New books — From the January 2011 issue
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I wonder whether they still make kids read that Stephen Spender poem, the one that begins “I think continually of those who were truly great.” I never liked that poem, as a kid. Later, as an English teacher, I came to hate it: it so perfectly encapsulates the soft defense of Great Books—that they will somehow teach us to be happy, to feel an “essential delight”: “Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light/Nor its grave evening demand for love.” Oh, Spender, go tell it to the Marines. On a bad day, who hasn’t felt closer to the Philip Larkin position? “Get stewed:/Books are a load of crap.”
Yet Spender’s attitude is easier to market. Every few years some new volume promises to make us happier, or at least more effective, by acquainting us with those who were truly great. You can get business tips from Sun Tzu, lessons in leadership from Machiavelli, romantic advice from Marcel Proust—all without reading their books.
In some ways, Sarah Bakewell’s HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE IN ONE QUESTION AND TWENTY ATTEMPTS AT AN ANSWER (Other Press, $25) fits squarely into this tradition of literary uplift. The tradition, as she points out, is very old indeed, especially in the case of Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay. Within a few years of his death, in 1592, his friend Pierre Charron brought out a digest, La Sagesse, for readers who wanted the benefit of little Michau’s wisdom without having to muddle through the weirdness of his work. Unlike Charron and most other popularizers, Bakewell celebrates the wisdom and the weirdness. Her deceptively breezy survey of Montaigne’s life, writing, and legacy is serious, engaging, and so infectiously in love with its subject that I found myself racing to finish so I could start rereading the Essays themselves. This, clearly, is her intent.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533 on the border between Perigord and Bordeaux. His father and grandfather were wine producers (Chateau d’Yquem still bears their name). Montaigne had a brilliant, if sometimes reluctant, career in politics and law, becoming mayor of Bordeaux and a close adviser to the kings of France. His fame as a peacemaker and steadying influence during the religious violence of the 1570s and 1580s spread as far as the English court.
But by far the most famous thing Montaigne did was to retire from public life, at the age of thirty-seven, and retreat into the tower where he kept his library. There, over the next two decades, despite many interruptions, he wrote the 107 short speculative works that he called his essais, or attempts. He published the first version in 1580, though he kept writing additions all his life.
The Essays were an instant hit. As Bakewell puts it, they “had that perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.” To Montaigne’s contemporaries, they looked like an annotated commonplace book, a compilation of classical writings gathered together under helpful headings like “Of Friendship,” “Of Democritus and Heraclitus,” and “Of Names.” But with each new edition, Montaigne’s commentaries wandered further and further from their stated topics and included more and more personal information. By the time of his death, Montaigne had written in detail about his weak memory, his marriage, the deaths of his closest friend and his brother, his own near-death experience, his observations as a diplomat, his love of riding, his hatred of torture, his taste in wine, the size of his penis, his views on armor, and what it’s like to play with (or, be played with by) a cat. He was not the first person to write about himself, but he enjoyed himself, he even enjoyed his failings, in a way that announced a pleasure new to the Christian world.
The title of one essay, “Of the Uncertainty of Judgment,” would have suited any number of them equally well. For me, the most enlightening part of How to Live deals with Montaigne’s skepticism, its roots in classical philosophy, and its profound effect on modern thinkers from Descartes and Pascal to Nietzsche. Readers hailed Montaigne as a latter-day Stoic, and Bakewell shows how he compares with the actual Stoics, for whom the good life was largely a matter of keeping calm in the face of death. In his own essays on mortality, Montaigne perfected a new kind of shrug—his calm looks like theirs, only calmer. He points out that it’s normal to duck when you hear artillery, whether you’re a philosopher or a soldier.
It is hard to imagine a better introduction—or reintroduction—to Montaigne than Bakewell’s book. It is easy to imagine small improvements, however. An editor might have weaned her from the so-called verb “liaise,” reined in one or two anachronistic flights of fancy (e.g., “Montaigne would make a good model for the modern Slow Movement”), and done painlessly away with the ritual attack on postmodern theory. And someone really should have sprung for a better index: such a freewheeling book could use a good one. But these are the nitpicks of an admirer surprised by joy.
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