by Mara Naselli
Montaigne's essays are famously voluminous. He didn't cut text; he added it. The book is a monster. He said so himself: “What are these Essays if not monstrosities and grotesques, botched together from a variety of limbs having no defined shape, with an order, sequence, and proportion which are purely fortuitous.”
Despite their prodigiousness, Montaigne's essays have enjoyed a popular reception in recent years. We love him for his genuineness, candor, and humility. We think of him as ahead of his time, the first blogger, just like us, trying to figure out how to live in the world. His introspection is a legitimation of our own. But what Montaigne was doing—writing about himself thinking about the world—was a radical rebellion that goes well beyond our own contemporary idiom of self and world. If we look at Montaigne within his historical context, his literary innovation is even more startling. His epistolary intimacy and authority isn't achieved through an elevation of what we now call the self. In fact, Montaigne's understanding of the self has a lot more in common with the Greek notion of the self than our own. For the Greeks the self was not an individual with unique qualities. Knowing oneself meant knowing one's place in the world, knowing how persons differ from gods. It meant knowing one's limits.
Montaigne lived on the cusp of epochal change. The limits that defined the European known world were dissolving in the age of discovery, and yet medieval ideas about how that world worked still dominated in Montaigne's lifetime. The sun, for example, moved around the earth. If you slept on a pile of gold, you would wake transformed into the body of a dragon. Storks lived only in free states. A balance of four basic fluids determined one's health. These beliefs organized a powerful and complicated environment into a divinely ordered whole. At the time, every creature, every detail of the natural world had symbolic meaning to be read as the Book of Nature, authored by God. To understand beasts and nature, to understand even one's own body was to understand God's will. Monsters and monstrosities, deformities of any kind were seen as punishments or omens.
In other words, the medieval world was a closed system. The boundaries—geographic, philosophical, and religious—were known. Nature was to be deciphered. Consider again the dragon.† It wielded power with its tail. Notice this illustration from a French bestiary, shown to me by the painter Jil Evans. She noted how the dragon's tail is drawn coiled up against the edge of the page, as if the act of rendering the creature also contained it. As with medieval maps that delineated the known world—terra incognita could only be imagined. There Be Dragons. Beyond the articulate reside the monsters.
So it was a particularly interesting choice of words, when Montaigne described his mind as a runaway horse, giving “birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, . . . that . . . I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself” (italics mine). It's well known that Montaigne suffered from melancholy. He was no stranger to grief. His particular complexion of humors (he thought of himself as a sanguine melancholic, common among men of learning) was considered vulnerable to genius or lunacy. So when he finds himself, in his scholarly leisure, not at ease, but at risk of losing control of his rational mind, Montaigne does not resort to the traditional cures—stones, plants, herbs, and the like. Nor does he turn to scripture or prayer or God, as doctors of his time would have advised. Montaigne turns to the mind itself. He observes and doubts its behavior. He keeps a record, as a scientist might, of his observations. Montaigne is writing to restore the mind's agency over his runaway passions. As contemporary readers we recognize the therapeutic dimension of writing to get a grip. But at the time Montaigne was writing, to write one's own mind—to write to the edge of one's own understanding, to the threshold between knowing and unknowing—was without precedent. Montaigne is containing the dragon, drawing its tail up against the edge of the page. He saw the threat of madness. He understood the moral dimensions of health—body and mind—and was writing to restore the rational soul. This is an ancient-medieval idea. That this would be achieved by a turn toward the self is not. Montaigne is not merely introspective. He is a natural historian of the soul.
As melancholia threatened Montaigne's inner world, exploration threatened the order of the medieval world. New creatures, continents, and peoples upset the comprehensive symbolic universe—they didn't fit neatly into the lexicon of emblems inherited from classical and biblical writings. What to do with such a menagerie?
