I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s recent biography of Michel de Montaigne, How To Live: or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, an illuminating and entertaining read, but the chief effect of Bakewell’s book has been to send me back to the master himself, Montaigne. In rereading Montaigne’s essays, I get exactly what Bakewell means when she refers to his “rebellious style” and tags him as the first ”blogger.”
Here’s a famous passage by Montaigne – on the virtue of writing with plain words, in the manner of human speech - from his essay titled “On Educating Children.” It’s from the translation by M.A. Screech.
I like the kind of speech which is simple and natural, the same on paper as on the lip; speech which is rich in matter, sinewy, brief and short, not so much titivated and refined as forceful and brusque –
Haec demum sapiet diction, quae feriet
[The good style of speaking is the kind which strikes home]
– gnomic rather than diffuse, far from affectation, uneven, disjointed and bold – let each bit form a unity – not schoolmasterly, not monkish, not legalistic, but soldierly, rather as Sallust described Julius Caesar’s (though I do not quite see why he did so). I like to imitate the unruly negligence shown by French youth in the way they are seen to wear their clothes, with their mantles bundled round their neck, their capes tossed over one shoulder or with a stocking pulled awry; it manifests a pride contemptuous of the mere externals of dress and indifferent to artifice. But I find it even better applied to speech.
First, a note on the typefaces in this passage. I haven’t screwed them up. Montaigne was constantly revising his thoughts and adding to his essays in later editions over the years. So in the passage above:
Italics indicates the original version in 1580 edition of the Essays;
Italics and Bold indicate the additions Montaigne made to the 1588 edition;
Bold indicates the words he added to the 1592 edition.
This short passage exposes the essence of Montaigne as a writer and points us toward the reasons his work has exerted such a profound inlfuence on many great writers for more than four centuries. Like any good blogger, essayist, or writer of stories he revels in the twists and turns of the human mind and his voice as a writer captures the working of his own mind precisely.
Here Montaigne begins to make the case for simplicity in writing – “sinewy,” forceful words, the sort of stripped-down, physical prose Ernest Hemingway was shooting for.
But making one point is never enough for Montaigne. Any topic worth examing will be more complex than that, and Montaigne has the good sense to follow where his consciousness takes him. There’s always another side of things for Monatigne, always more to be said.
As Walt Whitman put it three centuries later:
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
Montaigne is well aware that he contains multitudes and also that the world is an ever-shifting mass of complexity. Note the way he’s done his reading and likes to tell you what the authorities think – Sallust’s comment on Caesar as a soldierly man of plain words – even as he characteristically disagrees with Sallust.
Another nice Montaigne touch is the extended metaphor he flourishes at the end of this passage; the “unruly negligence of French youth” in the way they wear their clothes is what he’d like to pull off in his own writing. Again, Montaigne eerily anticipates contemporary mores when he breaks down this style of French youth as manifesting “a pride contemptuous of the mere externals of dress.” Has anybody better analyzed the young urban males of today with their incredibly drooping, below-the butt, underwear-exposing jeans?
This marvelous passage, however, would probably get Montaigne marked down if it were cut-and-pasted into a ninth-grade essay for English class. “Michel,” the exasperated teacher might say, “did you bother to outline your points at all? And what is the main idea of this paragraph?”
Now I personally believe in the virtue of English teachers, outlines, and well-ordered essays; the world needs all these things. But if it’s greatness you’re looking for, read Montaigne and follow his inquisitive mind wherever it takes him.