The Man-Mountain

Jacques Barzun on The Complete Works of Montaigne, Translated by Donald M. Frame (In Arthur Krystal’s A Company of Readers):

It was a hill, really, that Montaigne lived on and drew his name from; it is only the Essays that are mountainous. Like mountains they tower along the horizon, vaguely known except to a few climbers, though generally admired as decorative, in the mistaken belief that they are what they seem from a distance.

The murmur of tradition, which one is likely to overhear and trust before the mind is fully awake, is that the Essays are a bedside book, the work of a humane skeptic who remarkably anticipates the doctrines of liberalism. Living in fanatical and dangerous times, he preached tolerance and desired progressive education, confessed to doubt and contemplated death, with the aid of multitudinous quotations from classic authors. One is supposed to go to him for random reflections on life, as Shakespeare is said to have done, and if it is to the French text or to Florio’s English that one goes, one finds the reflections quaint as well as shrewd. Montaigne thus survives in conventional criticism as a sort of prose Chaucer or discursive Horace reiterating the religion of sensible men.

Any tameness in this is felt to be redeemed by extensive and candid self-revelation, some of it titillating; so that as autobiographer and explorer of the human condition (the phrase is his), Montaigne becomes IMPORTANT. If only he had had the gumption to put his—ah—er—insights into systematic form if he had produced a philosophy susceptible of close analysis, the contemporary examiners of credentials such as the douanier Eliot would assign him a higher place. But then he would not be a bedside book. The Essays would be moved to the study and eventually to the public rooms, where they would impress the neophytes and supply them with topics of disputation.

Now, it may be too late to shake off the curiosity hunters; they do little harm as long as they remain a murmuring minority. But it is essential to give the rest, and especially the newcomers) a chance to see Montaigne for what he is; and for this Donald Frame’s new translation of the entire canon—Essays, Letters, and Journal—comes remarkably apropos.

The first sight of the volume is in itself tonic; these eleven hundred large pages cannot possibly be turned into a bedside book-they crush dilettantism and shame impertinence; while the merest glance at the sinewy modern prose dispels quaintness and brings before you, speaking and gesticulating, a subtle mind at the service of a powerful will. Though Montaigne’s long paragraphs have been broken up to please our modem eye, the prevailing impression is that of an irresistible continuity of thought.

The greatest of Montaigne’s readers, who was Pascal, felt this pressure of mind most deeply and forged his own philosophy by leaning against it, as many jottings and allusions in the Pensees testify. What is more, Pascal’s ultimate triumph in the unwritten work projected in the Pensees was to rest on the same base as Montaigne had solidly erected in the Essays. Pascal uses the chart of existence that Montaigne has drawn, but adds to it the realm of Transcendence. And even the arguments for giving faith and primacy to that realm derive from the premises and conclusions common to both thinkers. When, therefore, Pascal says that in reading Montaigne one finds a man and not an author, the reference is not to the autobiographical details—that Montaigne was below medium height, walked briskly, wore only black and white, had a keen sense of smell, loved conversation, and hated beer—it is to the fact that the Essays embody knowledge and not learning.

The presence of the many quotations is in fact as misleading as the tradition of the wise old skeptic: it was only after Montaigne’s death, in the first posthumous edition of 1595, that the bulk of the Latin insertions occurred. True, Montaigne had been gathering them during the last four years of his life, but who shall say that his motive was not the familiar one of seeking confirmation by parallels? The more independent and imaginative a writer is, the more in retrospect he is likely to find his novelties consonant with recorded reality. It is not as tags or as proofs that Montaigne multiplies classic instance; it is as a means of establishing an historical span for the truth of his observations. That is why he says ““Historians are my meat,”” knowing that he was not compiling an anthology: ““I speak others’ minds only to speak my own the more.””

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