Elegance of style is not a manly ornament (Non est ornamentum virile concinnitas)
--Montaigne, citing Seneca in "A consideration upon Cicero" (1:40, 251a) (1)
That I, the son of the dear murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.
Particularly in later editions of the Essays, Montaigne often refers to his own writing style in terms that suggest masculine virility. His prose, he asserts, eschews soft eloquence and the "prostitution of complimentary addresses" in favor of a style that is "dry, plain, and blunt" (185b). (2) As Patricia Parker has recently argued, Montaigne draws on a long tradition of Classical and Renaissance debates on rhetoric when he insists on this distinction between manly and effeminate rhetorical styles. (3) For instance, Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria compares the superficial beauties of language to "effeminate and luxurious apparel." The passage continues, "It is with a more virile spirit that we should pursue eloquence, who, if only her whole body be sound, will never think it her duty to polish her nails and tire her hair" (189). (4) Yet Montaigne's use of the language of virile embodiment to describe the Essays' style departs in significant ways from many existing classical models. Montaigne links useful, "manly" rhetoric neither to the classical definition of the "good man skilled in speaking," nor to the idea that the orator uses rhetoric for public profit. (5) Instead, he launches a broadside attack on public rhetoric as artificial and useless, appropriating the "virile spirit" of eloquence for the semi-private sphere of the essay. Moreover, the Essays show increasing interest in what Parker calls "virile style," as opposed to virile deeds, in the passages Montaigne inserts into later editions of his Essays. With strategic additions such as Seneca's warning that "elegance of style is not a manly ornament," Montaigne repositions his own writing project within complex, shifting oppositions between public and private spheres, words and deeds, and feminine and masculine identities.
This essay traces Montaigne's evolving conception of his own writing project by examining the changes he makes to three essays: "Of the education of children" (1:26), "A consideration upon Cicero" (1:40), and "Of giving the lie" (2:18). In the first edition of these essays (written between 1572 and 1580 and referred to as layer a), Montaigne tends to maintain a strict hierarchy of active, masculine valor over useless feminine babble. He does not often make room for a "virile spirit" within the domain of language. For instance, in "Of the education of children," Montaigne explains why the Lacedaemonians avoided writing down the rules of prowess and giving them to their young men to read: "They wanted to accustom them to deeds, not words." By contrast, he asserts that to the young scholars of his day "the world is nothing but babble" (124a). (6) Similarly, in "A consideration upon Cicero," he asserts that the writings of Xenophon and Caesar are valid only because they are guaranteed by these men's previous acts: "They sought to recommend not their sayings but their doings" (183a). (7) Without the warrant of public actions, visible to all, words become dangerously false. Yet significantly, Montaigne does not claim such a warrant in public actions for his own writings, to which he dedicated himself as part of his retirement from public employment in 1571. In his address to the reader, he asserts, "I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one." (8) In this way, two of the most central characteristics of the Essays--their production in the private sphere rather than the public and their medium of words rather than deeds--conflict with Montaigne's constantly reiterated ideal of "utilite." (9)
In the first edition, Montaigne tends to dismiss his whole project on these grounds, warning his readers, "You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject" (2). (10) Yet this strict hierarchy of manly deeds over vain words may have become less tenable as Montaigne revised the essays over the years, constantly rereading his own writings. The 1588 text and the later insertions found in the Exemplaire de Bordeaux (referred to as layers b and c, respectively) appear to address just this critical problem: within a rigid hierarchy that valorizes deeds over words, the Essays themselves, like all words, must be "frivolous and vain." Montaigne's additions to these three essays subtly transpose his earlier contrast between deeds and words into a distinction between virile, "active" words and impotent, effeminate eloquence. When Montaigne recasts the word-deed binary as a gender division within language itself, the category of "unmanly" eloquence thus absorbs the force of Montaigne's earlier attack on words in general. Significantly, in layers b and c, this clears the way for another kind of word, one that is more like an action. Montaigne was certainly not the first to construct this kind of gendered distinction between useful and useless language, as many of his own citations from classical sources suggest; yet he may have been the first to use such a division to support not a particular variety of public rhetoric but a certain kind of writing--the published collection of informal essays. The Essays improvise a new form of textual virility that exists as an alternative to (and appropriation of) both manly deeds and public eloquence. Despite Montaigne's many disclaimers about his exclusively "domestic" and "private" ambitions, I therefore propose that his revisions of 1588 and beyond mount a complex defense of essay-writing itself as a useful endeavor, a "mestier" (665c) fit for a man.