Catalog it. Specimens were collected in cabinets of curiosity. Native peoples from the New World were captured and displayed. Travellers gave eyewitness accounts of monstrous creatures. In the mid-1500s, natural historian Conrad Gessner aspired to record and illustrate a comprehensive inventory of all creatures known to humankind. (The desire for encyclopedic knowledge, it seems, originates in a medieval aspiration for completeness.) His four-volume Historiae animalium included stories and descriptions from ancient texts, the established authorities, as well as new eyewitness accounts. Personal observation was emerging as a legitimate source of knowledge. It bears mentioning, Gessner's work produced a motley compendium of the fantastic. It included humanoid whales and satyrs, as well as unicorns and mermaids. Though even the horse, seen as a noble and tractable creature, is illustrated incorrectly, with doll-like features and a faint smile. The medieval way of looking at the world shaped even the most daily observations. Creatures recounted in Ovid or Homer were just as real as the sea monk (fishmen that looked like monks in vestments) thought to be seen by sailors at sea, or the cows grazing in the commons.
It wasn't just monstrous creatures and peoples that upset the intellectual order of the medieval world. After the fall of Constantinople, Greek texts, hitherto unknown in Europe, arrived in the West. Sextus Empericus, for example, one of the Skeptics important to Montaigne, was translated into Latin in 1563. While Montaigne never adhered to any one school of thought, thinkers like Epictetus and Sextus corroborated his deeper disposition to refuse to serve any one intellectual master. It was a Skeptic motto (What do I know) that Montaigne had inscribed on a medal he had coined for himself.
Montaigne doesn't trust others' opinions, nor his own. Just as Gessner's natural history shifted authority back to observation, the Greek practice of question and doubt shifted the locus of judgment back on the subject, rather than faith or obedience or revelation. “I have my own laws and my own court to judge me,” Montaigne writes, “and I refer to these rather than elsewhere.” Montaigne tested and retested his own judgment—a practice at odds with the divine totality of the medieval universe.
Montaigne applied these shifts in intellectual authority to his own inquiry. The discipline of natural history was familiar to him. He had translated the work of natural theologian and historian Raymond Sebond and visited the cabinets of curiosity of Felix Platter, whose collection included some of Gessner's own specimens and original illustrations for Historiae animalium. He knew a man who had traveled to what is now known as South America, and he interviewed a native chief who was brought to Europe. Yet when it comes to his consideration of “cannibals,” he resists placing them within the European encyclopedic sense of order. The barbarians turn out not to be barbaric at all.
He declares “cannibals” no more savage than the Europeans themselves. “Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to,” he writes. “We have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. There we always find the perfect religion, the perfect polity, the most developed and perfect way of doing anything!” Montaigne doesn't demean the native peoples. He elevates them. They are pure and closer to Nature. They are closer to the origin of humanity than even the Greeks, and he's irritated Aristotle, Plato, and the rest had no knowledge of them. Oh brave new world that has such people in't.
It's fair to say the Montaigne's fascination with “cannibals” produced its own problematic brand of primitivism. But when Montaigne encounters people who, at the time, were considered to be monstrous, he doesn't place them within the incumbent order. The received authorities Plato, Aristotle, and others—have nothing to say on the subject. So he turns the inquiry self-ward: Who are we? How do we know what we think we know? The encounter with the New World was for Montaigne an occasion to question collective assumptions. More importantly, he questions his own subjectivity. What were the assumptions of Montaigne's own thinking? What were his own native barbarisms and savageries? Montaigne is applying the Skeptics to the New World. An encounter with the unknown, with the malformed and strange, was for Montaigne an occasion to doubt his own thinking.
One of Montaigne's most famous essays recounts a visit to a fourteen-month-old “monster child.” He doesn't divine warning from the child's deformity. He describes it. The child has one head and two bodies. It will take breast milk but spit out food. Two men and a wet nurse were “exhibiting [it] for its strangeness,” he writes, “so as to make a penny or two out of it.” It is not an easy passage—the child's arm was broken during childbirth, his mother, in all likelihood, was dead (it's hard to imagine a woman surviving that labor). His deformity is being hawked.
