Montaigne’s Tips for Bloggers: #1, Unruly Negligence

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.

Photo of Sarah Bakewell

Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell

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.

Photo of Montaigne's  tower

Where Montaigne wrote, his tower.

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?

Photo of contemporary youth wearing drooping jeans

"Unruly negligence" American-style.

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.

6 Responses to Montaigne’s Tips for Bloggers: #1, Unruly Negligence

  1. BRAVO ! Thank you. In time I have left, will enjoy my curiousity w or w/o greatness. Will use the rules that have become part of me but not worry about them nor others I might be missing.

  2. Howard Cincotta Oct 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    The “first blogger” analogy makes me wince a little. Montaigne may have believed in writing that, like speech, “was rich in matter, sinewy, brief and short” — but there was nothing casual about his mode of composition. He worked very deliberately for specific literary effects in carefully crafted essays, no matter how off-the-cuff or unstructured they appeared. His constant revision is evidence of this. “Carefully crafted blog” may not be an oxymoron, but they are more the exception than the rule.

    • We like to think we have a relatively carefully crafted blog here at 317am, Howard, and I’ve seen many a well-crafted blog out there. Montaigne was a great talent as a writer, but he was pretty much making up the essay form as he went along. Read a few of his essays and you’ll see how often he violates what later became the standards for this form.

      • I was going to write something, Rasoir, but after reading your reply to HC’s comment, all I can do is say:
        I totally agree (with you) and that being a Montaigne fan.

        • Appreciate the comment, RDR. Once you get used to his ways, it’s easy to see why Montaigne has acquired legions of fans over the centuries. As Sarah Bakewell documents, Montaigne is so many faceted that many later writers have looked into his work and spotted their doppelganger.

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