From the time when men first began to think carefully about their own relation to the world, they have been tempted to write their autobiographies, the stories of their lives. In a large room of the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, are gathered together a group of portraits of great painters, painted by, themselves from their reflection in the glass. These portraits are full of significance for the lives and characters of the painters. At the same time there is usually a certain suggestion of artifice in the pose and expression, a lack of the direct, unconscious sincerity, which the same artist would have caught and conveyed in dealing with another sitter. So with even the greatest autobiographies. They are a mine of information which no biographer could overlook. They often afford the most startling and penetrating gleams of sudden veracity. Yet often also there is about them just the suggestion of artifice and pose which belongs to the self-painting, a certain strain of unreality, quite different from the simple reflection of a soul which is living in the moment with no consciousness whatever of producing an effect on any one else.
It is of the utmost interest to consider the variety of motives which induce thousands of people to commit their lives to writing in one form or another. Mrs. Anna Robeson Burr, in her extensive study of autobiography, has analysed these motives, and the learned Professor Misch, in the only volume yet published of his exhaustive Teutonic survey of the same subject, also treats them at impressive length. There is the simple desire for record, for oneself, or for one’s family, as when Darwin declares that he has no thought of publication. There is the possibility of a financial return, as with Moore, or Mrs. Oliphant. There is the pretext of edification, of making the world better by one’s example, whether it is one to imitate or to avoid, as in the great religious model of Saint Augustine, and in many others since. There is the simple curiosity of getting deeper and deeper into one’s own soul. Mrs. Burr, with the scientist’s instinct for formula, unites with all these what she calls “the autobiographical intention”; but I do not clearly understand what the mere name adds to a complication of the various motives suggested above.
I think we shall somewhat clarify this matter of motive by remembering the two elementary instincts which form the basis of the biographical passion in general. There is first the intense interest in human life and practical necessity for studying it. A very little of such study shows the immediate connection of our lives with the lives of others. If we are to know theirs, we must study our own, and vice versa. Secondly, there is the still profounder instinct of getting out of ourselves into the lives and souls of others. The supreme manifestation of this instinct is the universal human desire for confession, to tell to some one, somewhere, somehow, the inmost secrets of our hearts, in the hope of getting response, and understanding, and sympathy. The Catholic Church, with its perfect human tact, has seized upon this instinct and made it one of the most effective agents of domination and control. But the instinct works at all times, with all of us, in little things and great.
It is odd that many persons who are extremely shy and reticent about uncovering their secrets to any one individual, suddenly, drop their reticence, and go almost to an extreme of naked candor in making the general confessions of autobiography. The great autobiographies of the world have often come from people who in their actual lives have been peculiarly reserved and unapproachable, but who seem to have saved up the frankness of years, to bestow it in ungarnered opulence upon the curious, or, alas, too often, the careless ear of far-off posterity. You shrink from intimate confidences with your own family. You hide your motives and your passions and your sufferings in dim corners, where the keen eye of your nearest friend cannot penetrate. Then you suddenly tear off the veil, and fling the deepest tattered lining of the mystery out to be shaken and unraveled by the wind and sunshine of the open world.
The peculiar feature of autobiography, and one too frequently and easily forgotten, is that it deals with the past and often with the remote past. This is especially noticeable when we compare it with letters and diaries, the supreme resource of the biographer. The letter-writer and the diarist are careless, often inaccurate, often misrepresent; but at least they are dealing with immediate matter of the moment, they take up the experience and set it down in the freshness of recent recollection and the quick veracity and vivacity of actual living. The autobiographer hunts and gropes in memory, picks up one thread and overlooks another, pieces them together often with his imagination, and produces a composite, which may have spiritual entirety and may not, but is perilously apt to mislead even the writer himself and much more those who read him.
The vast accumulation of autobiography appears in various more or less distinct types. There is the mainly external historical memoir, in which the subject simply makes himself a centre of observation to reflect the life and movement of the world about him, as in the mass of memoirs connected with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period or the American Civil War. There is the personal story, in which the writer makes himself the main figure, but more for what he did than for what he was. There is the type in which the narrator has played a prominent public part, as Saint Augustine or Cellini, but is also a good deal interested in presenting the elements of his own personality as such. And there is the most introspective type of all, as Cardan or Rousseau, in which the interest of both author and reader is primarily centred not upon events at all, but upon the various subjective experiences with which those events developed themselves in the writer’s inner life.
