French writers of the airier, belletristic kind used to enjoy pointing out that Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay, was born Michel Eyquem, in Bordeaux in 1533, and that the family name and estate survive to this day in the name of Château d’Yquem, the greatest of all French sweet wines. The connection feels improbable—as though there were a Falstaff Ale that really dates to Shakespeare’s Stratford—but also apt. Montaigne’s essays can seem like the Yquem of writing: sweet but smart, honeyed but a little acid. And, with wine and writer alike, we often know more about them than we know of them—in the wine’s case because it costs too much money to drink as much as we might desire, in the writer’s because it costs too much time to read as much as we might want.
“Que sais-je?” “What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know? And what do we really know about him now? We may vaguely know that he was the first essayist, that he retreated from the world into a tower on the family estate to think and reflect, and that he wrote about cannibals (for them) and about cruelty (against it). He was considered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, to be the first social scientist, and a pioneer of relativism—he thought that those cannibals were just as virtuous as the Europeans they offended, that customs vary equably from place to place. Though some of his aphorisms have stuck, both funny (Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”) and profound (“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”), he is not really an aphorist. He is, we think, a philosopher, and somehow accounted the father of modern liberalism, though he was aristocratic in self-presentation. We think of him, above all, as we do of Thomas More: a nice guy, an ideal intellect. S. N. Behrman, the American playwright and diarist, began but never finished a heroic play about Montaigne called “The Many Men,” which might have sealed him as the man for all seasons before the other guy got there.
Philippe Desan, in “Montaigne: A Life” (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography, dryly insists that our “Château d’Yquem” Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish—and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne, to take the Château d’Yquem out of his life and put the herring back in. Montaigne, to Desan’s dauntingly erudite but sometimes jaundiced eye, was an arriviste rather than an aristocrat, who withdrew into that tower out of fear as much as out of wisdom, having ridden political waves and been knocked down by them in a time, in France, of unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics. His motto was safety first, not solitude forever. That new form, the essay, is made as much from things that Montaigne prudently chose not to look at or evasively pretended not to know as from an avid, honest appetite for experience. We confuse him with the truly engagé Enlightenment and Romantic writers who came long afterward, as they came to confuse his briny Bordeaux with their winey one.
The idea of a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne follows the contemporary academic rule that all sweet things must be salted—all funny writers shown to be secretly sad, all philosophical reflection shown to be power politics of another kind. Desan has many crudely reductive theories—the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords—but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers some from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn’t see that we care about the necklaces only because one hung on Montaigne.
He establishes convincingly, though, that the Eyquem family had long been in trade—and was quite possibly Jewish in origin on Montaigne’s mother’s side—and that Montaigne’s persistent tone of lordly amusement was self-consciously willed rather than inherited. The family imported herring and woad in large enough quantities to buy an existing estate and win a kind of ersatz ennoblement. That act of ennoblement fooled nobody—the old aristocrats knew the difference and so did your bourgeois neighbors—but it gave you license to start acting aristocratic, which, if continued long enough, began to blend seamlessly with the real thing. “Most of these new nobles preferred to stress their way of living in retirement on their lands, free from any visible commercial activity,” Desan writes. “Family history is usually not mentioned, to the advantage of the present and everyday preoccupations.” The merchant Eyquems, under Michel’s father, Pierre, became noble “Montaignes,” able to use a single name in signature. The son’s retreat to the château and the tower was, on this slightly cynical view, simply another way of advertising and so accelerating the family’s elevation.
But, we learn, the Montaignes, father and son, being the virtuous bourgeois they really were, played an active role in that parlement that the family had bought its way into. Here we begin to enter a more fertile vineyard of implication. The bureaucracies of justice and politics in which Montaigne found himself are, as Desan describes them, instantly familiar to anyone who knows the equivalent in contemporary France. They combined, then as now, a wild bureaucratic adherence to punctilio and procedure with entanglements of cohort and clan that could shortcut the procedure in a moment. Montaigne had to learn to master this system while recognizing its essential mutability or, if you prefer, hypocrisy. The forms had to be followed, even when there was no doubt that the fix was in.
This sense of doubleness—that what is presented as moral logic is usually mere self-sustained ritual—became essential to Montaigne’s view of the world. (Lawyers to this day seem particularly sensitive to the play between form and fact, which makes them good novelists.) “There is but little relation between our actions that are in perpetual mutation and the fixed and immutable laws,” a chagrined Montaigne wrote later. “I believe it were better to have none at all than so infinite a number as we have.” His most emphatic—if perhaps apocryphal—remark on the subject is still applicable. He is reputed to have said that, having seen the law at work, if someone accused him of stealing the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral he would flee the country rather than stand trial.
Montaigne was witnessing the beginning of the parallel paper universe of the French bureaucratic state, where euphemism allows interest, and sometimes evil, to take its course. But in his time these daily tediums were laid over the violently shifting tectonic plates of religious warfare. The struggles between Catholic and Protestant in mid-sixteenth-century France killed more than a million people, either directly or by disease. By the time the wars swept through Bordeaux, the issues had long since been swamped by simple tribalism, of the kind that has afflicted Christianity since the Arian controversy. It was a question not of two sides warring over beliefs but of two sides for whom the war had become the beliefs.
As the battles between those faithful to Henry of Navarre and those opposed to him went on in ever more intricate and absurd factional dances, Montaigne’s place within them was as treacherous as everyone else’s. Smart people got killed, and often. It was dangerous not only because your side might lose but because there were so many factions to keep track of. Early on, he wrote, cautiously, that it was a mistake to look to the fortunes of war for proof of the rightness of either side’s cause: “Our belief hath other sufficient foundations, and need not be authorized by events.” But events were in the saddle.
The first stirrings of Montaigne’s deflecting, double-sided literary style appear in his 1571 eulogy for his closest friend, the philosopher Étienne de La Boétie. Though the eulogy is modelled on classical stoic death scenes reaching back to Plato’s Phaedo, its originality lies in Montaigne’s honest reporting of the comic absurdities of his friend’s passing, and of his own emotional ambivalence at his death. La Boétie, suffering from some kind of ill-defined infection, is shown to be less than admirably resigned. The delirium of his final hours led him to believe that he was back in court, declaiming: “The whole chamber”—that is, his bedroom—“was filled with cries and tears, which did not, however, interrupt in the slightest the series of his speeches, which were rather long.” La Boétie implored Montaigne to guarantee his “place”—meaning, presumably, his social position—to which Montaigne replied, in a black, punning moment out of a Samuel Beckett play, that “since he breathed and spoke, and had a body, he consequently had his place.”
Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie helped convince him that religious belief is purely customary—that what we believe is what we are told to believe, but that our beliefs are still a duty to our social hierarchy. “Voluntary servitude” is the course that La Boétie recommends: obedience to the state or Church, with the inner understanding that this is a course we’ve chosen from social prudence, not from personal conviction. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgordins or Germans” was Montaigne’s most forceful statement on this point.
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