"Of idleness" (1:8), the first essay in which Montaigne describes his own project, closely aligns the categories of privacy, uselessness, and femininity. It opens with the famous image of the "fallow land" ("terres oysives"), which "teems with a hundred thousand kinds of wild and useless weeds." It then goes on to compare these "useless" weeds both to the offspring of women who produce children without masculine seed and to the monstrous progeny of the solitary mind. Montaigne offers these examples in order to illustrate the necessity of disciplining natural processes in order to make them socially useful:
Just as we see that fallow land, if rich and fertile, teems with a hundred thousand kinds of wild and useless weeds, and that to set it to work we must subject it and sow it with certain seeds for our service; and as we see that women, all alone, produce mere shapeless masses and lumps of flesh, but that to create a good and natural offspring they must be made fertile with a different kind of seed; so it is with minds. Unless you keep them busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them, they throw themselves in disorder hither and yon in the vague field of imagination. (20-21a)
Comme nous voyons des terres oysives, si elles sont grasses et fertilles, foisonner en cent mille sortes d'herbes sauvages et inutiles, et que, pour les tenir en office, il les faut assubjectir et employer a certaines semences, pour nostre service; et comme nous voyons que les femmes produisent bien routes seules, des amas et pieces de chair informes, mais que pour faire une generation bonne et naturelle, il les faut embesoigner d'une autre semence: ainsin est-il des espris. Si on ne les occupe a certain sujet, qui les bride et contreigne, ils se jettent desreiglez, par-cy par la, dans le vague champ des imaginations. (32a)
From the start of this essay, masculine "semence" is imagined to subject and employ the "terres oysives" in useful ways. Following the reproductive logic that contrasts "natural offspring" with "shapeless lumps of flesh," the "different kind of seed" alluded to here may be semen. Yet the word "semence" (from the Latin sementis) also stands for the essential "seed" that produces literary fertility. As elsewhere in the Essays, "semence" encompasses the full range of sexual, agricultural, and literary meanings. And as this short essay progresses, Montaigne more explicitly addresses his withdrawal from the active life and the goals of his writing project. In the last paragraph, he explains that his retirement threatens to make him idle, like the fertile lands he has just described:
Like a runaway horse, [my mind] gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself. (21a)
Faisant le cheval eschappe, il se donne cent fois plus d'affaire a soy mesmes, qu'il n'en prenoit pour autruy; et m'enfante rant de chimeres et monstres fantasques les uns sur les autres, sans ordre, et sans propos, que pour en contempler a mon aise l'ineptie et l'estrangete, j'ay commance de les mettre en rolle, esperant avec le temps luy en faire honte a luy mesmes. (33a)
As has often been noted, Montaigne's own imagination here takes on the qualities of a fertile woman or an untamed field; it produces offspring that are unformed, useless, and even monstrous. (11) Yet the words "mettre en rolle" link the disciplinary method of shaming these monstrous births to the process of writing itself. Therefore, although Montaigne clearly acknowledges feminine elements in his creative process, I would not necessarily conclude that this essay implies "that Montaigne's own literary 'paternity' must be bracketed, that it can never be other than a form of maternal reproduction, displaced, repressed." (12) Montaigne seems to play both sides here: while his mind gives birth to "chimeras and fantastic monsters," he finally seems to identify himself as the agent who will discipline these fantasies by writing them down. Verbs such as "subject," "sow," "bridle," and "control" ("assubjectir, " "employer," "bride" and "contreigne," respectively) are distinctly active, at times to the point of aggression; they do not suggest that the exertions of the (male) writer are "bracketed" by the feminine sphere (though they are certainly threatened by it). In this way, while Montaigne presents the chimeras of his mind as feminine, he depicts the active project of writing the Essays as specifically masculine, a subjection of the fertile yet useless territory of the private imagination "for our service." Notably, Montaigne uses the first person plural here, and this word, "our," may stand for the social imperative of usefulness that trumps the private imagination in "Of idleness." Likewise, the idle thoughts of Montaigne's brain only remain private until he begins to put them "en rolle," since the process of writing (and publishing) has a social dimension that cannot easily be contained within a small circle of friends and relatives.
Montaigne's persistent connection of masculinity with the virtues of social usefulness--the productive nature of "semence"--is crucial in understanding his evolving conception of his Essays. Yet the "inutile" gradually comes to demarcate the extremes on both sides of Montaigne's project: the "too private" sphere of solitary idleness and the "too public" realm of artificial eloquence, which he refers to as a form of "prostitution" (185b). Significantly, for instance, "Of the vanity of words" (1:51) brings the two extremes together. Following Tacitus, Montaigne links public eloquence with the dangerous fertility of the "terres oysives": "Eloquence flourished most at Rome when affairs were in the worst state and agitated by the storm of civil wars; as a free and untamed field bears the lustiest weeds" (222a) ("L'eloquence a fleury le plus a Rome, lors que les affaires ont este en plus mauvais estat, et que l'orage des guerres civiles les agitoit: comme un champ libre et indompte porte les herbes plus gaillardes" [306a]). The flourishing of eloquence in a "free and untamed field" recalls the earlier essay's description of the fallow land, which "teems with a hundred thousand kinds of wild and useless weeds." Montaigne's project of defining the usefulness of the Essays may thus require a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, Montaigne imagines that writing harnesses and disciplines the purely natural, feminine, and private imaginings described in "Of idleness." On the other hand, he trumpets his writing style as natural and untrammeled by convention, by contrast with the artifice of public rhetoric. Working negatively at first, the Essays thus subtly stake out a new territory of literary production that lies in between civilized artifice and useless idleness. In part by imagining both of these extremes as territories of feminine "inutilite," Montaigne begins to clear a space for essay writing as a useful masculine occupation. (13)
Let us consider first the question of the Essays' claims to "domestic" and "private" status. Particularly in the 1580 text of the essays, Montaigne tends to protest that his writings are merely for his family and friends: "I am not building here a statue to erect at the town crossroads, or in a church or a public square" (505a). (14) Of course, as texts to be published, the Essays are no longer entirely in the private realm of the "back shop" (177a), or "arriereboutique" (241a). Yet in the 1580 edition, Montaigne takes great pains to deny this, instead offering vehement attacks on public ambition in favor of the purity of solitude. For instance, layer a of "Of solitude" (1:39) bitterly denounces those who cannot exist for themselves (as Montaigne can) but live only for public honor and glory. Montaigne reserves his most vituperative attack for Cicero and Pliny, who contaminate the purity of the private sphere by using their writings to gain an immortal reputation: "Now, as for glory, the goal that Pliny and Cicero set up for us, it is very far from my reckoning.... As far as I can see, these men have only their arms and legs outside the crowd; their souls, their intentions, are more than ever in the thick of it" (182a). He continues, "It is a base ambition to want to derive glory from our idleness and our concealment" (182a). (15) The strength of this attack on Cicero and Pliny reveals Montaigne's preoccupation with how to harness his own "oisivete" without prostituting himself to the public realm. Like these men, he offers his private musings for publication. Yet the first edition denies that the Essays themselves have any public ambitions. Further complicating the matter, "Of solitude" registers ambivalence about the status of privacy itself. Though it recommends that we "reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude ... so private that no outside association or communication can find a place," it also registers the peril that retreat from public life will bring idleness in its wake. Montaigne exhorts, "Let us not fear that in this solitude we shall stagnate in tedious idleness" (177a). (16) He here employs the same word (oisivete) that earlier threatened his project with femininity, uselessness, and monstrosity. In other words, Montaigne would not have to admonish his reader against fearing the negative consequences of solitude if they were not already a pressing problem. Layer a thus rails against the extremes of private idleness and public glory without articulating a positive ground in between the two.
