The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature

By David M. Posner | Go to book overview

2
Montaigne and the staging of the self

“La plus part de nos vacations sont farcesques. 'Mundus universus exercet histrioniam. '” Few authors know better than Montaigne how to conceal the profound behind the platitude. When he makes this remark in “De mesnager sa volonté, ” the tenth essay of the third book of his Essais, he is perfectly aware that he is recycling a truism already old in the time of Petronius. Indeed, he cites the Roman author's version of this commonplace almost as an anti-authority, as if to emphasize the triteness of his own statement. Yet at the same time he does not mean his remark to be merely banal; it provides both Montaigne and his reader with an enormously powerful metaphor, one which functions both as a tool with which to explore the structure of the self and as a figurative vocabulary with which to describe the dynamics of that structure, once discovered. The set of metaphoric images here conjured up–stage, role, performance, mask permeate Montaigne's language of the self, a language not incidentally appropriated by the majority of his readers. 1 Given the critical attention lavished by such readers as Villey, Friedrich, and Starobinski upon Montaigne's ideas of identity, we certainly shall not attempt here to come up with yet another all-encompassing Theory of Montaigne. Nor will we try to find a definitive answer to another, related problem, similarly overburdened with critical attention: whether or not there is a “true Montaigne” lurking behind the various personæ or masks shown to us by the author of the Essais. 2 Our inquiry, while situated in the midst of these major critical debates, will have a more modest scope. Specifically, we will look closely at the intersection of Montaigne's theatrical language of the self with another discursive arena where the dominant metaphor is that of theatre and theatricality: the court. Our aim is to discover how Michel de Montaigne, author of the Essais, and Michel de Montaigne, Mayor of Bordeaux, Seigneur de Montaigne, Chevalier de l'Ordre du Roy & Gentil-homme or dinaire de sa Chambre, 3 courtier and advisor to kings, are related to one another. These two Montaignes, or two zones of Montaigne, seem to overlap precisely in the realm of theatrical language and metaphor, and it is this realm that seems to hold the key to an understanding of just how

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