rediscovering Montaigne

After an intense week of thinking and reading and writing about entanglement with computers, I fell to wondering about my own history of writing about things that were on my mind, and Montaigne bubbled up: I wondered if his Essays had been written for himself [they started out that way] and if it was only later that he bethought to publish them for wider readership [yes, in 1580]… and didn’t I have a Kindle book that would remind me… and sure enough I’d bought Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in April 2011… so, worthwhile (a) to look at again, and (b) to consider the content and directions of that 11 years. It turned out to be a very interesting, worthwhile, and encouraging two days of re-reading Bakewell’s marvelous book. The structure of the book, limned by the subtitle, has chapters thusly:

  1. Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
  2. Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
  3. Q. How to live? A. Be born
  4. Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  5. Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
  6. Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
  7. Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
  8. Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
  9. Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
  10. Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
  11. Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
  12. Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
  13. Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
  14. Q. How to live? A. See the world
  15. Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
  16. Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
  17. Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing: Je ne regrette rien
  18. Q. How to live? A. Give up control (Daughter and disciple; The editing wars Montaigne remixed and embabooned)
  19. Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
  20. Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer

And those 20 questions are potential fodder for many Convivium Questions.

The iPad Notebook of my highlightings of passages in the Kindle version captures the excitement of this reading, though any number of other stretches of the text could have been included—it’s that provocative a text.

And yes, it feels that my own writings are of the same allusive and digressive (not to say wandering…) ilk, such that a Project of attending more closely to Montaigne seems delicious to contemplate. So I’ve queued up several resources to hear, read, and enjoy exploring:

Wikipedia on The Essays

Jane Kramer’s New Yorker profile (Sept 7, 2009 and I recall reading it at the time)

Cotton/Hazlitt 1685/1877 translation of the Essays

from the Preface:
He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences.

Audible reading of Essays

LibriVox reading of Essays

Essays in the Frame translation (1957)

Montaigne’s times were in some ways not so very different from our own (France riven by religious conflict and inept government; physical danger from various marauders, including epidemic disease and the unpredictable thrashings of victims of structural inequalities, and uncertainties about the future), despite the vast gulf of differences in technologies that 440 years presents. The wonder of Montaigne’s essays [and it was he who coined the term ‘essai’…] is that they speak so clearly across that gulf, and have done so pretty continuously for all that time. Cotton’s translation of 1685 is still readable, and there’s a long-running Montaigne Industry, which charts a history of extremely varied readings and fashions and emphases (all ably and amusingly tracked by Bakewell).

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