Montaigne: The First Blogger; or, Nick Hornby’s Surprise

When my monthly Believer finally arrives, one of the first pieces I read is Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” Hornby’s polite sarcasm and gentle disdain of the academic suits the Believer’s editorial voice, a voice which, however, aging with success, must now search for ever new ways to seem avant-garde, if not anti-academic, such that now Nick, trying to sustain his pop-culture bias, must pretend that he’s never heard of Montaigne: “I had never read Montaigne before picking up Bakewell’s book. I knew only that he was a sixteenth-century essayist, and that he had therefore willfully chosen not to interest me.”

Nick distains blogs and amateur opinions – his going off on the Amazon reviewers suggests even an obsession with the problem – yet manages to credit this month “…that some blogs are better than others.” Still, it’s not clear why he must mention blogs in his review of Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days personal essays; they are good, he implies, because they are not merely “nicely written, light, amusing, and disposable,” not blogs, where the writing is, apparently, predictably jokey, imprecise, uncomplicated, and unoriginal. But that doesn’t describe blogs at all – some, ok, many, sure, but in the egalitarian atmosphere of the Internet, one must be ready to read cosmopolitan style, at the same table with others. It’s all a bit confusing, but we read on anyway, getting Nick’s point. And his point is this: “In some ways, my commitment to modernity stood me in good stead: those who cling to the cultural touchstones of an orthodox education are frequently smug, lazy, and intellectually timid – after all, someone else has made all their cultural decisions for them. And in any case, if you decide to consume only art made in the twentieth century…you’re going to end up familiar with a lot of good stuff, enough to last you a lifetime.”

The problem is that this voice is a cul-de-sac for two reasons: one, every age feels the same; and two, all writers make use of what’s been said before.

Consider, for example, Anthony Hecht’s 1968 “The Dover Bitch”: “So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl / With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them, / And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me, / And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad / All over, etc., etc.’” The lines growing like branches in the 20th Century sky, the poem is rooted far deeper. First, the reader must travel back 100 years to Arnold’s 1867 “Dover Beach,” where we find the hapless poet pining for what is not: “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Arnold’s answer for modern man stranded by the receding “Sea of Faith” is “let us be true / To one another!” The reader traveling back another 200 years, to Andrew Marvell’s 1681 “To His Coy Mistress,” will find Arnold’s deeper roots: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.” The theme that threads these poems together is the ancient Carpe Diem, or Seize the Day, or, as Janis Joplin put it, in terms that even Nick Hornby would understand, “Get it while you can.” But it didn’t start with Andrew Marvell, either, for the reader traveling back another 40 years, to Robert Herrick’s 1646 “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” will find the poet still arguing with his girl to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” for “That age is best which is the first, / When youth and blood are warmer; / But being spent, the worse, and worst / Times still succeed the former.”

Imagine Nick Horby’s surprise upon discovering that “the postmortem life of Montaigne has been a rich one: he troubled Descartes and Pascal, got himself banned in France (until 1854), captivated and then disappointed the Romantics, inspired Nietzsche and Stefan Zweig, made this column possible.” Yes, not only made it possible, but wrote the first draft; imagine Nick’s surprise upon discovering that Montaigne was the world’s first blogger.

Jane Kramer tosses a toad to Montaigne

Jane Kramer tosses a lit toad into Montaigne’s lap – sitting in his tower, surrounded by his books, like nothing else in Tennessee: “He would have loved Google” (p. 40).

Would Montaigne have loved Google, which, according to Nicholas Carr, is making us stupid? Certainly, Montaigne was a blogger, his “hits” count initially limited by the fact that only ten percent of the French were literate (p. 34). Perhaps that explains why he said he wrote for himself, painting with his pen his self-portrait.

Kramer, J. (Sep. 7, 2009). Me, myself, and I. New Yorker, pp. 34-41.

