Essaying Montaigne: A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading

By John O'Neill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Literary Anxiety and the
Romance of Books

Montaigne loved books and gave up his life to writing one of his own. Yet he speaks disparagingly of many books; and especially of his own. This has permitted several critics to imagine that Montaigne did not have his heart in the Essays and to argue that he gave to them only the residual energy of a sick man, one withdrawn from society and essentially incapable of action. Nothing could be less true. The Essays are the living incarnation of thought and sensibility, the embodiment of a literary spirit whose hold upon this life never slackened, even in the worst of its experiences. But to show this we need to understand something of the background of literary anxiety and then we shall be able to gain better insight into the joy of reading and writing that is the real force behind the Essays.

Montaigne knew very well that the essay was a slight literary form. To many it was nothing but a schoolboy's exercise. 1 Even today, the essayist is regarded as a self-indulgent thinker, announcing in his titles topics he has no intention of treating with any thoroughness, because of a prior resolve to manage things on behalf of a moral conclusion, or merely for the sake of an aesthetic display. Thus Montaigne could speak of his essays as trivial things, a mishmash, the work of an undisciplined mind, betraying a character of little interest to anyone but their author. Are the Essays, then, nothing but self-indulgences that only a foolish reader would want to search for any wisdom? Fools generally keep their own company, and it is unlikely that Montaigne's modest evaluations of his work were designed to prevent the exploitation of witless readers. On the contrary, he explicitly challenges the reader to find the sense of the essays for himself. This is not because Montaigne deliberately concealed their aim, as a sort of game between himself and the reader. Such a notion would imply a kind of manipulation, or an

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