But in all these types there is constantly this glimmering, shimmering mirror of memory, which the autobiographer has to consult and explore, before he can do his work at all, and the treachery of memory is unbelievable. “Your mind is honest, but your memory a knave,” says Swift. It is a useful reminder in the employment of autobiography.
In most cases, the farther back one probes into the past, the more unreliable does memory become. Now it is a peculiar tendency of all autobiographers to love to dwell upon the earlier portion of life. There is excellent justification for this. In the first place, remembered youth has charm for all of us. Further, in writing about our lives we are anxious to tell what nobody else can. Plenty of those about us can give a narrative of our maturity, often more than we care for. But our early days are lost and we are eager to make the story complete, so far as it can be done. Lastly, the years of youth are the formative ones, those that really count in the building of character. Therefore the writer of his own life dwells lovingly upon the first years, and these are just the years as to which his memory, is likely to be the least reliable, though he may not think so.
This perpetual deception and peril of memory interweave themselves with certain other tendencies of autobiography, to produce a web of peculiarly fragile tenuous-ness. There is, for instance, the extremely subtle and difficult element of self-praise. A man can hardly write a book about himself without giving himself some compliments, nor does he wish to. The disposition to exaggerate in this regard is born in all of us, at least to put our conduct in the most favorable light, if it is to be represented at all, and the obscuring, golden haze of memory is often of the greatest help to us, as we daily appreciate, whether we are writing formal autobiography or not.
Direct, whole-hearted self-praise is of course somewhat difficult to indulge in. Yet it is astonishing how often the autobiographer accomplishes it. This is Rousseau’s final summary of his excellences: “I was sure that, in spite of my faults and my weaknesses, in spite of my unwillingness to endure a rebuff of any sort, I should always be found just, kind, without gall, without jealousy, ready to recognize my own faults and still more ready, to forget others’, seeking all my felicity in kindly affections, and in all things carrying sincerity to imprudence, even to the point of incredible disinterestedness.” One could not say much more for one’s best friend.
Generally praise is more indirect. One contrives somehow to let one’s best friend say it. Again, it is possible to insinuate one’s good points, and under the guise of modesty and shyness to imply things that might offend, if said right out. And there are endless devices for making the worse appear the better. By deploring one’s excess of candor, or of good-nature, or of generosity, one can really get credit for virtues, while appearing to condemn oneself for faults.
It must be remembered that commending oneself is at least a task of great difficulty and delicacy. If autobiog-raphers, or you and I, were to say half the good we really like to think of ourselves, the world would mock us lavishly for vanity and conceit. But you can blame yourself without limit, and the world will pity and laud you for sincerity and honesty. Hence autobiographies are full of what appears to be the candid confession of faults. Franklin can make an elaborate list of his defects side by side with his virtues. Retz can weigh good and evil doing, from the moral point of view, and deliberately choose the latter and “get away, with it,” with sympathetic commendation for his frankness.
Only, it must be appreciated that the faults on which autobiography dilates are apt to be those which the world is inclined to condone or to smile at. Chief among these are irregularities of sex, and Casanova can confess his large gayeties, secure that he will receive, if not open approval, at least a considerable amount of sympathy. On the other hand, there are plenty of meannesses, sordid habits, contemptible lurking motives, of which nobody is proud. Mark Twain tells us that he set out to record these fully, but found it quite impossible, and autobiog-raphers in general are apt to behave very much like Mark.
So it becomes clear enough that this elaborate complication of motives tending to distort and mislead, working with the natural betrayal of memory, amply suffices to make autobiography a tangled web, as fascinating to unravel as it is difficult. And it may be taken for granted that the enthusiastic followers of Freud and the devotees of the “new psychology” will see in it everywhere a maze of conflicts and complexes and hidden sex repressions, which may, or may not, account for a vast variety of autobiographical vagary.
