How To Live, or, A Life of Montaigne: One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
by Sarah Bakewell
New York: Other Press, 2010, pp. 399.
Reviewed by Bension Varon
The year 2010 was an exceptionally good year for non-fiction literature, due partly to the publication of How To Live, or, A Life of Montaigne: One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a nobleman, wine producer and thinker who lived in the Périgord area of southwestern France. He obtained his surname from his father who owned an estate of that name in the same area. Montaigne-son is known as the father of the literary medium called the "essay." The medium has no strict rules—for example, an essay can vary in length from a page to as many as twenty. The subject depends on what occupies, or preoccupies, its author at the moment and is explored in a freewheeling stream-of-consciousness way. Montaigne's essays—more than a hundred in number and taking up more than one thousand pages—have been admired for years, even centuries, and are still read today. Admirers and those who have adopted the genre include philosophers like Descartes (1596-1650), Rousseau (1712-1778) and Nietzsche (1844-1900); the French encyclopedist Diderot (1713-1784); writers and quintessential essayists like William Hazlitt (1778-1830), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), and Virginia Wolf (1882-1951); the multi-talented biographer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942); and the novelist André Gide (1884-1951). I shall address the reasons for Montaigne's popularity later.
Sarah Blakewell, the author of the new book on Montaigne is a former curator of early printed books and, more recently, a writer—a biographer in particular—as well as a teacher of creative writing. She has identified Montaigne with such understanding, perceptivity, effect and beauty of expression that I shall quote her nearly as frequently as Montaigne himself in the pages that follow.
Montaigne's life was unusual from the beginning due to both external factors—that is, events beyond his control—and decisions he made himself. Early on, his father Pierre took a keen interest in his son's exposure and education. To expose him to the life of a commoner, an experience he greatly valued, he sent him to live with his wet nurse and her family for the first two years of his life. Though not an intellectual himself, Pierre de Montaigne valued education, which he associated with proficiency in Latin. He engaged a teacher for Michel with firm instruction to communicate with him just in Latin. All the people Michel came in contact with during his daily life were instructed to do the same—a rule which the father followed himself while improving his limited knowledge of the Latin language. Eventually, Pierre de Montaigne consented to continue his son's education away from home and free of his own supervision. He enrolled him in the College de Guyenne, which led Michel to law school. His finishing of law school was followed by a series of public service occupations. These included serving successively as a magistrate in a local administration, member of the Parliament of Bordeaux and mayor of this important city and regional capital as well as carrying out special assignments for King Charles IX.
Several aspects of Montaigne's first thirty-five years of life, covered above, are noteworthy. First, none of the positions Montaigne filled were elected positions. They were, rather, positions which he acquired as a result of his social status, that is, his belonging to the nobility and the landowners' class. While he performed well at every post and seemed to enjoy the power and privileges that often came with them, he was not enthusiastic about being drawn into government service. Montaigne was married roughly when expected (at age thirty-two) and as expected, that is, to a member of his class, although he did this, much like his government service, rather unenthusiastically. While he was a good husband, he behaved like a ladies' man most of his life. At age thirty-five, Montaigne lost his father and inherited the parental estate. Thereafter, he divided his time between his civil duties and attending to his estate, again dutifully but unenthusiastically.
This was by and large a difficult period for Montaigne, his beloved region and France as a whole. At a highly personal level, he suffered from a severe, lifelong affliction with kidney stones—an affliction that was hereditary and would eventually contribute to his death as it had to his father's. Partly as a result, he developed a preoccupation with death, exacerbated by the death of a younger brother, a brush with his own death (which was not a close call), and the death of his closest associate and friend, the political theoretician and philosopher, Etienne de La Boétie, at 32 years of age. This period also coincided with the intra-France Catholic-Protestant conflagration that peaked with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (August 23, 1572), literally in Montaigne's backyard. Montaigne, a moderate Catholic, advised King Charles IX, his successor King Henry of Navarre and all concerned on both sides, to address the conflict with moderation.