From a political standpoint, as Timothy Reiss has argued, the public and the private realms can be thought of in terms of an opposition between inconstancy and stability, both in Montaigne's writing and in this period in general: "In the private realm the 'individual' is not properly speaking a subject, nothing but ... constant motion. As a subject one becomes in some sense the 'function' of the prince.... There is no contradiction between the concept of the subject's inconstancy and the desire for a stable political order in Montaigne." (17) Yet for Montaigne, the practice of writing may stabilize the subject's "constant motion." The changes Montaigne makes to the essay, "Of giving the lie" (2:18), demonstrate this growing acknowledgement of the public dimension of the Essays. The first edition opens with a self-accusation:
Yes, but someone will tell me that this plan of using oneself as a subject to write about would be excusable in rare and famous men.... In the greatness of their deeds Caesar and Xenophon had something to found and establish their narrative upon, as on a just and solid base. (502a)
Voire mais on me dira que ce dessein de se servir de soy pour subject a escrire, seroit excusable a des hommes rares et fameux.... Caesar et Xenophon ont eu dequoy fonder et fermir leur narration en la grandeur de leurs faicts comme en une bazejuste et solide. (663a)
Montaigne then attempts to deflect this criticism by drawing a strict contrast between these public figures and his private project: "I am not building here a statue to erect at the town crossroads, or in a church or a public square.... This is for a nook in a library, and to amuse a neighbor, a relative, a friend" (503a) ("Je ne dresse pas icy une statue a planter au carrefour d'une ville, ou dans une Eglise, ou place publique.... C'est pour le coin d'une librairie, et pour en amuser un voisin, un parent, un amy" [664a]).
His writings are only, as we have heard in other passages from the first edition, for friends and relatives. Notably, Montaigne's images of the public realm are solid, fixed, and visible to all. These qualities of fixity and visibility sort well with Reiss's notion that "social and political being depend upon an order of custom which is visible (at least in principle) to all" (136). Caesar and Xenophon's narratives are permissible because their deeds provide a stable foundation for their published accounts, "une baze juste et solide. "Their words are tied firmly to visible public actions, unlike the lying rhetoric that threatens to disrupt social bonds: "Since mutual understanding is brought about solely by way of words, he who breaks his word betrays human society" (505a). (18) Because he writes without a foundation in previous public deeds, Montaigne at first asserts the utterly private status of the Essays: "All the contact I have with the public in this book is that I borrow their tools of printing, as being swifter and easier" (504a). (19) Yet a famous passage from the Exemplaire de Bordeaux notably reverses some of the author's earlier claims about the purely private ambitions of his essays. Montaigne here explores more subtly the relationship between his private book and the public realm. Made "for others," the Essays become "clearer" and potentially more useful than Montaigne's previous (purely private) self:
I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape. Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me--a book consubstantial with its author. (504c)
Il m'a fallu si souvent dresser et composer pour m'extraire, que le patron s'en est fermy et aucunement forme soy-mesmes. Me peignant pour autry, je me suis peint en moy de couleurs plus nettes que n'estoyent les miennes premieres. Je n'ay pas plus faict mon livre que mon livre m'a faict, livre consubstantiel a son autheur. (665c)
Notably, the verbs dresser (to fashion) and fermir (to make firm, to fortify) serve in layer c to describe the development of the Essays themselves. (20) These are the same verbs that Montaigne previously used, in layer a, to describe the public goals so far from his mind. In layer c, he explains that he must "fashion and compose" himself in writing the essays ("dresser et composer"). He had previously used the same word to deny the Essays' public status: "Je ne dresse pas icy une statue." In layer a, similarly, Montaigne uses the verb fermir to describe how Caesar and Xenophon "fortify" or "firm up" their narratives by virtue of their previous deeds. In layer c, Montaigne uses the same word to describe the Essays themselves, which grow firm without any foundation in the realm of public actions. The reflexive form of fermir is particularly appropriate, since the essays have become self-establishing: "Le patron s'en est fermy aucunement form6 soy-mesmes." In layer c, then, the Essays themselves begin to acquire a certain public authority as they become "consubstantial" with their author. Montaigne imagines his words as masculine bodies in and of themselves, not as faint reflections, authorized by the previous public actions they describe.
