The backwards oarsman

It was, I think, about six months after Adam learned to walk that he began to experiment with walking backwards. Walking backwards goes against our social bodily image, which aligns our face with our motion. For just that reason, it ends up, for a child, in the realm of play. Since learning to walk backwards, Adam indulges in it not so frequently, but always with a giggle and a sideglance at his parents, because he feels he is doing something a bit naughty.

The image of the oarsman that I’ve excavated from Montaigne and from Pliny exerts, to my mind,  a marvelous poetic power as a model that tells us something about the course of a life or a history partly because it stands in suprising contrast to  our rooted association of facial direction and forward motion. Of course, the sightless oarsman is looking, but only at what recedes behind him.

In considering this image, one has to recall, as well, the socio-economic system in which the slave oarsmen in Pliny’s time, or the oarsmen plying their gabare in Bordeaux in Montaigne’s time, were placed. Bordeaux, in Montaigne’s time, was the scene of a economic expansion in trade as the port infrastructure was put in place and the gabare who brought down dyes and wine and timber in their flat bottomed boats were found in several places in the logistical chain, either bringing in materials to be made into manufactures to sell or taking those products, the wine and the dyes out to ships who disembarked them in other areas of europe, most notably Great Britain and the Netherlands. The blind oarsmen were, in this sense, at the base of the fortune of Montaigne’s own extended family, much more than any invisible hand, in as much as his extended family was involved in finance and trade. The historian who has most profoundly studied the merchant marine culture in Bordeaux in the 16th century, Jacques Bernard, has noted the absense of a professional corporation for the gens de mer, although this does not preclude a tight professional culture of sailors and oarsmen – the kind of community that recent historians have discovered, or suppose they have discovered, among pirates. The oarsmen themselves were all contract laborers. Whether facing towards the port or away from it, their share of the proceeds was minimal.
John Florio’s translation of the word “l’utile” in Montaigne’s title is “profit” – on profit and honesty.  The recent interpretations of the essay are a battle ground over the question of whether Montaigne, like Machiavelli and certain humanists, puts profit – the public good – over honesty – or honor, the moral code. It has been read in this way by certain influential scholars, such as Quentin Skinner and Jean Starobinski. They have been criticised for abridging and distorting the arguments in the text by Robert J.Collins, whose essay on the text is a very close reading. Myself, I find the text interesting for developing a sort of anthropology of violence, in which the violation of norms is caught in a certain ritual that both allows the violation and pays for it with a sacrifice – the kind of thing dear to the heart of Rene Girand. Thus, the essay is chock full of the usual Montaigne anecdotes from ancient and contemporary history, which are used to vary the entitling theme – that of profit and honesty. Of course, Montaigne is notorious for the way the variations in his themes sometimes seem to escape them altogether. But I think Collins is right to suppose that Montaigne was using, here, as elsewhere, a conversational form (“I speak to the paper like I speak to the first person who comes along”) that, like all good conversations, loses itself in order to carry out the task of bringing to light the unconscious as well as conscious aspects of a theme. Pertinence is not lost, but enriched, in the process. And so it is here, where the violation of truthtelling, of fairness, of justice, of kindness, of friendship, of family loyalties, which are all countenanced by the reference to what profits the state – what is necessary for the public good – are instanced only from the viewpoint that they unleash a countering moment of sacrifice that engulfs those who have been the mechanics of injustice. In the secret police state, the secret policeman has every reason to believe he is next – that at least was Stalin’s policy, and it was, as well, the policy of various Roman tyrants and French kings.
Of course, to attend to the sacrifice instead of to the “progress” made by a state that has successfully profited from these instances of atrocity might be thought to be an inversion of the oarsman’s duty – which is only to keep looking backwards and moving us forwards. The image, I think, is inseperable from these historical dilemmas, which is why I think the most interesting heirs of the motif are those who are most anxious about the whole notion of progress.