In praise of Montaigne, father of the essay
Isn’t wonderful when your idiosyncracies are validated? And what better a person to do so than Montaigne (1533-92) father of the essay. Just when I was tired of some readers grumbling that I never had an opinion… never defended a thesis… I happened upon Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.
Bakewell, a writer who catalogues rare books for the National Trust, is well qualified to write of Montaigne, and I love her title. A long title, to be sure, but a title that exemplifies Montaigne’s open-ended approach to questions. Bakewell suggests that it might take 20 attempts to find an answer. In her book she writes: “Although he [Montaigne] returned to his work constantly, he hardly ever seemed to get the urge to cross out – only to keep adding more.” That’s me!
I’m feeling vindicated. I am following in the steps of Montaigne (1533-92) who writing during the Renaissance created a new genre that he called essais. In French, essayer simply means to try. [To try] is to test or taste.
This definition is far removed from the classic, five-paragraph essay taught in college: an essay in which the first paragraph states a thesis and previews the three main points in defense of the thesis. Paragraphs two, three, and four develop the three points in turn. Paragraph five concludes.
In contrast, going back to Blakewell’s book, Montaigne wrote free-floating pieces. Blackwell wrote: “Even when his thoughts are most irrational and dream-like, his writing follows them. ‘I cannot keep my subject still.’ He says, ‘It goes along befuddled and staggering with a natural drunkenness.’”
I love it! Montaigne and I, partners in crime – our writing “staggering with a natural drunkenness.” I’ve been waiting for someone to defend my lack of thesis and resolution, and now I’ve found him.
Blackwell also quoted Walt Whitman – a quote which also serves me well:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Yes, multitudes of questions. Or… Whitman would more likely say that he was one of the multitudes. Which fits well with Blakewell’s quoting Theodore Zeldin: “Shared self-revelation is the best way to develop trust and co-operation around the planet, replacing stereotypes with real people.”
As my business card says,
“I ask the questions. If you are looking for answers, go someplace else.”
Saturday we return to Colorado. Will I be glad to return? Yes. Will I be sad to leave London? Yes. In particular, I will miss the surprise, that awaits at every corner. I will replace the stolen camera on my return to the States, but the two photographs below best exemplify the kind of surprise that I like best. My favorite surprise is not in the theater, the museum, or heritage site; rather, it is in the street.