Essaying Montaigne: A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading

By John O'Neill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Rival Readings

In ‘essaying’ Montaigne we mean to stay as close as we can to Montaigne's reflective practices as a writer and a reader not only of the classics but especially of his own Essays. We consider Montaigne a rival reader of the Essays. This is not an afterthought, but an activity proper to the literary competence of an author. From this standpoint we are able to evaluate the less reflective practices of rival critics whose views on the style, composition and sense of the Essays will be considered at length further on. We do not, however, claim complete reflexivity for our own reading. We are concerned, none the less, to enter a claim upon the attention of the literary community for what we have to say on the bodily arts of reading and writing; and since this is not done otherwise than by means of critical appraisals, documentation and the like, we seek, where we can, to fault what we consider poor but conventional approaches to what Montaigne himself called his ‘essays in flesh and bone’.

Since it is tiresome to chase down every reading of the Essays that we consider beside the point, it may be useful to avail ourselves of some of the ground cleared by Pouilloux's reading of the Essays. 1 His arguments are rather schematic and leave little room for his own constructive reading of the Essays. 2 But this we undertake for ourselves, in part at least, and will expand through more detailed analyses of rival readings of Montaigne in the following chapters.

Pouilloux begins by rejecting a dominant mode of reading the Essays, namely, the moralist reading, which consists of anthologising or rendering the essential thought of Montaigne in terms of a set of timely moral maxims. 3 Such a reading consists of treating the Essays as a pretext, subordinating them to the editor's recipes for predigested reading. No questions are raised regarding the initial problem of Montaigne's own use of quotations – the problem of imitatio and

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