To the writer and to the reader of biography there is less direct profit in merely external autobiography than in that which deals more with analysis of the writer’s inner experience. Yet the external has often indirect biographical value of the highest order. There is a whole class of memoirs which gives indispensable light upon the life of a period and the historical events that took place in it. Such light is again subject to constant correction in allowance for the whims of memory, but it has often a personal flavor that more formal history can never give. In the narratives of Grant and Sherman we have the American Civil War acted over again with intense vivacity of detail. And in the volumes of Lord Grey and Colonel House and a score of others we have the living record of the Great War, presented always from the personal angle, but all the more vivid on that account.
There is not only the presentation of events, there is the study, of characters, often affording the richest, if not the most reliable, material for the use of the biographer. The Memoirs of Saint-Simon, interesting enough as a record of the writer, are far more so in their extraordinary picture of the men and women of his time, Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon, the Regent Duke of Orleans, a hundred others. There is no more wonderful portrait-gallery in the world. No doubt they are all drawn as Saint-Simon sees them, with a slant of passion, a slant of prejudice. But at least he helps us to see them for ourselves. So Lord Hervey makes George the Second and Queen Caroline and their Court stand out in the same way. Was a certain type of marital affection ever better touched off than in King George’s cry to his dying wife, who implored him to marry again: “Jamais! Jamais! J’aurai des maitresses.”
Also, there is the form of external biography which deals with the writer’s own fortunes, but deals with him rather as acting than as reflecting. One of the earliest models of this type, and a model which has been imitated but never surpassed, is the Commentaries of Caesar. In these we have apparently the dry, direct narrative of simple events. Yet somehow even here there is a cast of things that does not redound to the writer’s discredit. Or, again, we have personal narratives of a more romantic and picturesque description, like the Memoirs of Alexander Dumas, in which the quaint and whimsical vagaries of memory are almost taken for granted, and writer and reader both feel that they are wandering in a mist of delightful rosy uncertainty, with an extremely fragile hold upon fact, but a total result of decided and thoroughly human entertainment.
Another form of these autobiographies of action is the story of the great explorers, the travelers in the Polar regions, who have fully recorded their experience, like Dr. Kane, or more recently Shackleton, of those who have plunged into the centre of Africa, from Park to Roosevelt. The old witchery of such narratives was long ago gathered into the great collections of Hakluyt and Pur-chas. Nothing better illustrates the common humanity of biography than these stories of remote adventure. They might be supposed to be far away from the fat and indolent citizen, that is, you and me, sitting by his peaceful fireside, utterly unversed in perils by land or perils by water. Yet he has human courage in him, and human hope, and human endurance—above all, the profoundly human passion for success; and as he reads of these faraway struggles and sufferings and triumphs, he shares them with intense imaginative ardor, and also revels with greater appreciation in all the comforts of home.
But direct self-studies have generally more biographical interest and more human fascination than even the best external narratives. Naturally there is variation here also. Sometimes a writer will set out to portray himself, but from lack either of ability or of real desire for truth, he will lose himself in a mass of superficial detail which merely wearies and confuses the reader. This is the case with the disappointing autobiography of Goethe, so acute and profound in his analysis of others, yet apparently unable or unwilling in his old age to apply this power to his own past.
But there are plenty of autobiographers who make an intense and passionate effort at veracity, though with varying success. Rousseau proclaims over and over his determination to tell the truth and nothing else. Gibbon begins his autobiography again and again, in the desire to make the most exact and complete presentation possible. Cardan, the great Renaissance physician and one of the first of careful analysts, announces that his predecessors have handed down unreliable narratives and not the sincere rendering that he attempts.
Sometimes the autobiographer triumphantly asserts his honesty, would have the reader believe that he not only aims to tell the truth, but that he always tells it, as Gozzi proclaims, “I would far rather frankly record facts to my discredit than bear the stings of conscience by suppressing what is true.” And again, there is more rarely a keener self-critic, who, while making perhaps an even more conscientious effort at the facts, recognizes sceptically or sadly the extreme difficulty or even the impossibility of giving them. “False glory and false modesty,” says Retz, “are the two dangers which most of those who have written their own lives have not been able to escape.”
