5 June, 2017Issue 3434.7The Essay

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To gulp, rather than to taste

Chris Townsend

Michel de Montaigne, introduced by Tim Parks
Drawn From Life: Selected Essays
Notting Hill Editions






The ambition of Notting Hill Editions, a publisher of new book-length essays and essay collections, as well as selections from the works of classic essayists, is, according to its website, ‘to reinvigorate the essay’. That notoriously hard-to-define form, the essay, seems already at once to promise both a resistance and contribution to our dominant digital paradigms, of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’; the form of the thing is a tightrope walk, between the objectivity of the judgment ‘how interesting!’ (the essay as a display case, as a constellation of fascinating tidbits), and the subjectivity of private perspective and personal pronouns (the essay as memoir, or as opinion-piece). As the space where literature is most concerned with fact, and where science accordingly becomes most literary, the essay might indeed want rethinking, if not revitalizing, for the modern world. And what better place to turn, at this moment, than to the inception of the form?

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne began writing his ‘essais’ in 1571, giving them for a name the French word for ‘trials’, derived from the verb essayer, ‘to try’. To try to do what, exactly? It is unclear whether Montaigne had set out to write a memoir or a set of philosophical theses, but the resulting essays, spanning over 1,300 pages, contain both. Montaigne writes that ‘I myself am the subject of my book’, though the singular form of ‘subject’ in Montaigne’s address ‘To the Reader’ hardly does justice to the multifariousness of the work. Drawn from Life is a selection of only thirteen of the essays, but they range widely, from Montaigne’s thoughts on distracted minds and restrained wills, to social intercourse and the ‘custom of wearing clothes’. Beginning with the subject indicated by their titles, but not always ending in the same place, the essays are trial-runs at disciplining and directing thought. When Adorno wrote that the essay-form ‘says what is at issue and stops where it feels itself complete — not where nothing is left to say’, we might well imagine he had Montaigne’s diffuse writings in mind.

A sense of disorientation or discombobulation is a key feature of the experience of reading Montaigne. In his excellent introduction to Drawn From Life, which was published independent of the volume in the NYRB last year, Tim Parks points to this crucial sense of readerly perplexity (‘What is this all about?’, he asks). Parks is an extraordinarily prolific essayist in his own right, as well as novelist and translator — though this edition relies on the tried and tested translation of M. A. Screech, who originally undertook the task for Penguin’s Complete Essays in 1987. Parks’s critical introduction provides ample enough tools for a foray into Montaigne’s work — biographical details, examples of the literary heritage, a light dose of explication — without trying to shoo away the readerly bafflement he associates with Montaigne. I admit to not having known that Montaigne, as Parks writes, lived the first three years of his life with a peasant family, as part of a bizarre and misguided educational programme cooked up by his parents; following that, his formal education until he was six was conducted entirely in Latin, and only Latin was spoken to him during that period. Strange that this disciplined learning gave birth to a form that is characterised by its lack of discipline, and that a mistrial of education gave rise to the essay.

Drawn From Life does not display a clear logic to the path it cuts through the Essays, but to do so might be to miss the point; Montaigne meanders, digresses, diverges, and the essays are, after all, discrete and discontinuous units. Nevertheless, a dominant theme does appear to creep in, in the form of Montaigne’s preoccupation with the body, and the ‘close stitching of body and mind’. Barely a page goes by without the author reflecting on intense experiences of pain or pleasure, on bodies undergoing torture, bodies being broken and bodies being mended, bodies eating bodies (‘On the Cannibals’), intoxicated bodies (‘On Drunkenness’), or even the smell of bodies (‘when people give off nice odours which are not their own we may rightly suspect them, and conclude that they use them to smother some natural stench’). Montaigne’s preoccupation with bodies revolting against their owners might stem from his own ill health, which included painful kidney stones; the essay ‘On Diversion’ is itself suddenly diverted to the topic of ‘the stubborn nature of my stones, especially when in my prick’. Bodies, as they are sketched in the selection at hand, are clumsy and malfunctioning burdens that encase our better souls — and yet they are an essential part of what it is to think, to write, and to intellectualize. Montaigne writes that reading ‘exercises the soul, but during that time the body […] remains inactive and grows earthbound and sad. I know of no excess more harmful to me in my declining years’.

The wisdom of the Essays is not arrived at in a sudden moment, nor does it come from a collection of facts — though there is great wisdom in his theses on drinking: ‘If you base your pleasure on drinking good wine you are bound to suffer from sometimes drinking bad. Your taste ought to be more lowly and more free […] to gulp it rather than to taste it’. Nor is Montaigne’s wisdom an aggregate of the many, many quotations from classical texts that he sets in his work like ornamental jewels (to this reader, at least, they are symbols of the want for an editor). Rather, Montaigne creeps up on you slowly and unexpectedly, whilst you’re scratching your head over the significance of one of his more bizarre rambles, about fraudulent characters or even flatulent behinds (‘I know one Behind so stormy and churlish that it has obliged its master to fart forth wind constantly and unremittingly for forty years and is thus bringing him to death’ — this in an essay on ‘the Imagination’). It is in the process of failing to find the significance behind all of the essays — essais — that you begin to realise the value in the richness of the images he evokes, the fullness of the life he describes, and the attempts without being concerned over success.

Emerson, in his essay ‘Montaigne, or the Skeptic’, concisely sums up the contribution of the Essays when he writes: ‘There have been men with deeper insight; but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thoughts: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for’. Montaigne, truly, is never insincere. But more to the point, the skill of the Essays really does seem to lie in their author’s ability to make us care about the things he holds under our noses. The essay as a form might aspire to little more than this: of the author and reader sharing in an attentive gaze over the weirdnesses and peculiarities of the world, and the recurring judgment that a thing is interesting. Montaigne certainly aims for nothing higher, and that is the pleasure of his ‘essay’; an attempt, a sally, a walk in the woods without promise of finding the breadcrumbs that will lead us home again.

If reconsidering the essay means, for Notting Hill Editions, something like allowing ourselves to get lost amidst text and information without demanding solid truths, easy answers, or a direct path towards meaning, then Montaigne’s work is a sensibly strange place to turn. They have produced a handsome selection of only a few essays, dressed in a smart textile cover, which comes in a size that invites it to be dropped in your bag and taken with you (all of Notting Hill’s books are identically designed, with covers of varying hues — they are clearly aiming to attract earnest collectors and displayers of fine editions). Like the essay form itself, the point of this collection isn’t completion, but the mere fact of interestingness; the book wants to promote time well spent with its author, and not concern the reader with the usual anxieties with complete works — over where you will begin, and how you will ever finish the thing. They spare the reader the trials of minuteness of text and ugliness of font, by paring the collection down to a few essays and emphasising instead design and quality. Drawn From Life is a scant 185 pages, but it is a deeply pleasurable read, and, with the lightness of Parks’s authoritative touch to set you on your way, it does a good job of revitalizing Montaigne.


Chris Townsend holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge. He is a freelance essayist, and is currently living in Berlin.