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Celebrating Montaigne, celebrator of life

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“WHEN I AM PLAYING WITH MY CAT, HOW DO I KNOW THAT SHE IS NOT PLAYING WITH ME? Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life,” by Saul Frampton (Pantheon. 300 pp. $26)

“HOW TO LIVE, Or, A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer,” by Sarah Bakewell (Other. 389 pp. $25)

Suppose that Earth was invited to join the Intergalactic Congress of Planets, and its chair-being, Zinglos-Atheling, wanted to know more about our strange species. What one person in history would you choose to best represent humanity? On the one hand, Socrates and Jesus are a bit too saintly (or more than saintly) to be wholly representative; on the other, Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan are, as the saying goes, all too human.

You could hardly go wrong by picking Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the subject of these two excellent books. This French nobleman retired to his book-lined tower in his late 30s and spent the next 20 years in self-scrutiny, gradually revealing more about himself than anyone had ever done before. His essays — Montaigne originated the genre — discuss philosophies of life, quote widely from the ancients and are full of anecdotes from Plutarch, but they also tell us that their author is short, suffers terribly from kidney stones and wishes he didn’t have such a small penis. Above all else, Montaigne celebrates life in all its glorious messiness, while reminding us that nothing matters more than human connectedness and kindness to people and animals.

An endlessly digressive writer, Montaigne is as much raconteur as moralist, and his book offers some of the best after-dinner conversation in the world. You can never be sure what this French humanist will say next. The innocuous-sounding “On Some Lines of Virgil” isn’t about Latin poetry; it’s about sex and eroticism. His greatest single essay — and his last — bears the majestic title “On Experience.” In it, Montaigne reminds us that no matter how high our social status, we all still sit on our own bottoms.

Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live,” which first appeared last fall to deserved acclaim, has a slight tendency to longwindedness, and its chapter titles verge on the irritatingly cutesy (e.g., “How to live? Do a good job, but not too good a job”). No matter. The book is packed with useful information: Bakewell clarifies the nature of stoicism and scepticism, looks into the lives of Montaigne’s parents, his wife and his adopted daughter, Marie de Gournay (who first edited the essays), and examines closely Montaigne’s famous friendship with Etienne de La Boetie. Asked to explain why he cared so much for his friend, Montaigne could only say: “Because it was him; because it was me.” No better definition of love has yet appeared. All in all, “How to Live” touches on every aspect of Montaigne’s thought, life and influence, and culminates in a fascinating chapter on the complicated textual history of the “Essays.”

In the end, Bakewell concludes that Montaigne’s greatest lesson is that “life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself” and that our troubled 21st century “could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict.”

Saul Frampton’s “When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?” takes its Zen-like title from another of Montaigne’s most famous observations. Compared with “How to Live,” Frampton’s is a much tighter and more elegant work, a series of historical and critical essays rather than a biography. (For a good straightforward life, the reader will still want Donald M. Frame’s classic “Montaigne.”) Where Frampton excels is in his sharply intelligent and sharply phrased insights: The basic human condition, he notes, is “one of grogginess and uncertainty.” Who could argue with that? Montaigne, he observes, endlessly amplifies and polishes his essays until they “grow from simple distractions into a way of replaying, rewinding, and reliving his life as he lives it.”

Throughout, Frampton approaches Montaigne from unexpected tangents. One of his chapters likens the writer’s friendship with La Boetie to a double-portrait by Holbein, another brings home the bloodthirstiness of the contemporary wars of religion and the essayist’s quite reasonable fear that he might be slaughtered in his bed, and still another points out that Montaigne’s estate produced wine and that the word “essay” can be translated as a sampling or tasting. Hence the author’s great book could be called “Tastes by Michel de Montaigne” or “Tastes of Michel de Montaigne.”

To understand Montaigne’s emphasis on the human need for touch, Frampton turns to proxemics, the “anthropology of people’s relationship to each other in space” and kinesics, “what their movements and gestures reveal.” Fundamentally, he emphasizes, Montaigne “is preoccupied with what the link between our minds and our bodies can tell us about the nature of mankind more generally.” Human presence, human proximity “is thus at the heart of morality” and “the basis of happiness itself.” For Montaigne, says Frampton, friends are simply “people that you go and see.”

Like his father, the essayist suffered from kidney stones, that most excruciatingly painful of ailments, and one that ultimately killed him. Only one of Montaigne’s six children lived to adulthood. Civil war raged all around him. Yet Montaigne never surrendered to despair. Even “the stone,” as Frampton shows, helped him better appreciate “what it is to be.” As Montaigne writes: “Is there anything sweeter than the sudden change when, after extreme pain, by ejecting the stone I recover, in a flash of lightning, the beautiful light of health, so free and so full?” This is how we should always savor our lives. But more often than not, says Montaigne, “we are never at home, we are always beyond ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, still push us on toward the future, and deprive us of the feeling and consideration of that which is, to distract us with the thought of what will be, even when we shall be no more.”

Orson Welles once declared Montaigne “the greatest writer of any time, anywhere.” Certainly the wise reader will use Bakewell and Frampton as springboards into the essays themselves. Almost any translation will do, whether John Florio’s florid Elizabethan classic or the sensitive modern versions of Frame and Michael Screech. When we look into Montaigne’s “Essays,” we find ourselves.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday. Visit his online book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

HOW TO LIVE Or, A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer By Sarah Bakewell Other. 389 pp. $25

WHEN I AM PLAYING WITH MY CAT, HOW DO I KNOW THAT SHE IS NOT PLAYING WITH ME? Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life By Saul Frampton Pantheon. 300 pp. $26

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