MONTAIGNE has evoked more diverse interpretations than any other creator of a world masterpiece, and I might as well lay my own bias on the table at once. I find the most convincing description of Montaigne in a paragraph or two Aldous Huxley wrote in the preface to his own Collected Essays.Huxley notices that Montaigne’s Essays are really “one damned thing after another— but in a sequence that in some almost miraculous way develops a central theme and relates it to the rest of human experience.” Furthermore, by the time Montaigne is engaged with Book 3, the essays have become “living organisms . . .impossibilities compounded of incompatibles, but compounded from within, by a process akin to growth, so that the human trunk seems to spring quite naturally from between the horse’s shoulders, the fish modulates into the full-breasted Siren as easily and inevitably as a musical theme modulates from one key to another. Free association artistically controlled—this is the paradoxical secret of Montaigne’s best essays.” To Huxley, “Freely, effortlessly, thought and feeling move in these consummate works of art, hither and thither between the essay’s three poles—from the personal to the universal, from the abstract back to the concrete, from the objective datum to the inner experience.”
I am particularly impressed by the phrase “free association artistically controlled,” In their freshness of sudden discovery, the essays everywhere give the impression that they must have grown spontaneously under the author’s pen, surprising him quite as much as they surprise us. But the sentences are too precise, beautiful, and economical to be always the work of the magic hand of chance, and the way in which topic yields effortlessly to topic can not be always accidental. Montaigne must have written at the crossroads of the conscious and the unconscious where creativity and criticism joined forces in a single effort so artfully that we can not tell what is spontaneous from what is created consciously to seem spontaneous. I suspect Montaigne might have confided in us as did Yeats that in “speaking on paper”:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
This kind of “free association artistically controlled” is very far from the conception of Montaigne’s Essays developed with great elaboration and subtlety by Richard L. Regosin in his critical study. To Regosin, the key to Montaigne is his attempt to create “The Book of the Self in which he can come to life on the page and gain self-knowledge as a basis for developing a truly enlightened personality. Stated thus, there is nothing very novel in Regosin’s view, and much, apparently, to confirm it in what Montaigne wrote of his self-portrait briefly in “To the Reader” and at length in “Of Repentance.” Regosin’s innovation is to suppose that Montaigne quite literally tried to make himself and his book one. According to Regosin, we see in the Essays “ a variation of the divine word made flesh as the man makes himself in words of flesh and bone,” and he supposes that “Montaigne will insist on the word as substantive and on the fact that he literally resides in it-Montaigne will do nothing of the sort. Regosin is too solemn. He does not see that Montaigne is rarely literal. His characteristic stance is humor, metaphor, paradox, hyperbole, and we must take him seriously but not too seriously. He embodies Robert Frost’s prescription for charm: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” Montaigne jokes about the fact that he and his book are one just as he jokes about everything else. Having candidly discussed sex in “On Some Verses of Virgil,” he added in a later edition: “I am annoyed that my essays serve the ladies only as a public article of furniture, an article for the parlor. This chapter will put me in the boudoir. I like their society when it is somewhat private; when public, it is without favor or savor.”
There is another good reason for doubting that Montaigne conceived of his essays as a literal incarnation in which, as Regosin tells us, “his activity dramatically parallels that of the archetypal maker.” Montaigne concludes the Essays in agreement with Plutarch that we are gods precisely to the extent that we remain men, and it is his judgment that “the most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity.” Montaigne is a humanist, first, last and always, no matter how many other persons he may be, and he would have found it inhumanly pretentious to have aped deity and run a contest with the Book of Nature and the Bible as Regosin argues he did.
In The Matter of My Book, however, we are told not only that the Essays is literal incarnation but that it constitutes an autonomous book which should be read without regard to the author himself and with the closest attention to the way each part functions in the internal dynamics of the whole. Thus Montaigne’s letter to his father reporting painfully on the death of Étienne de La Boétie is irrelevant. Montaigne, Regosin quips, would have been obliged to invent La Boétie, had he not existed. To Regosin, the point is not the particular friend but the perfect friendship which on the friend’s death becomes an “Eden” collapsed to “zero,” a secular fall making possible a secular conversion, an epistrophe, a Stoical turning away from the world. Similarly, the denunciation of the cruelties and injustices of 16th-century France is only tangentially Montaigne’s protest against outrages. Primarily it functions, like the death of the friend, as symbolic destruction to clear the stage for man alone and apart, who is coming alive as the essays are written.
The Essays, however, is much more than Montaigne’s soliloquy even if we grant this self-conscious structuring, as I am not willing to do. The Essays is not only “The Book of the Self”; it is also “The Book of Humanity.” Montaigne is, to appropriate Henry James’s compliment to the character Hamlet, “the widest consciousness in literature.” Out of his vast reading in Greek and Latin literature and his own extensive experience, Montaigne saw and measured himself against humanity. His men and women appear, to be sure, in anecdotes rather than in the full-length disclosures we find in the novel and drama, but Montaigne is such a superb artist that his halves are often more than wholes. His startling and often shocking reports demonstrate a tragedian’s appetite for death and disaster and a humorist’s delight in all the queer twists and turns of the human character and condition. But there is more than drama in the world against which Montaigne measures himself. It is an education for the reader to know the best and the worst that has been said and done, and no one (not even Shakespeare) has grasped the world in all its variety so completely as Montaigne.
Regosin neglects this context of the book of humanity and in so doing gives us inevitably a vastly reduced sense of Montaigne’s great Essays.Regosin is, however, on the central track in his pursuit of “The Book of the Self.” As Virginia Woolf pointed out long ago, Montaigne is unique in giving us a self-portrait which is a living presence: “. . .this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection—this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.” But it is the whole Montaigne with his unrivalled sense of noble and ignoble humanity as well as of his own troubled self who leads his admirers to ask, “With a friend like Montaigne, who needs a book—or, at least, who needs any other book?”