Viva la joia

Roy Porter

  • Montaigne: Essays in Reading edited by Gérard Defaux
    Yale, 308 pp, £8.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 300 02977 2
  • Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the ‘Essays’ by M.A. Screech
    Duckworth, 194 pp, £19.50, August 1983, ISBN 0 7156 1698 6

What would Montaigne have made of being deconstructed? Would that gentle ironist, that pricker of presumption and pedantry, have been amused, or saddened, to find himself the totem and target of post-structuralist theoretical rigour? That is his fate in the latest Yale French Studies tome. Led by the editor, Gérard Defaux, the authors flick mainstream Montaigne scholarship aside with impatient condescension. ‘The naivety and weakness of the biographical type of criticism’, we are told, is ‘naturally to be shunned’. ‘The obsession with the referent’ is ‘sterile’ yet ‘dangerously dominant’ – sterile yet diseased, for its picture of a living Montaigne, with mind and message, aims and achievements, is fetishistic, ‘purely fictional’. Thus the contributors celebrate a ritual anathema against the ‘hors-texte’. Having ‘killed the concept of author’ (vestige of ‘a bygone age’ of scholarship), all we need to keep in mind is simply ‘the abstraction Montaigne’ – as Jules Brody insists, establishing the purity of his credentials: ‘I use the proper name Montaigne ... in the limited sense of the person who put the words on the page.’

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