Friday, March 25, 2011

Misreading Montaigne for Personal Gain

Michel de Montaigne appears to be the man of the hour these days.  Give Google the search keys “Montaigne” and “blogger” and stand back for the flood of articles presenting him as the first blogger.  While it is probably the case that his prodigious collection of three books of essays was written without editorial intervention, there seems to be something slightly degrading about reducing each of those essays to the status of a blog post.
I thus took some comfort in reading Mark Lilla’s review of Sarah Bakewell’s book, How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which appeared in the March 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review.  Ironically, while I was still digesting the subtleties of Lilla’s analysis, the following issue appeared with a one-column advertisement for Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life by Saul Frampton.  Apparently Montaigne is quite the fashion right now;  and it appears that he has attained this status through his gift for self-examination.  I suppose it was his conviction that the hard evidence of self will always trump philosophizing about the higher principles of life, the universe, and everything that led the blogosphere to embrace him as their first pioneer;  but the point of Lilla’s examination of Montaigne’s self-examination is that it is too easy to miss the boat.
Lilla does not short-change Bakewell when it comes to giving credit where credit is due.  Furthermore, while he is not shy in pointing out the shortcomings of her analysis, he is far from vindictive.  Nevertheless, there is at least one shortcoming that cannot be ignored, which is that, while Bakewell examines Montaigne’s life, she tends to focus on the wisdom of the individual essays without accounting for the broader context in which they are embedded.  Lilla points that that Montaigne wrote in a context of dark times (such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre);  and there as a dark undercurrent to those avuncular anecdotes and recommendations that is too easily overlooked, leading me to wonder whether Frampton was as easily distracted from that darkness as Bakewell had been.
This leads me to wonder further whether, because of the darkness of our own times, too much of what is being written has to do with cultivating good feeling.  There is no difference between musing over whether you are playing with your cat or your cat is playing with you than in finding happiness through eating, praying, and loving.  However, good feeling seems to thrive on superficialities;  and this may be why we would rather view Montaigne as the first blogger, rather than the deep thinker who emerges from a more integrated view of all of those essays, such as the one Lilla provided.

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