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Learning how to die with chimera Montaigne


'Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your time on a topic so frivolous and so vain. Therefore farewell.'

Montaigne's Les EssaisAnd so begins French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne's Les Essais, a forensic and at times eye-popping examination of himself. There's a small Gallic shrug as he gazes straight at his reader — it's all about me, so see you later.

It's cheeky, but for my money, he gets away with it — I can't help running after him as he walks off to his tower study. Like hundreds of thousands before me, I've fallen for him already.

What is it about Montaigne? Why am I seduced by a small, provincial Frenchman who lived near enough to 500 years ago, and only wants to talk about himself? Why has he stimulated and fascinated so many through the centuries? I'm finding it difficult to answer because Montaigne is so resistant to categories, so hard to fix as a character. For someone who claims to have written all about himself, he is elusive.

And that is partly the point. To even try to pin down Montaigne, to organise him, seems an anti-Montaignan exercise. He saw himself, and by extension, human beings as in a state of constant flux. 'I am unable to stabilise my subject: it staggers confusedly along with a natural drunkenness ... I am not portraying becoming, but being.'

His sense of a self that can never truly see itself is the beginning of modernism, the beginning of the idea of the self as a construction. 

Once in Paris I went to an exhibition of self-portraits by Van Gogh, Matisse, Magritte, Kahlo and many others. They were astonishing, but what struck most was a sentence in the exhibition notes, 'I have never seen my face'. It was both obvious and a startling revelation.

Of course we never see our own face, only a reflection. Any portrayal of the self has to be a layered and messy reflection rather than a few spare and beautiful lines. How can it be anything else when we never see our face, and when the mirrors we gaze in are tinted, cracked, murky?

This is what Montaigne knew; observing the self must always be a hall of mirrors exercise, fragmentary, reflecting infinitely.

It's partly this uncertainty that I find so appealing. I have always felt guilty about an inability to commit to any belief system, any ideology, seeing it as a vacillating flaw in myself. So when Montaigne said 'Only fools have made up their mind and are certain,' I felt an enormous sense of relief. Montaigne well knew that those who are very certain are the ones to shut down newspapers, condemn to concentration camps, blow up aeroplanes, lop off heads, light auto-da fé, burn books.

In an age of faith how did he know about the value of uncertainty? Centuries before psychology, why did he examine the self with such intensity? And how does he accomplish the double trick of not only revealing himself, but making me, his reader, want to reveal myself without artifice as he does?

Montaigne was born in 1533 into a noble family and lived in a chateau near Bergerac in the Perigord region of southwest France. He was one of eight children, five boys and three girls — the same configuration as my own family.

When I learned he was one of eight, I could see he understood how difficult it was to know who you are when there are many opinions. I was fifth in my family, so there weren't a lot of roles left to choose from by then — I chose the annoying role of observer — but Montaigne was the eldest and the subject of his father's experiments with an enlightened upbringing.

His father decided that Michel should know Latin without the years of boring effort normally required, so when he was still a baby, his father engaged a tutor who spoke only Latin to him. Everyone else in the household, including his mother and the servants, also had to learn Latin in order to chat with him, so that by the time he was six, he spoke and wrote Latin fluently.

His father did not want to force his will, but 'to educate his soul entirely through gentleness and freedom'. It sounds as if Michel had an almost hippy upbringing — his father even insisted that every morning Michel be woken by the sound of a musical instrument, believing that it disturbed the tender brains of children to be snatched suddenly from sleep.

I remember reading the same advice in the gentle birthing and child-rearing books in the 1970s nearly 500 years later.

This experience and his study of the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers formed Montaigne's ideas on education and on philosophy, which he said should be easy and pleasurable. For him, philosophy was the most important subject to teach to children. He asks, 'what is the use of knowing the movements of stars if we don't know our own minds and hearts ... '

Montaigne did try to know the world as well. He went to Paris several times, travelled around Europe as far as Rome and was mayor of Bordeaux for four years, but spent most of his time in his tower room in the Perigord, a region which saw much violence during the 100 Years War and the Wars of Religion.

By the time he settled into his study, the wars with England were over, for the time being, but the Wars of Religion were swirling around France. In fact, the day Montaigne started his essays was the very day of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris, 23 August 1572.

It was perhaps no accident that one of the first essays he wrote was about death, 'To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die'. He says that we must consider death often to get used to the idea. In his day even children would have seen dead bodies; people died at home in their own beds if they weren't killed in one or other of the wars sweeping around the countryside.

In the 21st century there are endless dead bodies on our lounge-room screens every night but it still seems impossible to contemplate our own non-existence. Actual dead bodies, seeing the actual last breath, is the only thing that makes us understand.

Along with death, sex is also a favourite topic for Montaigne. In fact he brings them together rather neatly when he gives a list of men who have died between a woman's thighs. The opposite list, women who have died between a man's thighs, isn't offered. On Montaigne's part, it's not out of modesty, he's just as upfront about sex, probably more so, as about any other topic.