Towards the end of the passage, Montaigne goes so far as to describe the process of writing the Essays as his "mestier," further qualifying his initial disclaimers about the book's "domestic and private" goals. Montaigne here explains that the Essays are more enduring than mere thoughts or spoken words:
Those who go over themselves only in their minds and occasionally in speech do not penetrate to essentials in their examination as does a man who makes that his study, his work, and his trade, who binds himself to keep an enduring account, with all his faith, with all his strength. (504c)
Ceux qui se repassent par fantasie seulement et par langue quelque heure, ne s'examinent pas si primement, ny ne se penetrent, comme celuy qui en faict son estude, son ouvrage .et son mestier, qui s'engage a un registre de duree, de route sa foy, de toute sa force. (665c)
Notably, although Montaigne often praises writing that is like speech--"the same on paper as in the mouth" (127a) (21)--writing here surpasses langue, in part because it endures ("a un registre de durfe"). In layer c, moreover, writing the Essays becomes a mestier, a word that carries the strongly social resonance of a trade or public occupation. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that Montaigne conceives of the Essays as a public monument no different from a statue of Caesar or Alexander. In the next line, he asserts that the most delicate pleasures "avoid the sight not only of the public but of any other person" (504c). Yet in the next paragraph, he remarks that he writes "not without ideas of instructing the public!" (504c). (22) Montaigne's telling insertions of new material thus suggest that "commerce" with the public realm becomes one way in which he rescues the project of the Essays from pure privacy and "feminine" idleness, reconceiving it as something more substantial that exists in and for the world.
In order to understand the importance of literary style to Montaigne's changing conception of the Essays' position within the wider social field (and their subsequent potential to be useful rather than vain), we must examine in more detail his ferocious, intersecting attacks on public rhetoric and effeminate style. "Of the vanity of words" (1:51) offers perhaps the least subtle rejection of the arts of rhetoric as deceptions that are only fit for "sick states": where the state was in "perpetual turmoil, there orators flocked" (222). (23) As Compagnon points out, Montaigne links public eloquence to every possible social vice, from malice to lying and fraud. (24) Montaigne opens the essay by commenting that rhetoricians make small things appear large. He continues in this vein in layer c, pointing out that Socrates and Plato define rhetoric as an art of "deceiving and flattering" and that the "Mohammedans" forbid their children to learn it "because of its uselessness" (222c). By contrast with this false, useless, and socially disruptive rhetoric, Montaigne highlights the sincerity of his own language by virtue of its link to his naked body. He writes, in his address to the reader,
I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray.... I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked. Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book. (2a)
Je veus qu'on m'y voie en ma facon simple, naturelle et ordinaire, sans contention et artifice: car c'est moy que je peins.... je t'asseure que je m'y fusse tres-volontiers peint tout entier, et tout nud. Ainsi, lecteur, je suis moy-mesmes la matiere de mon livre. (3a)
From the beginning, then, Montaigne's natural body (not his public deeds) becomes the essential "matter" that guarantees the authenticity of his written words. Yet only the later editions of the Essays make explicit the link between the male body and a specifically stylistic virility, moving from the question of the Essays' origin to that of their form and effect: perhaps a "sinewy and solid" style can act in the world, gaining the capacity to "fill and ravish" the reader's mind (665c). In this way, the imagined link between writing style and the virile male body increasingly helps to establish a positive paradigm for literary propagation in later editions of the Essays.
Montaigne's attack on eloquence, and his elaboration of his own contrasting style, thus changes over the course of the Essays' composition in ways that have not been fully appreciated in the critical literature. (25) Antoine Compagnon has observed that the formal qualities of Montaigne's prose often exhibit the negligentia diligens of Castiglione's ideal Courtier: "It is the sprezzatura of Il Cortegiano ... which therefore gives a more complete meaning to the unruliness and disorder which, in 1580, lacked positive content. (26) I am suggesting that this "positive content" is bound up with a specifically masculine ideal of language-as-seed, and language-as-action. (27) That is, language itself gains a clearly positive dimension only when Montaigne elaborates the notion of a virile writing style. Furthermore, while Patricia Parker's essay "Virile Style" brilliantly outlines the intersection of gender and rhetorical style in Montaigne's Essays, it does not track the significance of Montaigne's revisions. It therefore does not address the way in which the "virile" style helps Montaigne to solve the problem of the very genre of the essay--of whether it was a private vanity, for friends, or something else altogether, designed "not without ideas of instructing the public!" (504c). By tending to corporealize and masculinize the text of the Essays, Montaigne's later insertions may position the informal essay as a new arena for useful action in the world.
A closer look at "Of the education of children" (1:26) and "A consideration upon Cicero" (1:40) supports the reading I have been pursuing: that Montaigne's self-consciousness about his own writing project began to require alterations in the word/deed binary after the publication of the first edition. As we have seen with Montaigne's praise of the Spartans' refusal to use words to instruct their youth, the first layer of Montaigne's "Of the education of children" takes great pains to show the superiority of deeds as compared to mere words: "There are some men so stupid that they go a mile out of their way to chase after a fine word" (127a). (28) Yet even in layer a of this essay, Montaigne attempts to rescue certain types of language from this morass of artificial, useless babble. He comments,
I want the substance to stand out, and so to fill the imagination of the listener that he will have no memory of the words. The speech I love is ... succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed.... each bit making a body in itself; not pedantic, not monkish, not lawyer-like, but rather soldierly, as Suetonius calls Julius Caesar's speech. (127a)
Je veux que les choses surmontent, et qu'elles remplissent de facon l'imagination de celuy qui escoute, qu'il n'aye aucune souvenance des mots. Le parler que j'ayme, c'est ... succulent et nerveux, court et serre.... non pfidantesque, non fratesque, non pleideresque, mais plustost soldatesque, comme Suetone appelle celuy de Julius Caesar. (171-72a)
As in the address to the reader, references to the male body here guarantee that language will be substantive and not artificial. Yet unlike Montaigne's comment to the reader that he would gladly portray himself "entirely naked," here the male body is not merely the subject of the portrait. Masculinity is instead imagined as a function of literary style, inhering in the language and not in the content: "each bit making a body in itself." In this way, a style of speech that is "soldierly" begins to break down the distinction between words and actions.
