1592-1992: Recent French Works on the Renaissance

By Schiffman, Zachary Sayre | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

1592-1992: Recent French Works on the Renaissance


Schiffman, Zachary Sayre, Renaissance Quarterly


On this side of the Atlantic, 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage; in French academic circles, however, it was noted more for the 400th anniversary of Montaigne's death. A few adventuresome scholars actually tried to combine the two, with mixed results. In Ilana Zinguer's edition of the proceed-kings f an international conference on Montaigne, Le lecteur, l'auteur et l'ecrivain: Montaigne, 1492-1592-1992 (Paris: Champion, 1993), the theme of the New World receives short shrift. It is subsumed under the amorphous heading of "Montaigne and the Other," a topic so broad that it permitted such scholars as Eva Kushner, Claude-Gilbert Dubols, and Francois Rigolot to discuss (respectively) the author as other, Montaigne and the supernatural, and Montaigne's interpretation of La Boetie's Servitude volontaire--topics far removed from the ostensible theme of the New World. Olivier Pot, however, manages with much greater success to commemorate both anniversaries in his L'inqueitante etrangete: Montaigne: la pierre, le cannibale, la melancholie (Paris: Champion, 1993), an ingenious work that ranges over a wide array of seemingly disparate topics.

Pot begins by giving serious consideration to Montaigne's assertion, in the essay "De l'affection des peres aux enfans," that it was a "melancholy humor" that first "put in his head" the idea of writing about himself. In a fascinating analysis of Aristotelian psychology and Renaissance humor theory, Pot demonstrates how this and other such statements about "melancholy" provide an entree into Montaigne's conception of the actual process of artistic creation, an erotic or generative process governed by the melancholic humor. By contrasting "melancholy" with "sadness," Pot reveals how Montaigne gradually came to regard the former as a creative humor, one that could be rendered ineffectual by sadness. In Pot's interpretation, the Essais represent a therapeutic journey in which sadness--depicted in Montaigne's first composition, "De la tristesse"--is ]transmuted into creative melancholy via the diversion of writing, a diversion that increasingly gives substance to the humor.

In three complex and wide ranging chapters, Pot elicits the theme of melancholy from the Essais. First, he shows how Montaigne progressively reinterprets Aristotelian psychology in order to make room for a notion of "good" or creative melancholy, which he comes to see as his defining humor, as opposed to the "bad" melancholy that leads toward madness. Then, in a circuitous chapter beginning with a brilliant discussion of the parallels between "Des cannibales" and La Boetie's Servitude volontaire, Pot draws an analogy between melancholy as a "devouring" humor (i58) and cannibalism. Just as there are "good" and "bad" forms of melancholy for Montaigne, so too there are "good" and "bad" forms of cannibalism. In the former, the devouring of human flesh is a symbolic act constitutive of culture; whereas in the latter, it is an indiscriminate act destructive of culture. Thus, according to Pot, the cannibals of Brazil provide Montaigne with a many faceted metaphor, not only for the melancholy that is constitutive of the self in the Essais, but also for the "natural" basis of "culture" in his (and La Boetie's) secular view of society. Pot elaborates on this last theme in his final chapter, on Montaigne's trip to Italy in search of a cure for his kidney stones. Here travel becomes Montaigne's metaphor for the mobility of spirit characteristic of creative melancholy, which freely and naturally adapts itself to the world. According to Pot, Montaigne elaborates on the free and natural quality of "the culture of melancholy" in "Des coches," which deals with the peoples of the New World.

Pot's is an intriguing reading of the Essais that brings a great deal of material together under the rubric of "melancholy." Although (as a historian) I sometimes thought that he was a bit too free with the textual associations necessary to sustain his theme, I always found his insights stimulating--especially in his pathbreaking analysis of "Des cannibales," which is so rich that it bursts the thematic framework of the book. …

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