But for Montaigne, the monster-child is an epistemological problem, an occasion to consider how the human mind takes in strangeness. “What a man frequently sees never produces wonder in him. . . . But if something occurs he has never seen before, he takes it as a portent.” As Gessner might have done, Montaigne makes an observation and records it. But he takes it a step further and discards the received wisdom. The ostensible subject of the essay—the monster-child—turns into an examination of judgment.
Oh what we believe! The two men and the child's nurse see a creature from which they can make a few pennies. His countrymen see an omen. Montaigne sees a deformed child who, for its strangeness, is turned into something else entirely. Montaigne saw how neatly our views ally with the order we have inflicted on the world. “There is nothing over which men usually strain harder than when giving free run to their opinions,” he writes. “Should the regular means be lacking, we support them by commands, force, fire, and sword.” This line was not speculative. As Montaigne wrote, the Wars of Religion raged around him, within striking distance of his own estate. He saw the barbarism ignited by religious fanaticism.
How do we read the world? How do we put it in categories and impose on it meanings that inevitably serve us in one way or another? “We need only get a hold of the thread,” he writes, “then reel off whatever we want.” Montaigne understood how one practiced thinking had consequences. If a man is seen as an animal, it's half a step away from enslavement. If a woman is seen as a witch, she is dangerous and must be contained. If we don't doubt, who are we?
Montaigne's essays accumulated purpose just as they accumulated text: they began as a labor of study, became a form of healing, and then an epistolary self-portrait for his loved ones. The essays generated a readership across Europe within Montaigne's lifetime, and he wrote until his death, at the age of fifty-nine. But the core of the essays, their unique qualities that have influenced centuries of thinking and literature, remained central throughout his writing: to investigate his mind and body's relation to the world. His essay on friendship, “De l'amitié,” was inspired by his dearest friend, Etienne de la Boetie, whom he lost seven years before his retirement. The pronunciation of l'amitié echoes the French word l'âme, or soul. In which case it makes sense to think of friendship, the writing of essays, and the making of a soul as related endeavors. For in conversation with a friend, where we can be candid and true, we can together inquire and doubt and become ourselves.
The contemporary reading of Montaigne celebrates his introspection. But he is also looking outward investigating how he looks and how he thinks about what he observes. This is the radical innovation Montaigne offers us. When we encounter things that “surpass our knowledge,” he writes, “I consider that we should suspend our judgment, neither believing nor rejecting. Many of the world's abuses are engendered—or to put it more rashly, all of this world's abuses are engendered—by our being schooled to fear to admit our ignorance.” Montaigne added that interjected clause between the em dashes just before he died. You can see the accumulation of his thinking in action here. The authority Montaigne challenges is the medieval universe, symbolically ordered and ordained, full of miracles and prognostications. But what does he see when he turns his critical eye upon himself? Miraculous monstrosity: “I have not seen anywhere in the world a monster [monstre] more expressly miraculous than I am. . . . The more I haunt myself and know myself the more my misshapenness amazes me and the less I understand myself.” What Montaigne means here is how unknowable we are to ourselves. The miraculous monstrosity of unknowingness. Montaigne refuses to consent to the encyclopedic aspirations of medieval and Renaissance thought. The self—his self—and the world are too unknowable.
Montaigne takes the impulse to be comprehensive and applies it not to what he knows, but to what he doesn't know. He investigates to the edge of understanding. This is what the essay does best. It is a form of inquiry that takes us into unchartered waters. For Montaigne this was an ever-expanding investigation of monstrous proportions. It is as if in his twenty-year endeavor, he was cultivating an ever-expanding self, taking in more and more of the world, not to catalog it, but to wonder at it. Montaigne is monstrous because the world is monstrous. He becomes of the world, known and unknown.
† Photo credit: Dragon image courtesy of Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, KB, 128 C4, folio 94v. Used with permission.