When one considers the direct result of these analyses, there is some disappointment, and one feels too often that, with all their keenness and all their concentration, these alert self-students are apt to be surprisingly, deceived about themselves, though perhaps this is not strange when one considers the variety of elements of error that I have suggested earlier. But if the general effect of the self-portrayal is often erroneous, there is frequently an intense, an over-powering vigor and vividness of revelation in details and special incidents. How sudden and profound an insight do we get into Cellini’s love and hate, or into the pitiful suffering of Rousseau.
But in autobiography an even greater interest attaches to what the writer reveals unintentionally than to his deliberate self-portrayal, and this is true of the greatest autobiographies, as of the least. We watch in Rousseau an elaborate and complete life and character development along lines that the subject himself did not altogether contemplate, a tragic tumult of disaster bred out of elements of passion far different from those of which the painter endeavored to build his own likeness. Take a very recent autobiography, that of Theodore Dreiser. The work is done with sincerity. It is profoundly attaching and convincing. But the figure of the hero is one thing when you survey him as he does, in himself, and quite another when you go deeper and consider him as a typical product of his age in comparison with other ages. His utter lack of education and mental training makes him incapable of instituting this comparison for himself, and it is in the revelation of all that the comparison implies that the value of his autobiography largely consists.
But, in general, the curious and intimate inter-relation of self-knowledge and self-ignorance and the consequent startling failure of self-knowledge to affect life and conduct tempt one constantly, to apply to all autobiography the admirable sentence from “All’s Well That Ends Well”: “Is it possible he should know what he is and be that he is?”
It is obvious that the autobiographer is always liable to the charge of extreme egotism. His object is to talk about himself, his business is to talk about himself, and the pronoun I is bound to be the chief ornament of his pages from beginning to end. There is the indirect egotism which consists in considering oneself to be different from others; that is, being unique and exceptional, to be in consequence worthy of elaborate and minute discussion and description. Rousseau is the extreme instance of this, but it is always cropping up in more disguised forms, as in Mr. Dreiser’s remark: “I am of that peculiar disposition which will not let memories of old ties and old pleasures die easily. I suffer for things which might not give another a single ache or pain.” How many of us have thought the same thing at one time or another.
Or there is the flaunting egotism of action, the I doing great deeds and saying great words, striding triumphantly along the rough life-path in spite of all obstacles, and elbowing the crowding fellow-shadows out of it with aggressive indifference. Sometimes the egotism is tempered by irony and humorous gayety, as in the Memoirs of Dumas. Sometimes it is sheerly passionate, direct, and forthright, as in Cellini, or in Lord Herbert of Cherbury. On the other hand, it is hardly necessary to say that the autobiography of action does not always imply any such crude display of direct egotism. Even Caesar is too proud for cheap boasting. Long before Caesar we have in Xen-ophon’s Anabasis a charming model of the narrative of great achievement with the self-narrating actor kept most modestly in the background. And again, in the Civil War, the story of Grant is as simple and modest as that of Xenophon.
Also, there is the autobiography of humility, so to speak, the vast literature of religious confession, which has been so elaborately studied by Mrs. Burr, in which the aim of the narrator is nominally to depreciate himself, to insist upon his own “vileness,” to use the favorite word of one striking specimen, David Brainerd. Ever since Saint Augustine set the great example fifteen hundred years ago, sinners have been amplifying their wickedness, analyzing the dark and dirty corners of their hearts, throwing off every wrapping of reserve and shyness, the better to unveil the hidden depths of depravity. They have done this in part to encourage the others, in part to show the power of grace and repentance and salvation, and also in part, it must be assumed, for the purpose of playing a considerable role in the world, in one way, if they cannot in another.
