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.’

Abominating what we may call the ‘ET’ heresy (Extra-Textuality), our authors (or should we say abstractions?) flee the referent for the signifier, and embark upon their philological odyssey through the ‘texts’. The ‘author’, once patriarch of literary property, having been slain, they are free to wanton in the textual pastures, ‘regrouping’ the signifiers in ways which privilege reading over writing, and, above all, enfranchise the critic. And so, with different emphases and with varying gratifications, these studies by French and American scholars explore the ‘unstable configurations’ of the Essais, commentating on their postponements, displacements, deformations, contaminations and refusals. The embargo against Extra-Textuality (words are ultimate, if treacherous) is breached only once, in François Rigolot’s venture into Lacanian psychoanalysis. Yet even here the breaking of ranks is more apparent than real, since there is no regression to the attractive Montaigne of bygone scholarship, for Rigolot’s Montaigne is an oafish actor betrayed by his own script. Rigolot posits that the very existence of the Essais is pathological. Whereas traditional criticism credited him with pioneering the ‘essay’ genre, Montaigne’s Essais, as Rigolot sees them, are a shifty, self-incriminating punishment for transgression: with a ‘Sisyphus-like fate, they are doomed to become a body of endlessly rewritten texts.’ Why so? Because the ‘primal scene’ of the Essais was the death of Etienne De La Boétie, Montaigne’s Hallam. The Essais purport to be Montaigne’s In Memoriam, but far from wanting to celebrate De La Boétie as intimate and author, the essays, Rigolot contends, are really Montaigne’s bid to snuff him out, to the greater glory of his own renown. Tainted by the bad faith of the desire to suppress, Montaigne guiltily imprisoned himself on a treadmill, fixated upon ‘compulsively unsuccessful attempts to rewrite the opening death scene’. Montaigne denounced cruelty. In Rigolot’s reading, cruelty surely takes its revenge on Montaigne.

Not all these pieces essay deconstruction. There is, for example, a vintage offering from Starobinski showing how the mature Montaigne thought the body itself was its own best medicine. But the overall thrust is clear, and we need to ask what crop this approach yields. I can see little appeal in abandoning the Gascon sceptic who pondered the Indians and loved playing with his cat (Montaigne amicus, as apostrophised by Bernard Levin in Enthusiasms) for André Tournon’s self-confessed textual ‘cybernetic nightmare ... a text which reads and comments upon itself, a meditating machine operating by itself with interlocking, superimposed circuits, connected by interferences and closed upon an ultimate loop’. Well and good, if such a Montaigne gives technocrat philologists pleasure: long may they also enjoy their linguistic self-indulgences, writing, for instance, of Montaigne’s sceptical attacks on the ‘tenants [sic] of natural law’ – language deconstructing itself before our very eyes. But need this be done with holier-than-thou rudeness to other scholars? The ‘Montaigne’s mind’ approach may have produced its excesses, as perhaps with Frederick Rider’s ‘anal retentive’ monsieur: but it’s false to imply that Montaigne scholarship is an Augean stables, and the condescension aimed at the late Richard Sayce seems quite gratuitous.

The crusading zeal against the ET heresy frequently becomes inhibiting, a self-denying ordinance. Thus Marianne Meijer’s otherwise learned and absorbing analysis of the persona of Socrates in Montaigne’s last three chapters is finally paralysed by her refusal to consider the humanistic context of myths of ‘Socrates’, which alone give full point to Montaigne’s reworkings. And often enough what poses as rigour is just the Higher Arbitrariness. Take the editor’s stipulation that in interpreting Montaigne it is ‘the essai’ which ‘constitutes the only textual unit worth the name’ – surely a capricious directive in view of the fact that Montaigne did not write ‘essays’ but a volume of 107 chapters called Essais de Michel de Montaigne.

So what would Montaigne – abstraction or author – have made of all this pontificating? These contributors might not stay for an answer – perhaps just as well. Michael Screech, however, offers some clues, pointing out, in his characteristically moving, erudite, but self-effacing study, Montaigne’s great antipathy towards pedantry, blather and bleating. For hard-line deconstructionists Screech’s book will have the Mark of the Beast graven upon it. His Montaigne suffers and acts, has thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears. He retires ‘melancholy in his lonely tower’ and reads, writes and revises for twenty years. And all to a purpose, to purge his melancholy, a prophylaxis against madness.

Gérard Defaux laments the ‘inexplicable deafness’, the ‘errors’, of books with titles such as ‘Montaigne and Death’, ‘Montaigne and Religion’. Screech adds to the syllabus of errors with Montaigne and Melancholy. Yet this is not another laborious index-file job, but a sensitive probe into how Montaigne resolved for himself the age-old ambiguities of melancholia, and in doing so, spoke to what he called the ‘human condition’.

