Montaigne: Portraying Passage

Michel de Montaigne.

Michel de Montaigne. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a link to my copy of the essay “Of Repentance,” employing some new media “paint” to annotate and portray how I engaged with this essay:

Here is Montaigne‘s preface to his Essays, “To the reader”:

12th June 1580

Reader, thou hast here an honest book; it doth at the outset forewarn thee that, in contriving the same, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end: I have had no consideration at all either to thy service or to my glory. My powers are not capable of any such design. I have dedicated it to the particular commodity of my kinsfolk and friends, so that, having lost me (which they must do shortly), they may therein recover some traits of my conditions and humours, and by that means preserve more whole, and more life-like, the knowledge they had of me. Had my intention been to seek the world’s favour, I should surely have adorned myself with borrowed beauties: I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice: for it is myself I paint. My defects are therein to be read to the life, and any imperfections are my natural form, so far as public reverence hath permitted me. If I had lived among those nations, which (they say) yet dwell under the sweet liberty of nature’s primitive laws, I assure thee I would most willingly have painted myself quite fully and quite naked. Thus, reader, myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason thou shouldst employ thy leisure about so frivolous and vain a subject. Therefore farewell.


We can think of the ways Montaigne revisits in the opening of the essay “Of Repentance” the logic or philosophy he establishes for the whole book, the entire project of his essays. He makes an argument for what we tend to call and think of as a subjective view of life, what MM refers to as “private.” He can only portray himself and his private and ordinary and simple experience in the world. That’s a limitation of his book–or so he tells us. He knows, and goes on to argue, that such portrayals and representations of the private and ordinary, the limitations of one’s experience, make up the very matter of life. And thus, too, the matter of his book.

To connect back to our initial discussion of the dramatic elements of the essay, we can see that MM establishes his “I” as a persona in the very process of telling us (this is the rhetorical part) that it is not a public persona, not what one would usually expect from conventional “nonfiction” up to his point in time: moral philosophy and teachings representing great and public lives addressing constant truths, how all should live–not merely how one person lived, or better yet, tried or attempted or “essayed” to live. This tension between the conventions of writings about great, public lives, fixed for all time (Plutarch, for example) and MM’s approach to the personal and ordinary, the passing, the subjective, identifies a dramatic tension in his essays. We can begin to see, here, why MM is thought of as the inventor of the genre. Recall the point that the essay moves toward resonance or recognition, something more subjective and complex than mere understanding in our sense of “information.” Montaigne suggests in setting up the book and the essay “Of Repentance” that such partial (but clearly insightful) recognition is all he can do; all any one of us can do; and thus all that his attempt (his essay) to portray his limitations can offer.

Let’s think of the ways, even in the first couple paragraphs of the essay, that MM’s philosophy of his essay blends as well into his rhetoric (how he organizes and structures and portrays the thinking in the sentences and paragraphs) and poetics (the words and figures that makes the portrayal–the paint).

Following Montaigne’s propensity to invoke words that suggest correlations and unconventional connotations (the poetic term here is “pun”) between life and writing, the matter or “composition” of nature and the matter/composition of his book, I am assuming that “passage” is one such pun, operative in French (the origins of the word) as it is in English. For some etymology, see the OED entry for passage. While you are at it, consider the entries for other phrases used by Montaigne poetically in this sense of multiple connotations, including “composition” and the word “essay” itself.

And finally, we can look to Emerson (the American essayist we will be reading shortly) for some insight into Montaigne’s poetics, and the way his poetics, his sentence style and vernacular language, plays a role in his rhetoric and philosophy–what these essays are about, what they are doing. Here is Emerson in his essay “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic” (1850):

The Essays, therefore, are an entertaining soliloquy on every random topic that comes into his head; treating every thing without ceremony, yet with masculine sense. There have been men with deeper insight; but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thoughts: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for.

The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves and begin again at every half sentence, and, moreover, will pun, and refine too much, and swerve from the matter to the expression. Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests, or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting and keeping the middle of the road. There is but one exception,- in his love for Socrates. In speaking of him, for once his cheek flushes and his style rises to passion.

Montaigne’s style of writing, Emerson suggests, is alive with everything in his head, the blood coursing through his body. This is the point in writing the essays; this is the point, the pulse (to stay with his metaphor) the reader feels when touching the matter of his man-made book. Emerson also offers us an insight, I believe, toward understanding what Montaigne means in his claim, “I do not teach, I only relate.” Emerson concludes his assessment of Montaigne in this way:

The expansive nature of truth comes to our succor, elastic, not to be surrounded. Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize; to believe what the years and the centuries say, against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense. Things seem to say one thing, and say the reverse.