'The whole movement of the world tends and leads towards copulation,' he says. He agrees with the Greeks and Romans that women have a greater capacity for sex and desire it more ardently than men. He quotes Juvenal on the Emperor and Empress of Rome both 'infamous past-masters on the job' — he managed to deflower ten virgins in one night, she engaged with twenty-five partners ... '

He quotes too the Queen of Aragon, who after mature deliberation, ordained that 'it is necessary in a proper marriage to limit intercourse to six times a day — sacrificing much of women's needs and desires in order to establish a scale which would not be too exacting ... '

He was only in his 40s when he was writing his most open discussion of sex in 'On Some Lines of Virgil' and yet he writes as a man who can no longer do 'the job' as he called it. He believes sex is for the young — under 20 — and that women beyond 30 are kidding themselves if they think they still hold any interest for men.

There is a thread throughout his essays of him finding sex undignified and therefore unfitting for grown men and women. It is one of his many contradictions and doesn't stop him from telling us nature has treated him unjustly because 'Even good matrons know all too well and do not gladly see a tiny cock.'

I'm not sure I needed to know that, but his justification for such revelations is that 'I owe to the public my portrait complete ... I have bidden myself to dare to write whatever I dare to think; I am loath to even have thoughts which I cannot publish.' But, again contradictory, he later says he does not like writing that is too open and direct about sex. 'The poet who tells all, gluts us and puts us off ... '

It confronts me with my own contradictory attitude. I like the shock of honesty but also squirm at too much information. I like reading sex scenes as much as anyone else, but I don't really want to write about my own sex life. Still, Montaigne has bared even his tiny cock; I can at least try to be truthful.

Let me state, for example, that in my experience sex in the afternoon is better than anything else in existence. The time of day is the only thing that matters, geography and position are largely irrelevant. It can be up against the bathroom door at home, or under a gum-tree in the Australian bush, or on a black leather couch in Paris in the 18th arrondissement; sex in the afternoon is the eye-glazing dopamine-pumping pinnacle of physical existence. Will that suffice?

Of course, there's always so much more to say about sex, but Montaigne reveals a directness that I find startling and appealing at the same time — it startles my private sensibility — still private despite being a memoirist — and yet it refreshes like cool water on a hot day. I am drawn to any kind of honesty because it is something I have always found difficult.

I think what I love most about Montaigne is his honesty about his flaws. Naturally, I like his confessions because they are also my flaws.

He says, 'These writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has only tasted the outer crust of knowledge ... and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it; a little about everything and nothing about anything.'

I too have always felt that I know only the general sweep of anything, a scattered knowledge — and that one day I will surely be found out. My nightmares — being caught in front of thousands without notes, the words disappearing, my heart thumping — betray my fear.

Montaigne also lets himself wander wherever he likes in his writing: 'As my fancies present themselves, I pile them up; now they come pressing in a crowd, now dragging single file. I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is.' Oh yes, the delights of indulging whatever track presents itself at whatever pace ...

He even admits to a 'tendency to ape and imitate'. He says when he took up poetry he always sounded like the poet he had just read. He realised he mustn't read while he was writing because he was too easily influenced; I am in need of the same rule.

These are flaws of knowledge and sensibility, but Montaigne is just as honest about character: 'Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending on some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; miserly and then prodigal.'

This is where it becomes trickier for me. I too am contradictory but my flaws seem less forgivable. I can be compassionate and warm-hearted, but also judgemental and intolerant; I can be sensitive and thoughtful or I can be self-absorbed; I can be generous but can also engage in proving my life is better than others. This last flaw is probably the one that bothers me the most because I don't understand it.

I first became aware of it when I was telling an acquaintance how, as part of my work, I give a writing class in Paris every autumn.

'You have an enviable life,' she said.

I noticed a small preening of pleasure, as if I had received a compliment. Since then I've observed it a few times, a desire to have the best life — as if there were a competition I was determined to win.

I could say it comes from insecurity, a catch-all explanation for most bad behaviour, and it would be true, but I don't understand why mine takes this form. It doesn't mean that I don't have some generosity of spirit — but I also have that buried streak, which whips out like a serpent, quick and slippery and giving off the stale odour of neediness.

That's probably enough confession — it can look like asking for forgiveness. I am not; I am simply trying, under the spell of Montaigne, to be honest.

I am reluctant to leave him behind; I have hardly touched the sides of his thinking, nor scolded him for occasional misogyny — nor touched his religion, nor politics, his love of nature, his playful spirit. Nor have I admired his exquisitely light style, quick like mercury, light-footed, at ease with the complex and contradictory nature of things.

I think Montaigne would have liked the fact that after he died his heart was taken out and buried in the parish church, and his body was re-buried several times, ending up at Bordeaux University. He said he always found it hard to be fixed: 'I do not know whether I have found it harder to fix my mind in one place or my body.'

Now he doesn't have to decide, he can be in many places at once.

Perhaps, in the end, it's why I love Montaigne. He knew the self couldn't be seized, that it was a chimera, but still, he lets us feel we know him, and even more, that he knows us. More than anything, reading Montaigne illuminates my own world and self. And that is the lovely irony in Montaigne's opening statement: the subject of his book is in fact the reader; his book is really all about us.

