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

By John O'Neill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Portrait of the Essayist Without Qualities

It is a commonplace of the interpretation surrounding the Essays that they are dominated by Montaigne's self-portrait. Such commentaries are generally developed without much attention to the intrinsic difficulties in the project of selfanalysis. 1 It is therefore a welcome occasion to consider at length the issues that are raised by Butor's Essay on the Essays2 where the imagery techniques and intentionality of the self-portrait are absolutely central but lack any adequate analytic use. In following Butor's argument, as we propose to do, we shall also have occasion to reconsider some of the major problems in any commentary upon the Essays, and to test further our sense of rival reading of Montaigne.

In view of the role it plays in Butor's interpretation, we must begin with some remarks upon the nature of self-inquiry as a literary and artistic enterprise. 3 We have to consider how we are to avoid the suspicion that the self which is proposed as the product of self-study is a fiction. In the first place, it is important to observe that the self-portrait and the autobiography are, after all, public institutions. They presuppose a cultural valuation of personal experience which authorises first-person speech. Moreover, the personal voice is assumed in relation to the viewer's reader's person. Montaigne's Essays differ from Saint Augustine's Confessions, or from those of Rousseau, in that they make no use of a divine interlocutor whose otherwise redundant omniscience is the rhetorical guarantee of their veracity. What Augustine required of God, Montaigne needed from the community of plain men. Moreover, Montaigne could not avail himself of the auspices of a profound revelation, or of any rupture between his previous life and life from the time he decided to write, although this is often a source of the autobiographer's claim to a sincere disposition. Instead, what we find in Montaigne is an appeal to a reader whose good sense is the sense of the community in which

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