The essay is needed to relate that things say or how they seem with an underlying or unseen reality that says the reverse. At some level, then, the essay is an exploration in the uncanny nature of life. As Emerson elsewhere puts it: “Everything has two handles.”

Some further reading and thinking (in addition to Emerson on Montaigne):

Here is an essay/blog on Montaigne as the father of the essay and the blog: “What Bloggers Owe Montaigne”


The Essay: Theater of the Brain


Noun: A short piece of writing on a particular subject.

Verb: Attempt or try: “essay a smile”.

Synonyms: noun.  attempt – try – trial – test – experiment – assay;

verb.  try – attempt – assay – test – sample – endeavor

I have as motto for this course, which studies the creative reading and critical writing of the nonfiction genre of the essay, David Shields’s succinct definition: “Essay: theater of the brain.” That’s a line from his book Reality Hunger, a contemporary version of a longstanding essayists tool, the commonplace notebook or journal. On that same page, Shields cites another definition of the essay from John D’Agata (another writer we will be reading):

“Essay” is a verb, not just a noun; “essaying” is a process.

D’Agata, as you will discover in the course, could have cited Emerson or Montaigne, or Didion and Dillard, as well as the dictionary. This understanding of the process of the essay–dramatic, dynamic, verb as well as noun–indicates what I assume for you might be very new and unfamiliar territory.  These are connotations not usually associated with the word: the essay as dynamic and dramatic form for thinking through and exploring and performing ideas and arguments in writing. It also indicates that some of the work we have in front of us, as both critics and creators of the form (what I mean by “creative reading,” borrowed from Emerson), will be to rethink our assumptions about what this “essay” is and does, assumptions largely shaped by past experience in schools. I assume that all of us have encountered, if not (alas) directly experienced the way essays are presented as punishment in the premise for the film The Breakfast Club [see clip]. The essay not as tool for the student’s (or the writer’s) thinking; rather, the essay as detention, as something in the way, something to be dreaded.

At some level, this will mean rethinking and further exploring, complicating–like any good essay will–our understanding of what it means to think. William James, the influential American psychologist and philosopher (a careful reader of Emerson and himself an essayist), describes consciousness and thinking in his Principles of Psychology not only as a “stream” but in these dramatic terms: “the mind is at every stage a theatre of simultaneous possibilities” (Principles 1: 277).

In my own effort, my own assay (attempt, trial, experiment) to grasp this fluid and dynamic form of nonfiction writing first hand, without being able or wanting to classify it fully, turn it forever into a noun, when the essay as verb is so much more engaging…toward this end without an end, I have organized our exploration around the following rubric: philosophy, rhetoric, poetics. The critic and rhetorician Kenneth Burke categorizes thinking into one of these three categories, modeled upon the classical curriculum (logic, rhetoric, grammar). He thinks of all thinking and language (and the writing and expression that follows from both, or with both) as symbolic action, where

Philosophy suggests symbolic action used for discussion of ideas, first principles;

Rhetoric suggests symbolic action used for persuasion and identification with an audience–moving, informing or entertaining another;

Poetics suggests symbolic action in an for itself, with an emphasis on form.

  • “Rhetoric, Poetics, and Philosophy.”  Rhetoric, Philosophy and Literature: an Exploration.  Ed. Don M. Burks.  West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1978.  15-33.

Burke himself, like essayists before and after him, emphasizes that the symbolic nature of such thinking and writing is dramatic and dynamic. So, these are not separate categories; an essay that is philosophical will also entail elements of the rhetorical and poetic. However, as a way to get a better grasp as writers and critical readers of the genre of the essay, we will give more particular attention to each of these categories as we work our way through the readings of the course, moving from the philosophy of the essay, to the rhetoric, to the poetics of the essay. In the final project, you will take up the challenge of joining Burke and Emerson and Montaigne and Didion and Dillard and many others, writing and publishing an essay that effectively expresses all three in the symbolic action of your language and form and thinking.

You will walk upon the stage of this theater of the brain and see where the essay’s possibilities lead you.

To get started, read “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” an essay on the essay by Phillip Lopate. It will get us started in rethinking some conventional views of the essay you have learned from school.

For a better sense of the essays–and the nonfiction–that is all around us (just probably didn’t think you were reading an essay), browse this listing of great essays, articles, and other works of nonfiction.