What was Montaigne’s point in writing his Essais? Although the essays include history, philosophical meditations, literary criticism and something like reportage, Montaigne disclaims any ambition to be a historian, philosopher or poet. He recurs, again and again, to the notion of the self-portrait. Like the painters whose works he saw in Paris when he traveled there, he would paint himself. But he did not take this to mean that he would write his autobiography. Rather, most often, he talks about following his “fantasies”. This movement is in correspondence with a larger theme: that life is continually in motion. This motion is in everything – and Montaigne often seems to want to find stylistic equivalents for it, shocks for his audience. Thus, along with the dignified image of a man painting his own portrait, Montaigne would also describe his work in much lower terms. This is what he writes at the beginning of “On Vanity”:
“I cannot compose the register of my life by my actions, for fortune has put them too low. I compose it then of my fantasies. It is thus I have seen a gentleman who could only communicate his life by the operations of his stomach: You see him show in his home an order of basins, produced over seven or eight days: this was his study, his discourse. To him, any other kind of talk stank. Here, to put it a bit more civilly, are the excrements of an old spirit: now hard, now soft, and always undigested.”
This passage creates a difference, a moment in reading in which the reader is torn away from the intimacy of his act. A note in the Pleiade edition attributes the anecdote about the gentleman who displays his feces for his guests to a classical source. But the final comparison of the essays to an old man’s scat is Montaigne’s own. The high/low register, here, is, as it were, unfettered from its usual structuring difference: high and low interpenetrate one another, and the hierarchy in which the high has dominion is pronounced, metaphorically, by a shit. This delight in perspectival paradoxes, in making ambiguous the register of the discourse, is not a unique stylistic discovery of Montaigne’s. The Baroque poets and Protestant ministers are already finding a rhetorical energy in the shocks of mortality, juxtapositions that are meant to induce a religious vertigo – a strong sense of the present as owed entirely to death, against an eternity that is ruled by a deity whose thoughts are entirely unknown. These shocks are all the more charged in that they could be turned to deliver blows to hierarchy’s projection in the social – to republican, or at least frondeur uses.
It is not to this use of opposites, though, that I want to point us. It is, rather, to something else, something having to do with Montaigne’s intention to write within a rejection of genre, even at the risk of presenting us with old man’s scat. Eric Auerbach pinpoints something important about the method of Montaigne’s Essays that relates to Montaigne’s sense of the perpetual flux of things:
“Every kind of specialization falsifies the moral picture; it presents us in but one of
our roles; it consciously leaves in darkness broad reaches of our lives and destinies. From a book on Greek grammar or international law the author's personal existence cannot be known, or at best only in those rare cases where his temperament is so strong and idiosyncratic that it breaks through in any manifestation of his life. Montaigne's social and economic circumstances made it easy for him to develop
and preserve his whole self. His needs were met halfway by his period, which had not yet fully developed for the upper classes of society the duty, the technique, and the ethos of specialized work, but on the contrary, under the influence of the oligarchic civilization of antiquity, strove for the most general and most human culture of the individual. Not one of his known contemporaries advanced in this direction so far as he did. Compared with him they are all specialists: theologians, philologists, philosophers, statesmen, physicians, poets, artists; they all present themselves to the world par quelque marque particuliere et estrangiere. Montaigne too, under the pressure of circumstances, was at times lawyer, soldier, politician; he was the mayor of Bordeaux for several years. But he did not give himself over to such activities; he
merely lent himself for a time and subject to recall, and he promised those who laid tasks upon him de resprendre en main, non pas au poulmon et au foye ( 3, 10, p. 438).”
Auerbach’s term, specialization, refers to a broader sweep of divisions of activity than employment. The sociologist Abram de Swan has written about the professionalization and proto-professionalization that affects “experts” and “lay people” as follows:
The internal process of professionalization creates external effects among ever-widening circles of laymen, who adopt the basic stances and fundamental concepts of the profession as a means of orientation in everyday life: it is a process of proto-professionalizaiton, in which laymen learn to recognize some events as “a case for the lawyer’, others as a ‘suitable case for treatment”, and so on.
Auerbach attributes a part of Montaigne systematic, though non-systematized distaste for the professional orientation towards life, whether we represent the professional as a poet or an academic, to the fact that this attitude was such that he could afford it - he was, as he points out often, the heir of his father, a man who was good with “affairs”. Affairs is the word Montaigne uses to describe the household as an economic unit. He is not himself interested in expanding his economic reach, at least in his own account. That lack of desire to have more is etched deeply into the Essais, and is thematically germane to Montaigne’s contempt for ‘specialization’. Montaigne knew that his nobility was recent, and that his family history was populated with money-makers. On his mother’s side, his ancestors were, in all probability, Spanish Jews, who originally specialized in the old clothes trade and branched out to other goods once they moved to France. Pierre D’Eyquem, his father, was a noble – he is so denominated in his marriage contract – because his grandfather, Ramon, had purchased the Chateau of Montaigne, which conferred a title of minor nobility. Before that purchase, the Eyquem family had been known primarily for merchandizing wine and dried fish.
So there is a sense in which Montaigne’s debt to his father could only be paid by managing affairs himself. That debt is unpaid. And the activity that would go to make up that debt is even viewed with scorn. This is a ‘fold’ not only in the text of the Essais, but in Montaigne’s own life. Walter Benjamin once wrote that the true dynamic in history is not a matter of cause, but a matter of “debt” – Schuld – meaning, as well, guilt. The past is always a guilty past, a past we owe a debt to. Montaigne’s liberation – what his fantasies have done for him – is to gradually transform his perception of the debt he owes his father into a perception of the debt he owes himself – the debt he owes through the fact that he exists and experiences. This, too, is the result, the physical result, of his parent’s action. It is in the face of these twin debts that Montaigne forms his attitude towards the professional orientation and its social coordinates – broadly, custom, which he saw as logically hostile to the broadness of life. Montaigne often comments that his Essays are attempts to paint himself, to think of himself, to find out what he is; the antithesis of this project is the professionalization of experience. One of the stylistic and thematic peculiarities of the essays is how often Montaigne seems to go out of his way to contradict one assertion with another, one citation with another, one anecdote with another. Montaigne employs the same mode of shock to his own ‘specialty’ – that is, the writing of the essays. The metaphor of painting oneself has an acceptable correlate among the arts – but the metaphor of excrements is a way of making the sense that we touch the author when we touch the book turn into something taboo.