The event that defined Montaigne and turned his life around was his retirement from the Bordeaux Parliament permanently to his estate, or farm, in 1570. He was thirty-seven. Although he disliked some aspects of public service, Montaigne liked others, such as travel which exposed him to non-French citizens and culture. Thus, his retirement was prompted less by the push of his prior life and work and more by the pull of the contemplative life. His estate had two silo-like, four-story towers. He kept one for himself and allotted the other to his wife. The life he aimed for was made clear by the large space he allocated to his study, with its shelves holding more than a thousand books—a large number by the standards of the time. His tower also had large entertainment quarters and visitor accommodations, for Montaigne did not intend to isolate himself. Rather, he ran his estate thereafter generously, in the manner of an open house.
Montaigne's retirement marked the beginning of a life devoted to writing essays, some planned in advance, others, on the spur of the moment. As Ms. Bakewell puts it, these were "exploratory, free-floating pieces to which he gave simple titles," such as: Of Friends, Of Cannibals, Of the Custom of Wearing Cloths, How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing, Of Names, Of Smells, Of Cruelty, Of Thumbs, How Our Mind Hinders Itself, Of Diversion, etc. His writing was interrupted by special assignments for the king or health problems. His health deteriorated progressively, affecting his written work toward the end of his life and rendering it disorganized, rambling and even incomprehensible. Luckily for him and his readers, this is the time when he met Marie de Gournay, thirty-two years his junior—an admirer who became also a valuable critic, editor, supporter, interpreter and defender of his work beyond his death. Montaigne died in 1592, aged fifty-nine, of an incurable inflammation caused by an attack of kidney stones—his scourge.
The above particulars of Montaigne's life are all found in Ms. Bakewell's book. Yet the book deviates from a conventional biography as is evident from its title and long subtitle. The main title, How to Live, refers to a concern in the form of a question frequently expressed or implied by Montaigne in his essays. The distinction Montaigne aimed to stress was not between life and death but between living and theorizing about life, or between the practical and the abstract.
The subtitle is pure Bakewell. She made up twenty answers Montaigne could have given to the question on how to live. Although not originating directly with him, the ‘imagined' answers were meant to convey who he was, how he lived, and what he wrote—answers which encapsulate and summarize what he believed in while referring, biography-like, to the relevant periods of his life. While Bakewell devotes a chapter to each set of answers, the best way to convey what she was after is to list (and read) the chapter headings as if they were a continuous text. Read what follows with me:
Don't worry about death. Pay attention. Be born Micheau [as Michel de Montaigne was called as a child]. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted. Survive love and loss. Use little tricks [or the art of living]. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing and I'm not even sure about that. Keep a private room behind the shop. Be convivial: live with others. Wake from the sleep of habit. Live temperately, raising and lowering the temperature. Guard your humanity. Do something no one has done before. See the world. Do a good job, but not too good a job. Philosophize only by accident. Reflect on everything, regret nothing. Give up control. Be ordinary and imperfect. Let life be its own answer.
Who was the Montaigne who emerges from Sarah Bakewell's pen? At the broadest level, he was a humanist focused on social concerns, behavior and interaction. In Bakewell's words, "He invented the idea of writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity." To set him in a temporal perspective, he was a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and the Italian poet Tasso (1544-1599). It is very likely that the three knew of each other, read some of each other's work and may have even influenced each other, without necessarily having met.
What distinguished Montaigne the most and does so to this day is his power of observation, both of others and himself. Without it, his essays would not have seen the light of day, let alone enjoy the admiration they received. He considered his life the best textbook he ever had. This owed to his innate and insatiable curiosity, plus a skepticism practically about everything that bordered on nihilism. He had, moreover, a disregard for convention and, in Bakewell's words, "A willingness to break out of fossilized habits." Another trait that shaped him and his essays was his openness. He abhorred senseless concealment and secrecy "anything locked."
