I was all set to write a post on Gaudy Night, but I’m just not sure I have it in me tonight. Soon, though, I’ll write on the book. For now, I thought I’d give you some of my favorite quotations I’ve come across so far in my Montaigne reading (I’ve read 30 out of 107 essays so far). The best parts of Montaigne are when he’s writing about himself or his essays. Here is his explanation for why he started to write:
Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.
But I find — “Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind” — that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.
I find this description completely and thoroughly plausible, and I’m certain if I ever were to live in retirement with nothing to do but follow the twists and turns of my mind, my mind would give birth to “chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” as well. Nothing sounds more hellish to me than living in isolation with my own mind, in fact. Montaigne’s brilliant move, of course, is to make something great and beautiful out of that isolation.
The following self-description really resonates with me:
I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments. Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do. The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself …. This, too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgment.
I love Montaigne’s very strong sense of his changeability; he makes me feel a little less crazy that there is very little I feel I can confidently say about myself. He makes me feel better about my faulty memory, too:
There is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory. I can hardly find a trace of it in myself: I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is! All my other endowments are mean and ordinary: but I think that, where memory is concerned, I am most singular and rare, worthy of both name and reputation!
I have a bit of trouble believing that his memory is quite so bad, though … here he strikes a similar note:
I can see — better than anyone else — that these writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge — even that was during his childhood — and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it: a little about everything and nothing about anything, in the French style.
These are very self-deprecating passages, and yet I never get the sense that Montaigne is being falsely modest or that he doesn’t fully believe what he is saying, however exaggerated it seems. He really believes his memory is awful and his writings are like ignorant ravings. But I trust him to describe his good qualities accurately as well without worrying whether he is sounding boastful. I’m not sure there’s another writer who can capture the reader’s trust quite like Montaigne does. It’s passages like these that will make you trust him:
…whatever these futilities of mine may be, I have no intention of hiding them, any more than I would a bald and grizzled portrait of myself just because the artist had painted not a perfect face but my own. Anyway these are my humours, my opinions: I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed. My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me. I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed. I feel too badly taught to teach others.
Reading this passage, I come to trust Montaigne — and to fall in love with his writing.