For here, too, however disguised the form, the I is still at work, and in too many cases of such confession we have egotism masquerading as humility. No matter how you conceal it or obscure it, the I is the subject of autobiography: it always will be so, so long as autobiography is written at all. It is curious and charming to see how sensitive persons have sought for an obscuring veil. Thus, three hundred years ago, Lord Clarendon wrote his autobiography in the third person, not I, but Mr. Hyde did thus and thus. In our own generation Henry Adams made the same attempt, and the reader gets Henry Adams, Henry Adams, instead of the capital I. It is doubtful if there is any material gain. The truth is that all such attempts overlook the real and solid justification for all I-literature, which is, that the I is merely generic, and that the autobiographer, in writing about himself, is writing about you and me. If he were not, we would not listen to him for a moment.
Thus far, in internal autobiography, we have been considering the I and its relation to itself. It is almost equally interesting in its analysis of its relation to others. No life, not even the most solitary or introspective, is lived for itself alone. The main charm of Rousseau’s Confessions lies undoubtedly in self-analysis, but how much there is besides in the variety and richness of the background, in the spirit and grace of the many purely incidental episodes, in the innumerable contrasted characters of men and women whom he is forced to introduce in describing himself.
There is the excitement, the stimulation, the varied emotion of all sorts, which a quick and eager spirit feels in the mere observing and contemplation of other lives. An intense, a devouring, an insatiable curiosity makes a nature like Pepys find in his contact with the great world an endless source of diversion. Saint-Simon notes and probes the doings of men, not only because he enters into them with passionate interest, but because he makes them an integral part of his own passions of love and hate. When his friends triumph, he riots in the joy of it. When his enemies are defeated, he bursts out into paeans of, of course righteous, exultation.
For our human relations can never be confined to mere observing and impersonal study. We have to act and react and interact, and to let others act upon us, whether we will or no. All autobiography is full of the record, more or less distorted, of these contacts and reactions. Some human beings naturally seek such things, and some fly them. Some are drawn to their fellows, cannot be happy without them or apart from them. Some profess to fly them, and really do to some extent. But all need them, and none can escape them altogether.
Sometimes the contact develops into the love of power and mastery. There seem to be those who are born to dominate others and who feel very little joy or interest except in doing so. This may degenerate into the extreme morbid forms which are often the delight of the modern psychology. But in its more normal manifestations it is common to a great many men and women, to some who would be surprised if you attempted to make them aware of it. It is not only the conquerors and great kings who love to dominate, it is the merchant in his business office, it is the mother, or sometimes the son or the daughter, in the household. The instinct of mastery is as natural to certain creatures as is to others the opposite instinct, of rebellion, or of absolute independence.
Also, as some are born to revel in the sense of control and mastery, others are clinging and dependent, and this instinct again may go to abnormal extremes as the other often does. We have temperaments which naturally seek advice and guidance, turn to those whom they consider wiser and stronger for leadership and support in every step of their uncertain passage through the complicated journey of life. How curious it is to follow Rousseau’s dependence upon Madame de Warens, upon the vulgar, violent, and arbitrary Therese, upon all the group of men and women who so greatly influenced him in Paris, the very depth and completeness and intensity of his abandon and confidence turning against him in the bitterness of his later suspicion and despair. Or you may have a nature like Alfieri’s, haughty, self-sufficient, priding itself on its independence, its power to dispense with ordinary human relations and supports, yet in the end succumbing entirely to one engrossing affection, which becomes an essential element of life.
The interesting question that arises in all this matter of frank internal autobiography is, how far have you the right, in confessing yourself, to confess others at the same time. Our lives are all so intricately bound up together, that it is almost impossible to tell our own secrets without telling the secrets of others also.
In her elaborate and very charming history of her life George Sand takes decided ground on this point of the confession of others. “As regards the public,” she says, “I do not allow myself the right to dispose of the past of all the persons whose existence has been associated with my own.” And she complains that Rousseau, in revealing his own experience in so much detail, was unavoidably revealing the experience of Madame de Warens also.
