perversion and topic grammar

The divide between what is written and what is drawn is often passed over rather hastily in the history of the invention of writing. In Tim Ingold’s Lines, he quotes from an anthropologist in Australia:

“Both men and women among the Walbiri routinely draw designs in the sand with their fingers, as they talk and tell stories. This drawing is as normal and as integral a part of
conversation as are speech and gesture. The markings themselves are standardized
to the extent that they add up to a kind of vocabulary of graphic elements whose precise meanings, however, are heavily dependent on the conversational or storytelling contexts in which they appear. Thus a simple straight line can be (among other things) a spear, a fighting or digging stick, or a person or animal lying stretched out; a circle can be a nest, water hole, tree, hill, billy can or egg. As the story proceeds, marks are assembled into little scenes, each of which is then wiped out to make way for the next.” [125]

What is happening here, one wants to say, is not writing, but illustrating. Yet it seems very much to be the secret sharer of writing. In birth, the creature bursts the shell – but in the birth of a device, the creature often carries the shell with it.

This is a backdoor way into talking about a characteristic of Montaigne’s essays that either enchants or irritates the reader: Montaigne’s inveterate habit of drifting from the topic. Why, for instance, would Montaigne entitle an essay, On the lame (Des Boiteux), in which the topics are fact and cause, reasoning, popular delusions, witchcraft, and an Italian proverb about lame women?

Topic organization in a text is at a level superior to the semantic contents of the text. Those contents have an order of appearance – like the pictures produced by the Walbiri – but in writing, they pass beyond the threshold of erasure, so to speak, and must be managed. In oral speech, there are topic markers too, but they are of a different nature – they are ultimately collaborative, existing in conversation. As we drift to soliloquy, internal monologue, we drift closer to the rigidity of the written – but we gain that rigidity through repetition. There’s an obsessiveness about internal monologue. When I am angry at someone, I often rehearse speeches to that person in my head. But what is interesting is that I don’t simply create one speech – I reiterate it. I rehearse it. I chip away at it, I add to it. I return to it. I seek to dominate, in that speech, the space that could be potentially taken up by my counterpart, my conversational object – the person I am mad at. When I give directions to a person, which is a very strongly topic-directed speech act, I often find myself remembering, afterwards, that I forgot some important point. This is because I am being very consciously on topic – I want my words to correspond to a precise set of behaviors, coordinate with the world.

Contrary to Moliere’s M. Jourdain, who, discovering what prose is from his rhetoric teacher, is amazed that he has been speaking it all his life – in fact, we rarely do. The key to prose is the rigidifying of the topic level. We speak a mixed genre, a hip hop/poetic/prose mash-up. If you have ever transcribed an interview, you will find that loose ends proliferate, and the level of the topic is now weak, now strong.

The empowering of topic cues comes into the writing system at the very beginning of writing, in Mesopotamia, where the archaeologist finds tablet after tablet filled with lists, orders, transfers of property. Michel de Montaigne entered the Parlement de Bourdeaux in 1557, and followed a career path that led him to being elected mayor, unanimously, in 1581. by the council. He was very familiar with administrative forms. The Essais, however, are composed as a long raid on those forms. It is part of their enigma: the essays are pervaded with the sense of Montaigne’s power, his ability to, if he wishes, keep on topic. This is the lawyer’s edge. And to this he adds the power of going cannily off topic – this is the cop’s edge.

To go off topic is to stray, to diverge, to digress. There is, in writing, an implicit structure of following – of directed movement – and straying is a sort of counter-writing, throwing us back upon an oral looseness. One has to remember, of course, that what writing traverses – that discursive space – is not just made up of the verbal, but of mixed elements, physical as well as signifying, sound as well as character, for use as well as for pleasure. To stray is to bump into these sublimated spirits that hover around the text.

