I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve posted! I’ve been teaching January Term at my university, and it’s an intense class: three hours a day every day, plus all the concomitant prepping and grading, plus I’m still department chair and all that. I haven’t stopped reading, but blogging kind of went by the wayside. Time to catch up a little! I hope you are all well out there in the snow.
Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is not typically or linearly biographical: birth, life events, death. Her style is lively, even sprightly, and the structure (as you can tell from the title) is more like a set of Montaignean essays than anything else. And, just as Montaigne’s essays on thumbs and nudity and Socrates revealed nothing so much as his own generous inner life, Bakewell’s essays on Montaigne and Montaigne’s reception over the centuries reveal something about her, too.
The best part of this biography is… well, the biography. Everything that we learn about Montaigne himself reveals him to be exactly what you will discover if you are ever fortunate enough to read the Essais, in whole or in part: a lively, curious, humane man who was fascinated in the human condition by way of his own soul. Bakewell discusses his marriage, his deep friendship with La Boétie, his writing, his administrative duties in Bordeaux, and his passionate and even obsessive interest in everything he saw around him. Montaigne was a man who could imagine himself in the place of anyone and everyone: women, Tupinambas from Brazil, priests, and even cats:
When I play with my cat, who knows whether I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?
This imaginative and empathetic facility is so rare in human beings that his readers have often felt they found their own hearts exposed on the page. Montaigne has never really fallen out of fashion (except for about a hundred and fifty years with the Catholic church), because he is you; he’s me; he’s all of us.
The place where Bakewell falls down a bit in this biography is precisely that imaginative facility, though. She is such a fan of Montaigne that she can’t be sympathetic to almost anyone else. She is snide about Françoise, Montaigne’s wife, even though it leaps from the page that Montaigne was oh-well-useless about the kind of duties that would be necessary to keep his estate thriving. Françoise doesn’t even get any sympathy for having lost all but one of her children, as Bakewell seems to subscribe to the inexcusable theory that people didn’t really mind losing babies since it was so common. (Recent research has put paid to that theory; let’s get rid of it.) Bakewell doesn’t spare more eminent characters, either: she writes such unpleasant summaries of the way Pascal and Descartes reacted to Montaigne that you would imagine both those philosophers to be the nastier kind of imbecile. The only people who don’t come in for this kind of treatment are those like Nietzsche and Stefan Zweig, who loved Montaigne passionately and found in him a mirror for their (immensely different) age and experiences.
This was a wonderfully interesting book with regard to Montaigne himself and his way of approaching how to live. I happen to be very fond of Montaigne, and I would recommend his Essais to anyone, even if you can’t or don’t want to read all of them. He was the inventor of our well-beloved personal essay, and from that moment there was no turning back: we reveal ourselves differently now, from memoirs to podcasts. He was human and humane, living on a small scale because he believed it was the only possible scale to live on, repelled by cruelty, interested in every passing moment. He’d have made a lovely dinner guest (rather like Voltaire or Benjamin Franklin). Invite him to your house sometime — and this biography might not be a bad companion, at that.