Significantly, later additions to this essay rely increasingly on gender divisions to articulate a positive, active dimension of language within the minds of readers. Condemning public rhetoric as effeminate and false, Montaigne imagines a sincere, "virile" style that will have the power to act in the literary world. In layer c of this essay on education, for instance, Montaigne inserts a short comment and a citation from Lucan's epitaph on the masculine force of non-eloquent language. He loves speech that is "not so much dainty and well combed as vehement and brusque: The speech that strikes the mind will have most taste" (127c). (29) Significantly, the evils of rhetoric in this later passage are more clearly associated with the feminine than in layer a. Previously, Montaigne's target was the learned affectation of the pedant or the lawyer--their "childish and pedantic ambition" (127a). (30) In the later passage, Montaigne uses the terms "delicat et peigne" ("dainty and well combed"), which emphasize weakness and effeminacy as prime stylistic failures. Only certain kinds of rhetoric are now harmful: "The eloquence that diverts us to itself harms its content" (127c). (31) Montaigne's strict contrast between words and deeds thus shifts towards a distinction between effeminate words and virile words: the former are vapid and ineffectual, while the latter are more properly masculine in their capacity to act forcefully in the world. Moreover, their virility depends on their opposition to the public sphere of formal rhetoric. The speech that "strikes the mind" is the familiar, colloquial language of Montaigne's own essays.
Correspondingly, the first edition of "A consideration upon Cicero" seems to dismiss all words as useless in comparison to actions. Montaigne mocks those who achieve glory "from mere babble and talk" (185). (32) He denigrates the "vertu parliere" (251c)--or "wordy prowess" (185c)--of public orators such as Cicero and Pliny. The word parliere is important here, for Montaigne also uses it at the close of "Of solitude" when he calls Cicero and Pliny's philosophy "ostetantrice et parliere" (248a). Following on the themes of the previous essay, in which he attacks Cicero and Pliny's use of their oisivete to achieve glory, Montaigne here reprimands them for publishing private letters. He comments that it is unworthy of these
two Roman consuls, sovereign magistrates of the republic that was empress of the world, to employ their leisure in arranging and dressing up a pretty missive, in order to gain a reputation for a good knowledge of the language of their nurse. (183) (33)
deux consuls Romains, souverains magistrats de la chose publique emperiere du monde, d'employer leur loisir a ordonner et fagoter gentiment une belle missive, pour en tirer la reputation de bien entendre le langage de leur nourisse. (249a)
Montaigne here links private letters and vernacular language with the feminine sphere, seeming to denigrate the activity of letter writing itself ("fagoter gentiment une belle missive"), not only its use for public glory. We might note that despite his excellent Latin, Montaigne also chose to write in the language of his nurse, and in a style more influenced by epistolary forms than by those of public rhetoric. So how are we to understand this condemnation of Cicero and Pliny in light of Montaigne's own "descent" from public deeds to private words, from holding public office to publishing his essays? Though layer a is at pains to contrast Montaigne's private goals with the base ("lasche") public ambitions of Cicero and Pliny, it proceeds only by negation, making no explicit provision for the status of the Essays themselves. As in the first edition of "Of giving the lie," eloquence is only justified if it has a sound foundation in public actions visible to all: "If the deeds of Xenophon and Caesar had not far surpassed their eloquence, I do not believe they would ever have written them down. They sought to recommend not their sayings but their doings" (183a) ("Si les gestes de Xenophon et de Caesar n'eussent de bien loing surpasse leur eloquence, je ne croy pas qu'ils les eussent jamais escris. Ils ont cherche a recommander non leur dire, mais leur faire" [249a]). As we have seen, these same Classical heroes (Caesar and Xenophon) and the same contrast between public deeds and useless words form the basis for Montaigne's self-reflections in "Of giving the lie." And in like manner, the sharp distinction initially drawn here between dire and faire invites a number of self-reflexive revisions in layer c. These revisions significantly complicate the boundaries previously established in the Essays between words and deeds, and between private and public uses of language. Montaigne's concern to establish the usefulness of the Essays themselves thus emerges in these telling juxtapositions, which result from his constant insertion of new material into the earlier text.