How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities

LiberationsAt the bottom of her n+1 review of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, Amanda Claybaugh laments that Lamont “fails” to answer the promise of her book’s title. Claybaugh appears to buy into the title’s assumption, that professors think differently than others. But why would professors think any differently than anyone else? Indeed, from the professor quotes offered in the review, they appear to think exactly like everyone else: “so sick [of hearing]”; “it’s hard to articulate”; “nothing is perfect”; “just still didn’t get it”; and the ubiquitous “[don’t] be an asshole.” 

Claybaugh reads in the field of English; Lamont, sociology. It’s assumed one’s discipline amounts to a special pair of spectacles, and only through the lenses of the discipline can one fully appreciate, or aspire to, or do at all. Specialty is the extreme license: “…disciplines make a strong case for themselves when they unify around a shared method….” And to the extent that “English is seen as having no method of its own,” it also has no discipline, and its “…proposals …are seen as wandering into territory claimed by other disciplines.” Blame it on the essay, on Montaigne, all that wandering, those long trials. One English professor advances that close reading is a method, but in an apparent lack of self-confidence worries “…whether historians might not ‘know how to do this better’ after all.” Too bad; she might have mentioned Louis Menand and his American Studies or his The Metaphysical Club, or Caleb Crain’s American Sympathy, examples of English folks wandering afield successfully.

Consider the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Montag, on the run and under the influence of the former English professor Faber, joins the radicals living outside the city, memorizing books. They become the book they digest, the ultimate specialist. That’s a cool ending, but for a professor, why wouldn’t, as Buckminster Fuller gives us, specialization lead to extinction?

In his preface to Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, Ihab Hassan asserts the professors have climbed out of their boxes: “The discomforts of the academy are already too much in the public eye. Yet how many see, I wonder, that we now strike past the college administration and campus guard, past the curriculum, past scholarship itself, at an older idea of man? The famous drawing of Leonardo, arms spread and legs apart, giving the human measure to circle, square, and universe, no longer takes our breath away. A post-humanism is in the making. What will be its shape?” Alas, that was 1971; the revolution is now in crisis.

“For if the lingo gasped between kicksheets, however basically English, were to be preached from the mouths of wickerchurchwardens and metaphysicians in the row and advokaatoes, allvoyous, demivoyelles, languoaths, lesbiels, dentelles, gutterhowls and furtz, where would their practice be or where the human race itself were the Pythagorean sesquipedalia of the panepistemion, however apically Volapucky, grunted and gromwelled, ichabod, habakuk, opanoff, uggamyg, hapaxle, gomenon, ppppfff, over country stiles, behind slated dwellinghouses, down blind lanes, or, when all the fruit fails, under some sacking left on a coarse cart?” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 116).

Where, indeed.

Overhearing one’s own writing

In “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), Marshall McLuhan was the first modern blogger. Though published in traditional book form, the structure resembles many of today’s blogs. Norman O. Brown followed suit with “Love’s Body,” in 1966. McLuhan and Brown built their books on a framework of short paragraphs full of quotes, or links, to a cornucopia of sources – both books cite hundreds of references. The writing is often aphoristic, cryptic, anecdotal. The quotes become like comments that propel the blog onward. 

McLuhan suggests that in the medieval world reading was oral. Monks read aloud, even when reading alone, because they had to hear the word in order to process its meaning (p. 115). Reading silently is a developmental skill, and some readers never master the skill of reading directly from eye to memory, but must mouth the words, moving their tongues silently. They read by hearing their own voice.

Brown said, “Our identity is always a case of mistaken identity” (p. 144). What is the identity within our writing? Are there times when the identity within our writing is a case of mistaken identity? 

Harold Bloom, in his portentous but readable book, “Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human,” suggests that Montaigne influenced Shakespeare, but says Montaigne’s essay, “Of Experience,” seems Shakespearean. Bloom’s subject in his final chapter is “foregrounding,” and he draws attention to this characteristic of Montaigne: “Montaigne, like Shakespeare’s greatest characters, changes because he overhears what he himself has said. It is in reading his own text that Montaigne becomes Hamlet’s precursor at representing reality in and by himself” (1998, p. 739). Montaigne wrote what he spoke, like he spoke. In other words, he practiced E. B. White’s “reminder” to “Write in a way that comes naturally” (p. 70). Yet Montaigne said that he spoke differently depending on his environment; he talked differently when conversing in Paris than when in Montaigne. Montaigne’s “principal aim and virtue,” in his writing, was “to be nothing but myself” (p. 113). He said “I speak on paper as I do to the first person I meet” (p. 115). Montaigne avoided affectation by accepting language as alive and therefore always changing: “I reject nothing which is current on the streets of France, for the man who would correct usage by grammar is a simpleton” (p. 113). 

