Intertextual Labyrinths: Ariadne's Lament in Montaigne's "Sur Des Vers De Virgile" [*]

Article excerpt

This study reconstructs the thematic and literary presence of a labyrinth in Montaigne's "Sur des vers de Virgile." Indispensable to such a reconstruction will be a consideration of Catullus's epithalamium on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis from which are derived the hexameters textually anchoring the labyrinth in Montaigne's text. I will then place these verses in their French surroundings and pursue the insights that an awareness of the Catullan context makes available for interpretations of the essay.

The multicursal labyrinth is an edifice designed to prevent the discovery or attainment of its center by entangling the person who enters the building in a multiplicity of detours or "ambages." Urging repeated directional choices upon the traveler, the duplicity or "doubleness" of the structure (in Latin, the "ambo" of "ambages" means "both") endlessly defers penetration to the precious core and simultaneously renders exit almost impossible. [1] Commentators of Montaigne have often used the multicursal labyrinth as a metaphor for the essays themselves, texts that stubbornly refuse to be resolved into one single interpretation and that specialize in multiple digressions forcing the reader to lose his or her way as the argument progresses. [2] In a recent article, Mary B. McKinley has demonstrated the aptness of this metaphor when it is applied to both Montaigne's style and to the sequencing of topics or "subjects" in individual essays. She has discussed Montaigne's own awareness of the ambiguous quality of hi s writing, and traced his view of the labyrinth, a term he uses only once, to essential passages in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Virgil's Aeneid. [3] One could add to her remarks that a medieval etymology for "labyrinth," "labor" + intus" or "internal work," adequately captures the nature of Montaigne's literary project: an exploration of an individual's consciousness in its multifarious meanderings, turns and returns, which represent the inner and apparently directionless labor the essayist believes to be characteristic of human efforts at reasoning and at assessing our place in the world. [4] Moving away from this general exposition of the phenomenological relations between labyrinths and Montaigne's literary practice, the following pages will concentrate upon an actual instance of a labyrinth imagistically surfacing in the dense fabric of "Sur des vers de Virgile" (3.5), and will demonstrate the significance of the thematic dimensions of the maze on several levels. The articulation of the labyrinth in the essa y depends upon an intertextual reconstruction: the folds of the building appear in all their detail only through the dialogic commerce the French text engages with a long and complex poem of Catullus, a poet who, besides Ovid and Virgil, is the major exponent of Daedalus's architectural masterpiece in Latin literature. [5]

The polymath and historian Estienne Pasquier (1529-1615), a friend of Montaigne and a great admirer of his "chefs-d'oeuvre," nevertheless singles out "Sur des vers de Virgile" for criticism precisely because of its overly labyrinthine or disorienting nature. Pasquier observes that this chapter's intelligibility suffers from the essayist's propensity to "jump from one topic to the other" (sauter d'un propos l'autre) and that Montaigne would have done better to give it the title Cocq a l'Asne. [6] This comment targets the foundational saut or sudden turn marking the topical organization of a text which, in its title, installs a clear expectation in the reader, namely the discussion of a passage of Virgil, only to frustrate this promise and to spell our another "theme": "What has the sexual act, so natural, so necessary, and so just, done to mankind, for us not to dare to talk about it without shame and to exclude it from serious and decent conversation?" [7] However, as soon as this theme is announced, the tex t abruptly abandons it to introduce "Ces vers ..." (848 B), referring to Virgil's verses in the title and to their painting or "peinture" of "1'action genitale. …