Sunday, May 24, 2009

Selected Essays

Selected Essays
© Michel de Montaigne, edited 1943 by Donald Frame
364 pages

A month or so ago -- or perhaps slightly more than that -- I began watching videos on YouTube posted by "PhilosophicalMedia". The host presents a thirty-minute program on a specific issue, always drawn from a specific thinker. The videos have titles like "Seneca on Anger", or "Epicures on Happiness". One program, "Montaigne on Self-Esteem", caught my eye -- having heard of a Michel de Montaigne before. Watching the program made me interested in reading some of his works, and I was able to do so this week.

I approached Selected Essays with some reserve, aware that the series that this book was published into tends to be rather formal. Translations of both Epictetus' Discourses and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are part of this series, and they are entirely too formal for my taste -- having compared them to other translations. (That's yet another benefit of having access to a university library: multiple translations of classic works.) The book does not contain Montaigne's complete works: the editor informs first-time readers like myself that this is because his complete Essays would take up several volumes. The essays, we are told, were selected to !!!.

Although this translation was done in the opening decades of the 20th century, it is still formal. Perhaps that can't be helped, but for me it meant having to work through the essays, re-reading passages multiple times. Sometimes the meaning would click, and sometimes it would not -- which is unexpected, given that Montaigne is quite casual in his contents and I would expect that his writings would reflect more...crude language. But then again, his native tongue was Latin, and as a child he read Latin "classics": perhaps that made his personal writings formal. Despite this, both the host of the PhilosophicalMedia program and the editor say that when one reads from Montaigne, the reader will come to know Montaigne as a friend. Although I cannot speak to that intensity, his tone does engender feelings of...intimacy. He is utterly frank.

Montaigne writes conversationally, but it obvious that conversations with him took work. His sentences are artfully composed, but as rendered in his translation they're fairly complexly developed and sometimes feature quotations set within Montaigne's on trail of thought. In "On the Education of Children", for instance, Montaigne develops a list of attributes, midway throws in a list from another author, and finishes the sentences with more attributes from himself. (Authors quoted are generally "classical", and Seneca and Cicero seem to constitute the bulk of them in the essays I read.) Although reading some passages took work, there were other essays in which the experience flowed, and I would find myself delighted. This happened, for instance, in "On Giving the Lie", in which (partially) he wrote about his reasons for writing the Essays. To those who accused him of wasting his time, he states "In modeling this figure (that is, the character of Montaigne who emerges from the essays) upon myself, I have had to fashion and arrange myself so often as to bring myself out, that the model has to some extent grown firm and taken shape of itself. Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me."

This passage reminded me of what I experienced when writing letters to friends and family about my change of worldviews back in 2006: although I never sent out any of those letters -- although they remained unread, as Montaigne's critics said his essays would be -- writing them meant engaging in a journey of self-exploration and discovery. I emerged from that process stronger: I grew, and I think Montaigne's passage can be applied to any creative process.

Of the essays, there were some I enjoyed and others I didn't -- and there were passages within each essays that I liked or wasn't able to appreciate. Although the essays have general topic, the matters he discusses within those topics varied. In "The Education of Children", for instance, he writes on what the ideal tutor might teach children. In the interests of addressing this topic, he writes on what education consists of, and the importance of particular topics -- sometimes reflecting on what the ideal person might be like. The essays here address all manner of things -- religion, philosophy, character, meditation, social interaction, civilization, romantic, and on. I don't think it is an accident that the translator/editor mentioned a quotation in his introduction in which Christopher Morley addresses the scope of Montaigne's works.

All in all, I think this was a fair way to be introduced to Montaigne. Although every page did not enrapture me, my appetite was certainly whetted.

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