Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

The Body's Eye: On the Origins of Self-Observation in Montaigne's Essays

Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

The Body's Eye: On the Origins of Self-Observation in Montaigne's Essays

Article excerpt

With a book as autobiographical as Michel de Montaigne's Essays, (1) one would be justified in concluding there is little not already known about its author. Questions of philosophical and literary influence are answered by Montaigne within its pages, and modern editions now universally include Pierre Villey's invaluable recovery of the sources for Montaigne's extensive quotations and references. Of course, the style of expression and method of self-observation are entirely singular. All genealogies come up short before the radical advent and expression of lived subjectivity in the Essays. Montaigne did not anticipate the nature of the reflection that would be carried out under the name "essai." A clear evolution occurs in the compositional refinement of this unique type of meditation. Since he was unfamiliar with the close inspection of his personal being, the language of the early essays still bears the rhythms and inflection of the public world. By the time of the late essays, form and substance have become seamlessly joined. In making himself the matter of his book, Montaigne blurs the lines between description and experience, word and flesh. The Essays, a book unlike any other because it bears all the unmistakable traces of an individual life, is a "book" in the same generic sense that the author and the reader are both members of the species "human."

This attention to life in its elemental singularity helps resolve some otherwise paradoxical aspects of the Essays. A book whose form is sui generis, it was written by an author who distrusted the word and disavowed the profession of writing; and the self-portrait it contains is everywhere shadowed by death. The Essays court their own non-existence. Neglectful and even willfully antagonistic toward the formalizations of genre, tradition, and ideas, Montaigne makes contingency his expressive medium. Becoming, not being, is the substance and principle of the observation of self in the "essai." With Montaigne, we are returned to a thinking older than philosophy itself, and to a questioning that experienced wonder before it hungered for absolute certainty. Montaigne declares his allegiance with the world as individually perceived. There is only one vantage point we share with the world grasped in its sensory givenness, namely the body. For Montaigne, the zero-point for all reference is a subject utterly compromised by its terrestrial footing. Contrary to all efforts to read the Essays as a cautionary failure in the history of reason, narration and observation trace their origins back to a self that is before all else embodied. (2)

This is the radical premise of the Essays: The record of a life within its pages torments reflection with the thought that between the inward sense and the outward profile there is "consubstantiality." Montaigne employs this term to describe the rare uniqueness of the book he has composed. The Essays, he writes in "Of giving the lie," is a book "consubstantial a son autheur" [consubstantiall to his Author] (II: 18. 665/488). Given the avowed aim of the Essays to be nothing more than a portrait of the "conditions et humeurs" [conditions and humours] (I: 3/lx) of a person named "Michel de Montaigne," a portrait whose descriptive fidelity to the most intimate details of living both impugns and confirms the human form, one expects from Montaigne a certain rigor in self-observation. Where others turn away, he re-doubles the effort at inspection. Yet, the self-magnification occurs without sacrificing any of the existential proximity of the subject. Rejected is the method of the "naturalist": "Je ne suis pas bon naturaliste" [I am no good Naturalist] (I: 18.75/65). What he is rejecting is a proto-scientific understanding of the body that privileges causes and first principles over sensible effects. Knowledge in the hands of the naturalist is the outcome of a fleshless reflection, which, under the sign of reason, invalidates the concretely perceived world, the very same world Montaigne inhabits. …

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