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

By John O'Neill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Civilisation, Literacy and Barbarism

The Essays require a lively reader. They have certainly challenged many a critic, and it is to the continuing rivalry over a pair of essays that we now turn, namely, the essay ‘Of Coaches’ (III: 6) which must also be read with the essay ‘Of Cannibals’ (I: 31). We begin with a plain account of the essay ‘Of Coaches’ avoiding as nearly as possible any elaborate gloss upon its construction. We shall then come to grips with some contemporary readings of the essay. Our purpose is not to be purely polemical. Rather, we are interested in the natural rivalry that is provoked by any adequate concern with differences in our practices of reading and writing. We do not intend simply to proliferate critical readings of Montaigne. Thus, to conclude, we shall set the essays on coaches and cannibals within Montaigne's broader problematic of the internal relativism of literacy and civilisational barbarism:

It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room.

I want the matter to make its own divisions. It shows well enough where it changes, where it concludes, where it begins, where it resumes, without my interlacing it with words, with links and seams introduced for the benefit of weak or headless ears, and without writing glosses on myself. Who is there who would rather not be read than be read sleepily or in passing?

Nothing is so useful that it can be of value when taken on the run [Seneca]. If to take up books were to take them in, and if to see them were to consider them, and to run through them were to grasp them, I should be wrong to make myself out quite as ignorant as I say I am. (III: 9, 761)

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