But, winning as George Sand’s narrative is, it is chiefly a story of absences, for this very reason; and to understand her life and character her own record has to be very largely supplemented by the records and the revelations of others. The truth is, that if you are to attempt veracious or serious autobiography at all, and there are serious doubts about the wisdom of doing so, you must deal with other lives besides your own. Rousseau, like George Sand herself, would have been quite incomprehensible without an inner glimpse, and from precisely his personal point of view, of all these other souls who influenced him. We cannot stand apart. We cannot portray ourselves without analyzing the intimate working of other lives upon ourselves. And in analyzing that working we must analyze the lives to the best of our ability. The result will be complex, elusive, misleading, because all our analysis is so, of ourselves as well as of others. But one life is too close-knit a web of many ever to be extricated, or isolated, or to be presented single and alone. The best we can do is to keep veracity and justice of intention before us, in our dealings with others, as in our dealings with ourselves.
In all the vast and sinuous course of autobiography through the ages we can trace the presence of certain simple, universal elements of human life and human nature, and emphasis upon these elements in the autobiographical connection will bring home to us once more the enduring and universal truth of human identity. The autobiogra-pher may have lived a thousand years ago, or two thousand, his surroundings may have been altogether different from the smooth, serene, hyper-civilized atmosphere in which we flourish. Yet still, under the superficial differences, we strike down to the common human impulses and motives which in one form or another agitate you and me, from the day we are born until the day we die.
There is love, the mighty passion of sex, and it sometimes seems as if autobiography were made of it, built of it. It is not only so with the more erotic autobiographers, like Rousseau and Casanova; but if you turn to an apparently dry and mathematical temper and a purely logical brain like John Stuart Mill, you find him breaking out into the strange and touching eulogy of the one woman who changed his career, in the complete spirit of the great typical love sentence of French comedy: “En voila encore un qui croit avoir invente l’amour.” And the old common theme of money enters everywhere, the struggle to get it, the impossibility of keeping it, the astonishing ease with which it melts away. Augustine and Cardan and Rousseau, Goldoni and Dumas, to take great autobiographical types, all come into contact with money, with the meum and tuum somehow, and all suggest the same needs and difficulties in regard to it.
And ambition, the immense desire to succeed, to do something great in the world, and be recognized and honored as having done it, is so vital in autobiography, that it might be considered the mere stuff of it, if love did not so ardently compete. There is Cellini, throwing every nerve into the effort to outdo his rivals, and describing with almost poetic passion the supreme triumph of the casting of the Perseus statue. There is Cardan, muffled in his strange Latin garment of the Renaissance, but murmuring through it words that might be spoken by many an ardent worker today: “This one thing I know, that from my earliest childhood I burned with the inextinguishable desire of an immortal name.” And always there is the haughty disclaimer of ambition, carrying with it only the surer evidence of the underlying ardor, as in Chateaubriand’s cry: “All the mediocrities of the antechamber, of the offices, of the gazettes, of the cafes, have called me ambitious, and I have no ambition whatever.”
Nor are the weaknesses and defects wanting in autobiography, any more than the long efforts and the unconquerable desires. Physical weakness is a universal theme, developed, dilated upon, often conveniently pleaded as an excuse for the failure to accomplish the great things which would otherwise have infallibly been achieved. Meanness and spite and hate are visible enough, too visible, everywhere, sometimes elaborated and manifested with extraordinary candor and frankness, as in the furious quarrels of Cellini, sometimes veiled, even, it would seem, from the writer himself, yet obvious enough to the acute and careful observer, in the things that are omitted as well as in those that are set down.
And always there are the ultimate questions and problems, which confront and perplex and torment every human being from the earliest reflecting years, and which were just as present and just as insoluble to the autobiographer of a thousand years ago as they are to you and me today. There is death and there is the hereafter—if there is—and there is God, also with a large question-mark in so many autobiographies. The universality of these problems is one of the distinguishing marks of autobiography, as of biography in general. You may, have the religious enthusiast, Augustine or George Fox. You may have an autobiographer like Mill, who confesses frankly: “I am thus one of the very few examples in this country of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it.” In one type, as in the other, the problem is there, because we all have to die, we all have to meet death somehow, and God is the most apt term for the tremendous problems connected with that meeting. Somehow, somewhere, in beginning, middle, or end of autobiography, or in all three, as in life, your life and mine, we are bound to meet with God.