Perhaps the clearest instance of this attempt to reconstitute the domain of useful masculine action is when, later in the essay on Cicero, Montaigne continues the line of thought about what is appropriate for "sovereign magistrates" and other high public personages. Layer a argues that it is inappropriate for kings to use their leisure time to learn skills like hunting, dancing or playing the flute, which are not "necessary and useful" (184a): (34)
Antisthenes took it as evidence of the little worth of Ismenias that he was praised for being an excellent flute player. (184a)
Et Antisthenes print pour argument de peu de valeur en Ismenias, dequoy on le vantoit d'estre excellent joueur de flutes. (251a)
The next passage, inserted in layer c, is a crucial and oft-cited discussion of the reception of the Essays themselves. It addresses the question of their usefulness with reference to the metaphor of agricultural fertility, the figure for writing familiar from "Of idleness":
I know well that when I hear someone dwell on the language of these essays, I would rather he said nothing. This is not so much to extol the style as to depreciate the sense; ... [No] writer has sown his materials more substantially or at least more thickly on his paper [than I have].... [My essays] often bear, outside of my subject, the seeds of a richer and bolder material." (184-85c)
Je scay bien, quand j'oy quelqu'un qui s'arreste an langage des Essais, que j'aimeroye mieux qu'il s'en teust. Ce n'est pas tant eslever les mots, comme c'est deprimer le sens.... nul escrivain l'a semee ny guere plus materielle ny au moins plus drue en son papier.... Elles portent souvent, hors de mon propos, la semence d'une matiere plus riche et plus hardie. (251c)
In "Of idleness," as we have seen, dual metaphors of deformed female reproduction and weed-choked fields stand for Montaigne's own unbridled imaginations, which require the discipline of writing (coded as male) in order to become fertile--"il les faut embesoigner d'une autre semence" (32a). Within the wider context of the essay on Cicero, the words semee and semence similarly posit a masculine essence for literary fertility. Montaigne's brusque, informal style can go on to "produce numberless essays" (185), sharply contrasting with the useless, feminine sterility of formal stylistic ornament. This reference to sowing materials on the paper thus recapitulates the agricultural metaphor of the essay on idleness while lending it a more concrete, positive connection to the act of writing. Writing becomes not only a negative force--a method of shaming the feminized monsters of the imagination ("les mettre en rolle")--but instead an explicitly constructive act of planting substantial materials on paper. Although the reference to human reproduction has dropped away from the surface of this essay, the motif of masculine sexuality reappears in references to the rhetorical styles that are or are not appropriate to a man. The passage under discussion closes with Seneca's warning about rhetorical ornament: "Elegance of style is not a manly ornament" (251c). (35) In this way, Montaigne presents his own literary fertility as a function of his anti-Ciceronian writing style--his refusal of feminine artifice and "unmanly ornament." (36)
In this crucial section of "A consideration upon Cicero," Montaigne's odd leap from the subject of flute-playing kings to the reception of his essays therefore signals a developing notion of the utility of the essays themselves. In layer a, kings and other great men of state have no business descending to the useless study of the flute or the publication of private letters (or essays) in the vernacular. In layer c, however, Montaigne's feminization of public eloquence leaves room for a properly masculine mode of written literary production, which takes place in a new kind of semi-public sphere.
Some might argue, of course, that Montaigne more properly advocates an anti-style, attempting to suppress language altogether. The passage cited above, for instance, contrasts the uselessness of the essays' "langage," which people vainly imitate, with the usefulness of their essence, or matiere. Or, as Richard Regosin puts it, Montaigne attempts "to make voice and speech function as if they were not there, or not themselves," showing an "insistence that dire become faire" (24). Yet the changes Montaigne makes to the three essays I have examined in detail suggest that notions of a "soldierly" rhetorical style are an important (if somewhat paradoxical) part of Montaigne's attempt to make "dire" into "faire." In layer a, Montaigne's references to admirable forms of writing or speech tend to emphasize the discontinuous and curt qualities of anti-Ciceronian rhetoric in general. (37) As in the attack on "pedantry" in "Of the education of children," this phase of his attack is more closely connected to the anti-scholastic humanism of the period, though gender identity is certainly latent in the contrast between the "soldierly" and the "pedantic" styles. By more explicitly invoking questions of gender and fertility in later editions of the Essays, Montaigne helps to establish the usefulness of his own writing, which eschews "artificial" and "effeminate" forms. Tellingly, for instance, the attacks on eloquence that include a gender component are found only in layers b and c of the essay on Cicero. In addition to the Senecan warning about "manly ornament," Montaigne also inserts Demosthenes' comment that praise for eloquence and beauty is "more appropriate to a woman" (184c). (38) By means of a contrast with this "feminine" eloquence, Montaigne thus creates a stylistic loophole, a space for "masculine" writing such as his own. He reflects on his own style quite directly in layer c:
I have naturally a humorous and familiar style, but of a form all my own, inept for public negotiations.... I mortally hate to seem a flatterer; and so I naturally drop into a dry, plain, blunt way of speaking. (186c)
J'ay naturellement un stile comique et prive, mais c'est d'une forme mienne, mepte aux negotiations publiques.... Je hay a mort de sentir au flateur: qui faict queje mejette naturellement a un parler sec, rond et cru. (252-53b)
In addition to their content, these words also display their forcefulness stylistically: sec, rond, and cru are each one syllable, carrying the force of a blow. This blunt style contrasts with what Montaigne despises, the "abject and servile prostitution of complimentary addresses: life, soul, devotion, adoration" (186c). (39) Therefore, like the "vehement et brusque" language favored in "Of the education of children," the phrase "sec, rond, et cru" can stand as a rallying cry for the masculine style Montaigne comes to espouse. (40)
I close with a short passage from "On some verses of Virgil" (3:5), an essay first written for the 1588 edition. As Patricia Parker suggests, this essay typifies Montaigne's later, more complex treatment of the gender hierarchy that imagines women as words, men as deeds (Fatti maschii, parole femine). (41) Montaigne both praises Virgil's virile style and suggests his own incapacity to attain that ideal. Yet as I have hoped to show in tracking Montaigne's changes to three earlier essays, the ideal of textual virility only gains fully positive expression in these later editions, when Montaigne succeeds in recasting the word-deed binary as a gender division within language itself. By contrast with Montaigne's earlier essays, which are often content to condemn the vanity of all words, "On some verses of Virgil" praises the effectiveness of certain kinds of words, which act in the world by ravishing the minds of readers:
[b] There is nothing forced, ... [c] Their whole contexture is manly; they are not concerned with pretty little flowers [Seneca]. [b] This is not a soft and merely inoffensive eloquence; it is sinewy and solid, and does not so much please as fill and ravish; and it ravishes the strongest minds most. (665)
[b] Il n'y a rien d'efforce.... [c] <
By contrast with "a soft and merely inoffensive eloquence," Virgil's eloquence is "sinewy and solid." Even more than the references to "semence" in the essay on Cicero, the language of literary fertility here becomes allied with masculine virility. The words virilis and ravit are particularly potent in their multiple meanings, which encompass both the more abstract senses of the (manly) text's capacity to seize the reader's mind and the more concrete resonances of male sexual and procreative power. Moreover, Virgil's poetry here provides a positive example of language that is not merely warranted by public actions, in the manner of Caesar and Xenophon's narratives. As we saw with Montaigne's additions to "A Consideration upon Cicero" and "Of the education of children," language here becomes self-authorizing, a deed unto itself.
