Wednesday, February 15, 2017
'Montaigne: A Life' By Philippe Desan
One of the greatest game-changers in French literature was the Essaisof Michel de Montaigne, which first appeared in 1580. The title itself was a linguistic innovation, announcing the birth of a new literary form in which serious topics would be dealt with in a style that was tentative, ironic and anecdotal, rather than rigorous, serious and systematic. Thanks to Montaigne, intellectual argument would be liberated from the chapter and verse of the scholar’s treatise and the repetitive rote of lecturers in schools. It would become indistinguishable from the spontaneous conversation of civilised companions sauntering round town or galloping over the countryside or sitting at a well-furnished table.
The content of the Essais followed the form: a celebration of ‘diversity of judgement’, as Montaigne put it, by means of ‘fooling and fantastication’. All of us, he said, ‘are, I know not how, double in ourselves, which is the cause that what we believe we do not believe, and cannot separate ourselves from what we condemn’. For him, doubt and hesitation were the mark of true wisdom, and resolute certainty was ‘for lunatics’.
The Essais were a game-changer for English literature too. Francis Bacon tried to match their conscious nonchalance in his own Essays in 1597, and in 1603 they were ‘done into English’ by John Florio to enormous effect. Florio’s translation was a linguistic revolution in itself: it is the source of almost two hundred new words in the Oxford English Dictionary, from ‘abecedarian’ and ‘amusing’ to ‘sophisticated’ and ‘unfoolish’. It also opened a new vista of fantasy, exoticism and ruminative indirection, from Shakespeare’s Tempest to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Browne’sReligio Medici.
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