Montaigne was supremely modest, unpretentious and made the biggest virtue of honesty. His self-criticism was legendary, limitless and often led him to shocking admissions and suggestions. He considered himself lazy, at least sometimes disengaged, slow, slow-witted and forgetful. To comment on some of these, he compared himself to a sloth. He did not believe in pushing himself. He wrote, if you find the book you are reading boring, stop reading it, toss it aside (advice I am tempted to give the reader of this review). His forgetfulness made him hesitate to speak—least of all to preach—and prompted him to reject, as Bakewell put it "The Renaissance ideal of oratory." Due to his forgetfulness, "He presented himself as floating through the world on a blanket of benevolent vacancy."
Montaigne could be considered a pacifist of the 16th century kind. He hated violence and violent language, and extremes of all kinds. He liked moderation in most things, the adage of thinking before acting and an atmosphere of peace and equanimity. He was at the same time restless. And he was not enamored with education. He disliked academic philosophers the most. If he was caught saying something philosophical, he attributed it to his being temporarily "an accidental philosopher." He advocated, among other things, being ordinary and imperfect, and doing a good job, "But not too good a job."
Books about Montaigne often start with his fame and are followed by a description of him and his work. I have done the opposite because once you know the man and his work, his fame is easy to understand. In a nutshell, people identify with him. Readers have found that reading him produces a "shock of familiarity." A common reaction is "How did he know this about me?" Post-Montaigne essayists have felt as if they had written some of Montaigne's essays themselves. Others have called the essays "a field trip into the human soul."
Bakewell writes about Montaigne with utmost sympathy, sensitivity and power of observation, and in his style, including his tendency to jump from subject to subject. It is therefore difficult to draw a line between what he said and what she says in the book. Her big service is to interpret what he wrote, not the individual essays but his work as a whole—to interpret the man. She also updates his contribution, linking, for example, his self-admitted slowness to the slow movement, including the "slow food movement," of the early twenty-first century. I do not know to what extent Bakewell succeeded in popularizing him, that is, in making him known to new readers, which she must have wished. My guess is that most of the readers of her new book are old readers—readers who read Montaigne before and were attracted to the updated analysis. It is those readers who will keep the flame alive so to speak. Bakewell deserves our gratitude for making this superbly possible with her new book.
As I was finishing the book, two thoughts in the form of questions came to me. How genuine was Montaigne? And was he Jewish? The first was prompted by some of his extreme positions and exaggerated utterances and claims. Was he, could he have been that modest, unselfish, uninterested in his influence—that slow, lazy, slow-witted at all? Was he oblivious to the possibility that presenting himself as such added to his attraction? Did these add up to a ploy? These possibilities did occur to others before. Bakewell recognized this in a brief reference but she did not dwell on it, presumably doubting that it would make a difference, that is, alter Montaigne's legacy. I agree. Yet there is a residual need to reconcile some of Montaigne with his claim of honesty.
Montaigne's link to a Jewish heritage arises from history, geography and blood. He was born in 1533, just 41 years after the Catholic Monarchs had expelled Jews under the threat of the Inquisition. His mother was a third-generation convert to Christianity whose grandparents resettled in France. Périgord was a favorite destination of expelled Jews. There is no evidence that his mother's family were ever hidden Jews. Although it was known that he had Jewish ancestors on his mother's side, this made little difference to him or his followers. Montaigne never self-identified as a Jew. In fact, after preparing a will, he had a last mass read in his room just before his death. While he was interested in and sympathetic toward Jews, there is no evidence that he tried to help them on any occasion. Of course, nowadays only DNA testing would provide reliable evidence of any Jewish blood. Yet one can point to cultural similarities. He possessed the traits of introspection, self-analysis and self-deprecation that many Jews are identified with. In the final analysis, he was neither French, nor Spanish or Jewish. He was, rather, a universal man admired over centuries by people of diverse nationalities, backgrounds and professions. He was an unusual and admirable product of the universal human race.
Bension Varon is a retired official of the World Bank and a historian of the Jewish community of Turkey.