Patti Miller

Patti Miller is the author of Ransacking Paris: a Year With Montaigne and Friends. She has taught writing for over 20 years and written many books including The Last One Who Remembers, Whatever the Gods Do, The Memoir Book and The Mind of a Thief.

Topic tags: Patti Miller, Montaigne, France, sex, death, religion, philosophy



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Existing comments

Well. An interesting gentleman, to say the least. Thank you for this wonderful essay, Patti - more, please! My Penguin Encyclopedia has a medium-sized entry for M. Montaigne with an eloquent last sentence: "Quoted by Shakespeare, imitated by Bacon, and incorporated into the discourse of the novel, Montaigne's essays have provided a major contribution to literary history." Not bad, sounds like a good sort.

Pam | 13 October 2015  

The Catholic Encyclopaedia [CE] mentions the various traits of Montaigne's essays including,only en passsnt the "lascivious" mentioned here above! But for edification in a Catholic Journal I bypass e.g. his once inclusion in the "Index"[ noted and discussed in 2003 New Catholic Encyclopaedia NCE] and focus upon a most edifying note at least "on learning to die" like the real Montaigne. As a preamble to his dying CE noted: "He[Montaigne] also said that outside of the path pointed out by the Church reason "is lost, embarrassed, shackled". In a letter he relates in a Christian manner the Christian death of his friend La Boétie. Then, Pasquier relates that Montaigne "caused Mass to be said in his chamber and when the priest came to the elevation the poor gentleman raised himself as well as he could in bed with hands joined and thus yielded his soul to God". He died therefore in a supreme act of faith. "[Beat that for "honesty"!!]

Father John George | 13 October 2015  

Much admired by my Pedagogy teacher. Have a book or two of his great essays. Didn’t he also contribute towards the first encyclopaedia ( French ) coming into being together with at least two other Enlightenment thinkers? I vaguely remember he comparing the acquiring of knowledge to the consumption of food the digestive system its processes and how it all starts in the mouth by firstly taking small bites then tasting, chewing, swallowing…

AO | 14 October 2015  

" Montaigne said 'Only fools have made up their mind'. Many people drink in their religious affiliation with their mother's milk, and rarely question it. Unfortunately for such people, God has evidently decreed that everything is to evolve. This includes the way religions can best express and embrace Goodness and Truth. However an exaggerated respect for tradition often insists on retaining the bath-water as well as the baby - even alas. (occasionally), INSTEAD of the baby. What began as "Love and aid your neighbour" somehow, sometimes, ended up burning at the stake any neighbour who, however sincerely, sought to approach God by a different, even more spiritual path.

Robert Liddy | 14 October 2015  

'Only fools have made up their mind', That reminds me of being told by a wise and scholarly scripture teacher, when I was having difficulties reconciling what I was then learning with what I had been told as a child, 'Alan, you know don't you, that the opposite of faith is not doubt, It is certainty.' Can I say I am now certain that this is true?

Alan Hogan | 14 October 2015  

AO I stand corrected, but oddly despite. admirers among french encyclopedists and editor Diderot; I find no allusion to Michel Eyquem de Montaignem, as French encyclopaedia contributor! All despite Montaigne having had a direct influence on writers all over the world, including René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Albert Hirschman, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig, Eric Hoffer, Isaac Asimov, and possibly on the later works of William Shakespeare.

Father John George | 14 October 2015  

Mr Liddy sir you have noted Montaigne said 'Only fools have made up their mind" **I add: ironically Monsieur Montaigne had made up his mind, rock solid, on that assertion.

Father John George | 14 October 2015  

FJG. Thank you for looking up the info online.

AO | 14 October 2015  

Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing Patti's essay in all its Montaigne-like honesty. Would that Montaigne, or someone, male or female, with his honesty, present at the Synod on the Family. He wrote in a style comparable with that of Oscar Wilde. Here's what he had to say about marriage. "It is like a cage: one sees the birds outside desperate to get in. and those inside equally desperate to get out." (Essais III. v) In general Montaigne's essays describe the moral perplexities and ambiguities of the human condition which St Paul summed up as: "The good that I would, I do not and the evil that I would not, that I do." (Romans 7:19) Somehow the Church's doctrine of Original Sin seems an inadequate explanation for the behavioural differences that exist within one man or woman, let alone for the behavioural differences between and within families, tribes and nations.

Uncle Pat | 15 October 2015  

Thanks Patti for a lovely article. You have reminded me to read more Montaigne, who I have only skimmed previously.

Karen | 16 October 2015  

To read Montaigne is to be reminded of the inner world of the soul, where, as Rilke reminds us, there's more life than we'll ever need.

John | 16 October 2015  

I must admit, I had written a comment without first reading the article. New comment: The Bold and The Beautiful? Most people buy the highest quality plasma screens, only to watch the lowest quality TV shows.

AO | 18 October 2015  

Beautiful piece. Yes, it makes me want to revisit Montaigne, too. And it reminds me of a memoir I'm reading right now by Phillip Lopate, who also loves Montaigne: "Portrait Inside my Head". Thank you!

Sarah | 22 October 2015  

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