In this way, Montaigne's later additions to the Essays partially resolve a critical problem generated by the terms of the 1580 edition: within a rigid hierarchy that valorizes deeds over words, the Essays themselves, like all words, must be "frivolous and vain." In later editions, Montaigne rescues his lonely, wordy, project from utter uselessness by granting his book a virile male body, "consubstantial with its author." As the word "consubstantial" suggests, the Essays' link to the body of their author here guarantees their authenticity and substance; however, Montaigne does not imagine that the "firmness" of his words consists in their accurate portrayal of his previous public deeds, as is the case with the writings of Caesar and Xenophon. Instead, the Essays acquire their own agency as a body in the world. They act on their author even as he acts on them: "I have no more made my book than my book has made me." Even further, Montaigne at his most optimistic imagines that his words may become capable of action in a new kind of public sphere--a widening circle of early modern readers. Sown thickly on the paper, the Essays may thus achieve the eloquence that he deems appropriate to a man: like Virgil's verses, they will "fill and ravish" even "the strongest minds" (665b).
University of Pittsburgh
(1) I use the English translation of Donald Frame throughout, including the French version either in the text (in the case of long passages) or in the endnotes (in the case of short ones). The French is from Pierre Villey's edition. The letters "a," "b," and "c," which follow all page numbers, indicate the layers of Montaigne's revisions: "a" refers to the 1580 publication of Books One and Two of the Essais; "b" refers to the revisions and the new material that Montaigne included in the 1588 publication, which included all of Book Three; "c" refers to Montaigne's revisions and additions after the 1588 publication, found in the Exemplaire de Bordeaux.
I would like to thank Francois Rigolot for his insightful comments and helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this article.
(2) The French phrases are "prostitution de presentations" and "sec, fond et cru" ("Consideration sur Ciceron," 252-53b).
(3) Morris W. Croll and Marc Fumaroli, among others, have pointed to the influence of the anti-Ciceronian movement of the sixteenth-century on Montaigne's style, which is often referred to as a "style coupe" (a curt style). See Croll, Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm (Princeton U. Press, 1966) and Fumaroli, "L'Eloquence du for interieur" in Les Formes Breves de la Prose et le Discours Discontinu, ed. Jean Lafond (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1984). In "The Baroque Style in Prose," Croll examines the writings of anti-Ciceronian leaders such as Marc-Antoine Muret, Justus Lipsius, Erasmus, and Montaigne. He identifies the formal elements of the "curt" and the "loose" styles, both of which disrupt the Ciceronian period (though in different ways): the anti-Ciceronians "preferred the forms that express the energy and labor of minds seeking the truth, not without dust and heat, to the forms that express a contented sense of the enjoyment and possession of it" (208). More recently, critics such as Patricia Parker have drawn attention to the role of gender in Montaigne's conception of his writing style. See Parker's essay, "Virile Style," in Premodern Sexualities, ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), along with Robert Cottrell, Sexuality/ Textuality: A Study of the Fabric of Montaigne's Essays (Ohio State U. Press, 1981) and Richard Regosin, Montaigne's Unruly Brood: Textual Engendering and the Challenge to Paternal Authority (U. of California Press, 1996).
(4) See also Plato's Gorgias, where Socrates compares oratory to cosmetics: it is a "mischievous, deceptive, disgraceful, and ill-bred thing, one that perpetrates deception by means of shaping and coloring, smoothing out and dressing up, so as to make people assume an alien beauty and neglect their own." See Plato, Complete Works, ed. and trans. John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 809. On Montaigne's use of Plato's Gorgias, see Rigolot's introduction to the Journal de voyage en Italie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992), xxvi-xxviii.
(5) See Rebhorn's discussion of these definitions of rhetoric's usefulness in Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric (Cornell U. Press, 2000), 5.
(6) "Que c'estoit par ce qu'ils les vouloient accoustumer aux faits, non pas aux parolles ... Le monde n'est que babil" (168a).
(7) The French is as follows: "Ils ont cherche a recommander non leur dire, mais leur faire" (249a).