We don’t encourage a writing anarchy; listen, and learn to compare your voice to the voice of others. Overhear your own writing. We don’t want to all sound the same; neither do we want to write the same. We want to write with originality and individuality. We want our voice to be our own, but we want others to be able to listen to our voice easily, without straining to hear. Read your writing aloud. What’s the identity of the speaker? Have someone else read your paper aloud to you. Is your writing true to your natural voice? Does your writing sound natural to you, or does it sound stilted, awkward, falsely academic? Try to overhear.

The Idea of Self-Portrait Writing, or A Portrait of the Writer as Reader

In Montaigne’s autobiography, we find an essay titled “Why I Paint My Own Portrait”: 

“One day I was at Bar-le-Duc when King Francis II was presented a portrait that King Rene of Sicily had made of himself. Why, in a like manner, isn’t it lawful for every one of us to paint himself with his pen, as Rene drew himself with a crayon?” 

We all have a particular picture of ourselves – seldom, perhaps, the same picture that others have of us. And this is true of people we know and see and talk to face-to-face. Though we see eye-to-eye, we nevertheless find ourselves mired in misunderstanding. Unstated assumptions carpet beneath our oratorical feet like banana peels. Our rhetorical situations may be hopelessly complicated when our tools for communicating with one another are limited to reading and writing.  

Montaigne again; this reader advisory from “What I Find In My Essays”:

“The titles of my essays do not always embrace their content. Often they denote it merely by a sign. It is the careless reader who loses track of the subject, not I. There will be always hid in a corner some word which, however hard to find, will not fail to bring him back.”

Montaigne tells us why and how he writes, and why and how he reads. This from “The Days When I Read”:

“For my part, I like only easy and amusing books which tickle my fancy, or such as give me counsel and comfort. If I use them for study, it is to learn how to know myself, and to teach myself the proper way to live and die.”

Montaigne found reading useful, and his reading fueled his writing. If bad writing is usually the evidence of bad thinking, we find little to no bad thinking in Montaigne. He appears to have learned writing from writing, however, not from reading. And he would argue that one learns writing from the regular practice of it, and in no other way. His writing is not simply his thinking put to paper:

“Drawing this portrait after my own model, I have often been forced to drape and rearrange myself in order that the pose may offer a truer likeness, with the result that I have created for myself a fresher and brighter complexion than I began with. My book has made me as much as I have made my book. It is of the same stuff as the author, a limb of my body, devoted to its own being and not to the concerns of its reader, as are other books.”

Montaigne is constantly making claims and questioning them, evaluating evidence, his own or that of others, looking for what has been left out, and why, verifying the presence of an opposing view and analyzing it for its strengths and weaknesses, weighing the possibilities of suggested solutions. If thesis states, theme explores; Montaigne explores themes, but his great theme is himself:

“Meditation is ample exercise for the man who knows how to explore and use himself. No occupation is at once idler and more fruitful – according to the character of our mind – than entertaining one’s own thoughts. Great men make it their life work. Moreover, Nature has favored us in it: for there is nothing we can keep at so long and easily. It is the business of the gods, says Aristotle; and it creates both their happiness and ours.”

If a good writer is a good reader, if good reading precedes good writing, just as existence might precede essence, Montaigne explains why: “With its variety of matter, reading above all awakens my reasoning power. It puts my judgment to work, not my memory. And I would rather forge my mind than furnish it.”

Lowenthal, Marvin. Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne. Vintage Book, V34.  First published in 1935 by Houghton Mifflin Company.