“A propos, or out of propos (hors propos) – whatever” This is the odd, jutting fragment of a sentence that marks a turning point  in Des Boyteux. It is with this fragment that Montaigne abruptly shifts from dangerous thoughts evoked by the trial of a witch to a meditation on an Italian proverb. The fragment surges into the focal area of the text as though to testify to its own im-pertinence. By doubting the truth of the fact of witchcraft, Montaigne, theoretically, could be committing an act of heresy. de Lancre, after him, made the case that disbelief in magic was congruent with being on the side of the devil. The thought Montaigne has followed has taken him this close – and then we have a seemingly ribald aside, going from the image of a ‘miserable old woman” who, in Montaigne’s memorable judgment, should be sentence to “hellabore” (a psychoactive drug to  cure mental disorder) rather than “hemlock” – to the lame woman of the proverb: “he does not know the true sweetness of Venus who has not slept with a lame woman”.

Why this “outside of the propos”? Why this deliberate perversity?
The power of the topic level in prose is not only the power to organize an argument, narrative or remarks around an ‘issue’ – it is also the power to shift the topic. That power of shifting – that power of perversity – is sexualized in Montaigne’s digression. What explains the proverb? Montaigne first considers stories about the cause of the particular sexual power of lame women:“… her legs and thighs, not receiving the nourishment that is their due, it comes about that the genital parts above are more full, nourished and vigorous.” The comparison of the social and the human body is a commonplace of humanist rhetoric. In Coriolanus, Menenius Agrippa tells a story in the same vein, about the rebellion of the members of the body against the stomach. In Montaigne’s comment, the perversion of order is literally sexualized. Reading back to the comments on the witch with which Montaigne has been occupied, the implication is, as well, about a perversion in the social order, where the old woman, because of her lesser sexual and social power, may turn to other means to hold her position. In other words, we can find a cause her that made the old woman a witch.

But just as we are about to settle for a naturalization of the witch story, Montaigne switches back to an older topic, the topic that governs the whole of the essay, which is that we should have a rule, in the order of our understanding, to put fact before cause. It is the inversion of this order that is the true perversion he is after: “These examples serve what I said in the beginning, our reasonings often anticipate the effect; be the extension of their juridiction so infinite, aren’t they judging and exercising themselves in inanity, proper, and not in being?”

Perversion crosses perversion, hors propos is shifted by hors propos here. For in losing ourselves in the story of why the woman is a witch, the causes of witchcraft, one has lost the vital first step: are there witches?

The moment in which one can ask, are there witches, is the moment one steps out of the urgencies of the present social scene and retires to a place of thought. This moment is not as facile and unmediated as it appears in a certain rationalist ideology. Just when one wants to congratulate Montaigne as a precursor of the Enlightenment and demystifier of witchcraft, he makes a final move that modifies that congratulations, or, to give it another twist, transforms the “following” within the prose into a kind of “escape”, a flight. Granted, perhaps the belief in witches comes about not because there are witches, but because people say there are witches. The magic of the word is such that it produces the magic of magic. But what does this mean?  “For by the single authority of ancient and public custom of this proverb, I persuaded myself, in the past, that I had received more pleasure from a woman who was not straight, and put this down as one of her graces.” And so it comes to pass that Montaigne’s rule – to first find the fact – crosses another fact – that men are believing beasts, even in heat. “There is nothing as supple and elastic as our understanding.” The suppleness and elasticity, here, stand in contrast to the crookedness of the woman favored by Venus. The high level of the topic instant is itself saturated with sex, here. It is perverted. The essay, it turns out, does not intend to resolve what is  a propos and what is out of propos. And so the essay ends on a note that could either be a straight movement forward, or a limping movement to the side:

“The pride of those who attribute to the human spirit the capacity for all things, causes in others, through spite and emulation, this opinion, that he isn’t capable of any things. The ones holding themselves in ignorance are of the same extremity as those who hold themselves in science. The point is, one cannot deny that man is immoderate in all things: and that he has no stopping point, than that of necessity, and the inability to go on.”