Academic journal article The Romanic Review

On the Ambiguity of Silence: Tacit Dimensions of the Essais

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

On the Ambiguity of Silence: Tacit Dimensions of the Essais

Article excerpt

Fleminist critics of Renaissance literature and culture have long lamented the social constraints placed on female voices in the period, and have done a considerable amount of work on early humanist pedagogical treatises, such as Juan Luis Vives's De institutione feminae christianae, that equate feminine speech with wanton sexuality and consequently prescribe silence to the woman who would be considered chaste. (1) Vives calls silence the "magnum feminae ornamentum"; (2) facility with rhetorical ornament, on the other hand, was the province either of the male citizen of the res publica or of the public woman--the promiscuous courtesan. As their critics point out, the humanists make powerful language an index of sexual capacity: Patricia Parker has recently suggested that a sexualized "virile style" was in fact a recurring trope in Renaissance rhetorical manuals directed at men. (3) Silence, on the other hand, was meant to signal the muting of (female) sexual desire.

In The Cornucopian Text, Terence Cave showed virile style at work in "Sur des vers de Virgile," the fifth essay in the third book of Michel de Montaigne's Essais. According to this rich and influential reading, linguistic and sexual potency are to be understood as synonymous in "Sur des vers de Virgile" and in the Essais more generally. (4) "True copia," writes Cave, "is assured where res guarantee or inform verba" (6); Cave suggests that Montaigne both admires and aspires to copious writing in essay III/5. Parker, on the other hand, sees a different kind of rhetoric at work in the very same essay. In her analysis of "Sur des vers de Virgile," she focuses on the flip side of copia--what Erasmus called "muliebras loquacitas," a chatty, aimless logorrhea assimilated to the feminine. All effeminate verba and no virile res, the trope of loquacitas is, Parker suggests, indicative of a broader underlying anxiety within humanist rhetoric about the gendering of the quintessentially humanist "world of words." (5)

I shall argue here that Montaigne's treatment of sexuality in "Sur des vers de Virgile" calls for an analysis quite outside the bounds of the rhetorical paradigm that opposes masculine copia to feminine loquacitas. In "Sur des vers de Virgile," communication of the sexual res does not involve verba at all, but rather turns around an intimate relationship between sex and silence. Much of the sex in III/5 lurks in silence, a silence which never functions as an index of chastity; indeed, the essay grants silence--and not any specific kind of language--a privileged association with sexual potency. Thus, Montaigne's discussion sunders the bonds between sex and language, on the one hand, and chastity and silence, on the other, that Vives and his fellow humanists attempted to reinforce. Moreover, "Sur des vers de Virgile" shows that "copious" male language about sex in fact constitutes a threat to the very masculinity it is supposedly enlisted to undergird. Rather than reinforcing the ideology of virile style, then (whether by successfully deploying it or by falling prey to its empty underside, "womanish loquacity"), Montaigne's essay forces us to confront the limitations of this ideology as a model for the composition and interpretation of the Essais. Ultimately, Montaigne's musings in "Sur des vers de Virgile" reposition silence as a crucial element in the textual economy of the Essais as a whole, and point the way to a reconsideration of the status of silence in late Renaissance culture more generally.

Ironically, Montaigne's essay starts out as a polemic against silence, especially silence about matters sexual. Near the beginning of III/5, writing on the subject of confession, Montaigne recommends that one should "oser dire tout ce qu['on] ose faire ... Qui s'obligerait a tout dire, s'obligerait a ne rien faire de ce qu'on est contraint de taire." (6) The intended point here appears simply to be that one should always be ready to put the things one does into words. …

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