Montaigne diagnosed himself somewhat melancholic in complexion. Of all the humours, melancholy was the most polysemic and protean, not least because it was both a general temperament and a specific malady. It was the well of fear, depression, despair and madness, but also – as Aristotle had formulated and Renaissance Neoplatonism echoed – the stuff of genius. In retiring to his tower, Montaigne knew his fate hung in the balance. Characteristically, when in Ferrara he visited Tasso, to see what happened when a genius indulged his melancholy to fire poetic raptures, but thereby toppled into madness. Montaigne was not sympathetic – he was angry. Too often the cultivation of melancholy was just playing with bile, courting disaster. A generation later, that other constitutional melancholic, Robert Burton, shut himself up in Christ Church and composed for twenty years. The outcome, the Anatomy of Melancholy, won him glory. But it was the testament of an embittered splenetic, a libeller of humanity, whose half a million words kept melancholy on the boil rather than evaporating it. And what of the melancholy Samuel Johnson (‘mad all my life, at least not sober’), for whom the imposed solitariness of composition bred compulsions and collapse, the dread of madness and damnation? Screech suggests how Montaigne confronted melancholy and went about curing himself through learning. There was no ready solution: it took essais, experiments. Yet the outcome was not just personal therapy but a new cultural plane.

Montaigne had much to treat. When he retired, he was heartsick, mauled by death. His father and brother had died. His children were dying (only one lived to grow up). And he had never recovered from the loss of his beloved De La Boétie. How was he to conquer his blackness? The Stoics had their solution for overcoming human cares: the soul could find release by rising above the flesh, through transcendent apathy. You could steel yourself for death, by a training in indifference. Montaigne tested these waters in early writings like ‘To philosophise is to learn to die’. There were also currents of Christian devotion (stiffened with Greek metaphysics) which promised salvation in soaring religious ecstasy and divine madness, freeing the spirit from the body’s prison through meditation, mysticism or mortification. But Montaigne came to rate all this as dangerous pride and folly. Such flights prolonged rather than purged melancholy and its death longings. To be thus ‘blasted with exstacie’ – as Ophelia described Hamlet – was to be crazy sick. The pursuit of enthusiasm would suck into his tower, into his soul, the cruel frenzy of the civil wars and religious bigotry which were poisoning France and which he hated with all his heart.

In time, Montaigne softened, and taught himself to doubt, to reflect and accept, and thereby bade tristesse adieu. The solution did not lie in fleeing from the body: to know yourself you had to be yourself. Writing ‘essays in flesh and bone’, he learned that overcoming melancholy meant not denial but moderation, accepting that man’s essence was to be ‘wondrously corporeal’. The early ‘To philosophise is to learn to die’ became, six years later, ‘it is philosophy that teaches us to live.’

We are familiar enough with how Montaigne practised a limited scepticism (que sçais-je?), how he embraced the relativity of custom and the persuasions of Nature, seeing how local peasants dying of the plague were a match for the Roman Stoics. But Screech shows Montaigne’s self-analysis achieving something far more significant – a new rendering of the self. Montaigne, textbooks tell us, was the great discoverer of identity, of the individual, a Renaissance prefiguring of the Cartesian ego. Taken literally, this is not true. There was no shortage of selves before Montaigne – Christian saints and mystics or Vasari’s artists – just as afterwards solipsists, narcissists and eccentrics were all to abound, from Donne and Sir Thomas Browne through to Rousseau and Timothy Leary. But so many of them were egomaniacs, self-hating, self-exiled, possessed by daemons. Montaigne, by contrast, taught that the soul should be at home with the self – neither beast nor angel, but human. ‘Our great duty’, he wrote, is self-possession; not ‘to compose books’ but ‘to compose our character’ (that great consumptive Montaignian, Laurence Sterne, was later to add, to ‘compose our cough’). For millennia the common self had been despised, and self-exploration was morbid, all agony and ecstasy. Montaigne showed how to be an individual without being mad, and he did so by rejecting transcendence in favour of embodiment, carnal knowledge. Intellectually he achieved this through rubbing shoulders with scholasticism. For, as Screech demonstrates, Montaigne’s crucial ally was Aristotle, and his argument that individuation proceeded through matter, not form, in the body, not out of it. Each man, Montaigne exemplarily insisted, bears the form of the entire human condition. Thus self-analysis led Montaigne to the human race; from being Nobody he found Everyman. Beyond Catholic and Protestant, civilised and cannibal, noble and peasant, there was a common humanity, sharing hopes and fears, friendship and desire, life and death – what Sterne was to see in the nut-brown maid who sang another ‘Gascoigne roundelay’:

Viva la joia
Fidon la tristesse.

Melancholy’s sting had been drawn. Il penseroso had traditionally lost himself in solitude, amazed in books. Montaigne found himself there. This ‘Montaigne’, of course, is an elaborately fictive self – a point much laboured by the deconstructionists, though they are hardly the first to see that the ‘discovered self’ was a mask and myth. Yet the fact that the Essais form a literary space is no reason for erecting a cordon sanitaire between the text and its cultural milieu, the mind of Montaigne and the intellectual legacy. In putting behind him a long tradition of melancholy and ecstasy, Montaigne marks a watershed in ‘imagining mankind’, as Diderot, Sterne and other Enlightenment luminaries knew so well. He had come to distrust transcendence. But he did not do so – as scholars nowadays imply about the stifling of magic and the supernatural in Early Modern Europe – for reasons of dominance and social control. He did so out of charity, pathos, and a wish for reconciliation, to be at home with himself and others.

We are faced here with the deconstructionists’ vision of a cruel empire of signifiers, and with Screech’s Montaigne, who slowly came to celebrate awareness, composing himself through composition. It is surely the latter which tells us more about the Montaignian moment.