(8) "Je ne m'y suis propose aucune fin, que domestique et privee" ("Au lecteur," 3a).
(9) On the importance of utilite in Montaigne's work, see Rigolot's introduction to the Journal de Voyages en Italie (xxvi).
(10) "Ce n'est pas raison que tu employes ton loisir en un subject si frivole et si vain" (3a).
(11) See Regosin, Montaigne's Unruly Brood, 159-61.
(12) Ibid., 4.
(13) In John Dee." The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1995), William Sherman includes a discussion of Montaigne in his survey of sixteenth-century reading as a social and material phenomenon. The changing role of the "private" reader is clearly of concern in a consideration of Montaigne's sense of his work as a "mestier."
(14) "Je ne dresse pas icy une statue a planter au carrefour d'une ville" (664a).
(15) "Or, quant a la fin que Pline et Cicero nous proposent, de la gloire, c'est bien loing de mon compte ... A ce queje voy, ceux-cy n'ont que les bras et lesjambes hors de la presse; leur ame, leur intention y demeure engagee plus quejamais ... C'est une lasche ambition de vouloir tirer gloire de [leur] oysivete" (246-47a).
(16) "Il se faut reserver une arriereboutique toute nostre, toute franche, en laquelle nous establissons nostre vraye liberte et principale retraicte et solitude.... si prive que nulle acointance ou communication estrangiere y trouve place.... Ne craignons pas en cette solitude nous croupir d'oisivete ennuyeuse" (241a).
(17) See Timothy Reiss, "Montaigne and the Subject of Polity" in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (The Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1986), 140. On the relationship between private and public spheres, see also David Quint's Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy (Princeton U. Press, 1998), especially chapter four: "An Ethics of Yielding," 102-44.
(18) "Nostre intelligence se conduisant par la seule voye de la parolle, celuy qui la fauce, trahit la societe publique" (666-67a). This passage is quoted in Reiss, "Montaigne and the Subject of Polity," 137.
(19) "Tout le commerce quej'ay en cecy avec le publiq, c'est quej'emprunte les utils de son escripture, plus soudaine et plus aisee" (664a).
(20) The verb "fermir" is now obsolete, but it recurs often in Montaigne's writing to signify tenacity and strength. In "Of pedantry" (1:25), the word specifically suggests masculinity: "L'estude des sciences amollit et effemine les courages plus qu'il ne les fermit et aguerrit" (143c). According to Edmond Huguet's Dictionnnaire de la Lanuge Francaise du Seizieme Siecle, most sixteenth-century uses of the verb "fermir" are synonymous with modern uses of the verb "affermir," which also existed in the sixteenth century, but which Montaigne does not appear to have used.
(21) "Tel sur le papier qu'a la bouche" (171a).
(22) The most delicate pleasures "fuyent la veue non seulement du peuple, mais d'un autre.... non sans dessein de publique instruction!" (665c).
(23) "Estats malades ... en perpetuelle tempeste, la ont afflue les orateurs" (305a).
(24) As Compagnon observes, Montaigne links "l'eloquence publique au vice, a la fraude, a la simulation, au mensonge, a la malice, a la perfidie, a la piperie et l'impudence, a la simulation et la dissimulation." See Antoine Compagnon, "Montaigne ou la parole donnee" in Rhetorique de Montaigne, ed. Frank Lestringant (Paris: Librairie Honore Champion, 1985), 10.
(25) See note 3, above, for a summary of the main trends of criticism on Montaigne's style.
(26) This is my translation of Lafond's French: "C'est la sprezzatura du Cortegiano ... qui donne donc un sens plus complet au dereglement et au desordre qui, en 1580, manquaient d'un contenu positif." See Jean Lafond, ed., Les Formes Breves de la Prose et le Discours Discontinu (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1984), 18.
(27) I have benefited here from Robert Cottrell's argument that Montaigne's brevity "may accurately be called full and copious" (126) because of its dual emphasis on the "corporealization of the text" (127), and on the text's "semence," which is "valued not for what it is but for what it has the potential to effect outside itself' (132).
(28) "Il en est de si sots, qui se destournent de leur voye un quart de lieut, pour courir apres un beau mot" (171a).
(29) "Non tant delicat et peigne comme vehement et brusque: 'Haec demum sapiet dictio, quae feriet'" (171c).
(30) "Une ambition puerile et pedantesque" (172a).
(31) "L'eloquence faict injure aux choses, qui nous destourne a soy" (172c).
(32) "Gloire du caquet et de la parlerie" (249a).
(33) On Cicero's letters, see Rigolot, Metamorphoses, 88.
(34) "Necessaires et utiles" (251a).
(35) "Non est ornamentum virile concinnitas" (251c).
(36) Of course, Montaigne's anti-Ciceronianism does not prevent him from liberally quoting Cicero. As Fumaroli astutely comments, Montaigne "interiorise celui-ci [Cicero] et, si l'on peut dire, le 'privatise'" (44).
(37) See Morris Croll, Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm, for a discussion of anti-scholastic and anti-Ciceronian trends.
(38) "Appartenoient mieux a une femme" (250b).
(39) "[L]'abjecte et servile prostitution de presentations; la vie, l'ame, devotion, adoration" (253c). Montaigne repeats this idea in the next paragraph, condemning the "complimens verbeux des loix ceremonieuses de nostre civilite" (253c).
(40) The adjective cru is also a keystone of Montaigne's self-conception in "Of repentance" (3:2). He refers to his Essays as "des effects de nature crus et simples" (805b).
(41) See Parker, "Virile Style," 215.…