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

By John O'Neill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The Paradox of Communication:
Reading the Essays Otherwise

In two very challenging articles 1 Anthony Wilden has presented a reading of the Essays in which their literary project is analysed in terms of Montaigne's nostalgia for the lost plenitude of La Boétie's friendship. We propose now to set out Wilden's complex use of Marxist (Lukács) and Freudian (Lacan) interpretation and then critically to evaluate his arguments regarding Montaigne's concept of self and social relationships. 2 Wilden's approach to the Essays depends upon the strategy of locating Montaigne in a particular socio-economic context – substantifying him as an ideologist of bourgeois individualism. The force of this practice derives for Wilden from its authority in Marx, and in particular in Lukács’ The Theory of the Novel. 3 It matters very little to Wilden that Montaigne himself is a student of the tendency of men to judge things according to their own measure, thereby absolutising customs, beliefs and practices that have only a municipal rather than universal force. It seems equally unimportant to him that Montaigne's times are those of the Religious Wars and the emergence of a central state in France – phenomena that at best describe certain elements of mercantile capitalism less favourable to a Catholic country gentleman than to the rising commercial and urban bourgeoisie allied with Protestantism, according to Max Weber's classical hypothesis. 4 Wilden, in any case, presents his argument on several other fronts. Thus, he is just as slipshod with Montaigne's place in the history of ideas as he is with Montaigne's location with respect to the rise of capitalism. 5 He speaks of the Essays as containing a concept of the self as ‘a substantial, Cartesian-like rock of stability, generated by the conflict between the desire for certitude and solidity and the experience of doubt and fluidity. He is aware that this interpretation involves what we might call an anticipatory reading of Montaigne. That is to say, Wilden knows that Montaigne is pre-Cartesian

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