Monday, 11 April 2011

A short digression - some notes on Montaigne

In her essay on Montaigne (The Common Reader 1935), Virginia Woolf has some interesting thoughts on the ideas of wandering/getting lost and self. (I am now referring to getting lost in all possible ways… intellectually, psychologically, geographical + )

She starts the essay by asking:
Why is it not, in like manner, lawful for every one to draw himself with a pen, as he did with a crayon?
And answers:
To tell the truth about oneself, to discover oneself near at hand, is not easy. And beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself.
To wander and to write are two very different ways to go about examining ones own self. Still these methods are related by what I will choose to call a whimsical state of mind ... especially apparent in personal essays. 
(e.g Woolf, Dillard, Montaigne, Solnit ... for a great introduction to the personal essay as a genre, have a look here

This is what Woolf finds when she read Montaigne:
The soul is all laced about with nerves and sympathies which affect her every action, and yet, even now in 1580, no one has any clear knowledge — such cowards we are, such lovers of the smooth conventional ways — how she works or what she is except that of all things she is the most mysterious, and one’s self the greatest monster and miracle in the world. “. . . plus je me hante et connois, plus ma difformit√© m’estonne, moins je m’entens en moy.” Observe, observe perpetually, and, so long as ink and paper exist, “sans cesse et sans travail” Montaigne will write.
In the above cited text Woolf is quoting Montaigne saying: "Even now in 1580", what can I say? I guess its self-explanatory why so many readers still look upon Montaigne as one of their own contemporaries - also in 2011.

We have to do what E.M. Forster has advised us to in Aspects of the Novelpicture all the novelists are at work together in a circular room. Or see them all as fellow walkers -


Tom Cunliffe said...

I have Montaigne's essays but find them very difficult to get into. Fortunately I also have Sarah Bakewell's How To Live - A Life of Montaigne which helped me understand him better. I enjoy reading essays and hope to make more progress with Montaigne over the coming months

Sigrun said...

I actually bought Sarah Bakewell's "How To Live - A Life of Montaigne" earlier this winter, haven't gotten around to read it yet, but definitively will. I take it you liked it?

I really like Philip Lopate's introduction to the essay genre in his book "The Art of the Personal Essay", for me Lopate's book has become an important reference work.

Tom Cunliffe said...

I also enjoyed Anne Faydiman's book At Large and Small - another book of essays. I will look up the Lopate.

Sigrun said...

Thank you Tom, Anne Fadiman's At Large and Small absolutely sounds like a book I vil enjoy!