refers to stories of classical antiquity where overwhelming sadness was manifest in stoic calm, in uncontrollable bursting forth or in astonishment. He then shifts the focus of his quotations to two from Petrarch on love that are just too good to lose. They describe the way that love "snatches the senses" of the one in love. "As soon as I see you, Lesbia, I can say nothing to you; I am out of my mind; my tongue stickes in my mouth; a fiery flame courses through my limbs; my ears are ringing and darkness covers both my eyes." So, in fact, as the essay progresses, it subtly changes from the emotion of extreme sadness to the emotions deeply felt.
Thus, a more fitting title to his little essay might have been "On Deep Emotions." It would then have consisted of a consideration of the different ways that people respond to situations that challenge us to our core, with the chief examples being loss of a loved one and falling madly in love. But I am only making a half-hearted criticism here. The vividness of the quotations and the aptness of his interpretation, even if the subject doesn't "touch" him directly, sink deep into our consciousness. Then, the quotations can become loosed from the context in which Montaigne used them and become free-floating images in our own minds to attach to our own "attempts" to understand a variety of subjects. I know that Niobe will appear in my writing in the not too distant future, for example.
Ultimately, then, Montaigne does for the reader what any good essay writer should do--leave us with pictures in the mind that are supple enough to apply to our own reading of the world. He gives us not so much shibboleths to scream from the rooftops but arresting and clear images to sift our own experience.