The Essay and Our Post-Fact Moment

by Mara Naselli


The literary debate over the role of fact and invention in essay now appears to have foreshadowed our own post-fact moment. Suddenly this is not an idle matter. When writers knowingly take liberties with the facts in the name of art, they demote the reader from fellow traveler to spectator. Trust me, they say, it will be fantastic. For those who feel tricked, the betrayal is more than just bad feeling. An essayist who flagrantly manipulates fact fails to appreciate the essay’s greatest strength—the convergence of intimacy and shared inquiry.

The most recent review to enter the fray is William Deresiewicz’s “In Defense of Facts,” just published in The Atlantic. Deresiewicz attacks John D’Agata’s three essay anthologies for many things, notably a disregard for history. Deresiewicz rightly situates the historical origin of both fact and essay in tandem. For they are cousins, born out of the same revolutionizing changes that moved the Western intellectual tradition from the medieval world to the Renaissance. These changes laid the path for empirical science in the process. Montaigne’s “scrupulous investigation,” Deresiewicz writes, was the essay’s distinguishing feature in the sixteenth century.

If we pause to consider Montaigne and his time, we may make an even bolder claim that could renew our own contemporary relationship to the essay as an instrument of inquiry. Montaigne’s inward turn was not simply introspective. His scrupulous investigation was in service to a more ambitious endeavor: the relocation of the authority of judgment from the external authorities of the Church and ancient texts to the inward authority of the self. It was the act of investigation and inquiry toward understanding that made Montaigne’s work so remarkable.

His essays emerged as singular, idiosyncratic (even monstrous) explorations, subject to his limitations as well as his intelligent scrutiny. By locating the investigation and judgment in the body and mind of the writer, Montaigne invented the authority of authorship.

We recognize Montaigne’s inwardness because we inherited it from him. Our focus on Montaigne’s self-scrutiny, however, has perhaps subverted fuller interpretations of his project. It’s true that Montaigne’s decision to write about himself was unusual and daring, but his subjects were also encyclopedic—on prayer, on war horses, on friendship, on cannibals. The fact that he reflected on his own mind and body was controversial, but his method was the substance of his innovation. The authority to record and examine and investigate—this is what make Montaigne’s intellectual contribution so important.

One of my favorite lines from the essays comes from “On Idleness.” When Montaigne retires from public life, he finds that rather than settling into the gravity of its own repose, his mind takes off like a runaway horse. It “gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” As contemporary readers, we don’t quite know how to place the shame. What could that mean?

This passage shows just how radical Montaigne’s moves were in the late sixteenth century. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s important to note that three major historical changes were chipping away at the medieval closed universe while Montaigne wrote—exploration in the New World, the new texts coming from Constantinople, especially the Skeptics, which were so important to Montaigne, and the Reformation. We mustn’t forget that the wars of religion raged just beyond Montaigne’s doorstep—when he nearly died from falling from his horse, he thought they had unwittingly wandered into a battle. In Montaigne’s lifetime, the cohesion of the medieval universe was falling apart; the universalizing power of the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to falter.

In this passage above, Montaigne distances himself from a conventional view of Church authority. By describing his mind giving birth to the chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, Montaigne rejects the medieval notion that deformity and oddness could be prognosticated or divined as God’s will. To make his mind ashamed of itself is a claim to his own moral judgment. By seizing his own agency to keep a record, as would a scientist recording observations, Montaigne claims the authority to interpret and judge the monstrosities of his mind himself.

Scientific inquiry and the hypotheses it generated were problems for the Church. Facts—observable, verifiable, testable—had the power to undermine the Church’s medieval cosmic order. To challenge the Church’s geocentric cosmology was to challenge the ultimate knowingness of God. To suggest the earth moved around the sun, as Copernicus did (when Montaigne was a boy), or that the universe was infinite, as Giordano Bruno did (during Montaigne’s lifetime), or to test and confirm Copernicus’s hypothesis, as Galileo did (a generation after Montaigne), were heretical acts. Copernicus published his findings at the end of his own life to escape punishment. Galileo’s was tried and put under house arrest. Bruno was burned at the stake.

After Montaigne published his first edition of the Essays, in 1580, he journeyed to Rome, where he visited the Vatican and delivered the first edition of his essays to the Roman Censors. While he was there, he met with Pope Gregory XIII and with the Censors who read and evaluated his work.

Montaigne anticipated and even welcomed the Censors’ reading. “I put forward formless and unresolved notions, as do those who publish doubtful questions to debate in the schools, not to establish the truth but to seek it,” he writes in “On Prayer.” “And I submit them to the judgment of those whose concern it is to regulate not only my actions and my writings, but even my thoughts. Equally acceptable and useful to me will be condemnation or approval.”

The Censors objected to many things: the pagan word fortune, to take one example. Chance, luck, random events—these notions are hostile to a divinely ordered cosmos. Even today, when someone says everything happens for a reason, they are quoting a medieval view. On the matter of fortune, Montaigne made a few changes, but did not capitulate. Amending the passage quoted above in his second edition, Montaigne reaffirmed Church authority, but doubled down to defend his work. He welcomed condemnation by the church, “since I would loathe to be found saying anything ignorantly or inadvertently against the holy teachings of the Church Catholic,” but remained “emboldened to treat all sorts of subjects—as I do here.” While Montaigne granted the Church’s “limitless power” in one breath, he asserted his formless quest for truth in the next.*

In the same essay, Montaigne makes another revision in response to the Censors: “I have also see in my time criticisms laid against some books [almost certainly referring to his own] for dealing exclusively with the humanities or philosophy without any admixture of Theology.” These essays are a humanistic project, Montaigne replies, not a theological one. “Christian Doctrine holds her rank better when set apart, as Queen and Governor,” he writes, “never ancillary nor subsidiary.” Religion is better kept separate from such lowly concerns, and lowly diction, too, for that matter. “The language of men has its own less elevated forms and must not make use of the dignity, majesty and authority of the language of God,” he writes. “I myself let it say—verbis indiscplinatis [using undisciplined words]—fortune, destiny, accident, good luck, bad luck, the gods and similar phrases, following its own fashion.” Dear Censors, Montaigne seems to be saying, I acknowledge your power, but the strength of my own intelligence will not yield to it. Your matters are theological, mine are earthly, and by the way, I will use the word fortune if I want to.

The essay form is essentially about authority. The anger with D’Agata’s performative interpretation of the essay is not just about his play with fact and form, I suspect, but the way he choses to use or abuse his authority under the auspices of the essay. Where Montaigne modeled the intelligent investigative mind, independent of dogmatic influence, D’Agata models the Romantic fantasy of the artistic genius. Facts are foundational to the essay because they are the common ground of shared inquiry between reader and author, fellow travelers in a quest for clarity and insight. Facts are the things through which we connect. The popularity of the essay, I think, has something to do with our own time and place. It is an essentially democratic form: it relies on the limited, localized authority of the thinking, feeling mind in conversation with the world around it. We are hungry for authentic, rigorous discernment. Now it is more important than ever.

* I am indebted to Mihaela Carla Caponegro's Roman Censorship and the Shaping of Montaigne’s Essays, PhD dissertation (Princeton University, 2013).