In a sense it may be said that the quintessence of autobiography is to be found in Montaigne. The Essays, in their wide and wayward wandering, deal with almost every phase of the comic and tragic diversity of human life, and into all these phases the author contrives to infuse his own spirit, his own character, his own experience, not crudely or pretentiously, but in intimate contact with the experience of others, so as to bring out as perfectly as possible the large human identity, the unity of all lives with your life and my life. To use Montaigne’s own words about his own method: “Not to venture to speak freely about oneself shows something wrong in one’s own heart . . .
and he who judges widely and wisely plunges both hands into examples from his own life as well as from those of others. . . . I not only venture to speak of myself, but I speak of myself only: I thrust it in when I am discussing other things and slip away from my subject to do so.
To Montaigne his own merits and excellences are matter of curious consideration, like those of others. He studies them with interest, he points them out with intimate detail and with entire candor. He is a lover of truth, he tells us, and the memory of a lie, even excusable or necessary, pricks his conscience with enduring discomfort. He is most careful in the observance of his promise, carries it to the point of superstition. He hates cruelty, cannot bear to see the infliction of pain, and though he is a keen huntsman, like so many in his generation, the suffering of captured game is always a distress to him.
Nor is he a bit more reticent about his defects and weaknesses, but strips the veil from them with a hand as steady and remorseless as it is untiring. Ignorance? His ignorance is unlimited, and he confesses it freely and at all times, the only salvation being that, as with Henry Adams, he doubts whether others know much more than he. Anger? He is grievously subject to it. In great crises he is prepared and exercises some sort of control, but the little unexpected irritations come upon him like a whirlwind, and he says and does things that he regrets. Physical needs, physical weakness, physical fear, all are known to him: why should he hesitate to show them freely, since after all they are just human nature, the common stuff and tissue of every human heart? Or, as he sums it up, “I rarely repent, and my conscience is usually contented, not as being the conscience of an angel, or of a horse, but the conscience of a man.”
Through it all, what is most striking in Montaigne is the singular detachment with which he surveys the whole human scene, that is, the whole scene of himself, with pity, with tenderness, but also with a cool abstract curiosity, as if he himself were simply another, and all of a thousand others were he. He feels wonder, he feels astonishment, he feels endless surprise and amusement, but he feels no more of these things in regard to himself than in regard to others: “I have seen no monster or miracle in the world more remarkable than myself; time and custom use us to every oddity; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the less I understand.” And with this detachment, there is a serene naturalism, which has hardly been surpassed by any other autobiographer, or by any one else. Even Shakespeare, whose naturalism seems equal to any one’s, makes the sceptic Jaques suggest a certain sadness in the natural process of growth and decay:
“And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, And then from hour to hour we rot and rot, And thereby hangs a tale.”
The modern sceptic goes far beyond Jaques: “Ripen! Ripen! We rot in some places, we harden in others: we ripen never!” To Montaigne the process, just because it is natural, is acceptable, and is even not without a certain tranquil beauty of perfect fulfilment: “The course of my bodily life has brought about each thing in its orderly season: I have seen the plant, and the flowers, and the fruit; now I see the withering of it, happily, because naturally.”
The lady in the lively modern comedy has a quick and vivid figure for revivals and resurveyals of the buried past, like these of Montaigne. “Do you ever wish you were different?” she says. “Probably you don’t. I don’t always. But there are times—when one would like to make oneself over, like an old frock. You’ve done that? Rip out all the seams and turn this front breadth, where you got the bad spot when Mrs, Jones spilled the ice cream on you, put in new if you could only match it, but you can’t, and get new passementerie for the front of the waist, and bring the sleeves into style—and then, after all, it’s an old frock still, and everybody knows it, and the worst of it is, it isn’t a frock at all, it’s your soul, and you can never, never get another.” But Montaigne has not even the touch of humorous despair which breathes through this gay summary. His method of treating his past, his life, himself, Michel de Montaigne, is simply that of one who goes to a wardrobe and takes down an old garment and brushes it caressingly, shaking out a moth here or a crumb there, noting the creases and the patches, and distilling from it all a strange, sweet relish of reminiscence, which touches both good and evil with a clinging charm of melancholy grace.