Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Montaigne on writing

I've been looking at Montaigne’s Essays, because they’re so often mentioned as special. Dipping into one I thought how modern it seemed, yet I knew Montaigne was a French classic and even assumed in my ignorance that he was 17th or even 18th century. Not a bit of it: 1533-92 – a generation before Shakespeare. The Essays are lively, opinionated and personal; they seem to open the way for all sorts of developments in English, many of them centuries later. (I believe the line of transmission was something like Montaigne-Bacon-Dryden-Addison and Steele -- and then there’s no stopping English essayists.)

Here’s a chunk, from ‘On some lines of Virgil’. It’s about writing, one of the themes of this blog – of interest, perhaps, to those concerned with English teaching.

The essay is full of Latin quotes. Montaigne has earlier cited the lines of Virgil mentioned in the title, and he’s just quoted Lucretius. The words he refers to in the first sentence come from both. (It doesn't matter if you don't understand them; the point is the way Montaigne thinks about words. If there’s demand from the classics-thirsty I’ll be pleased to supply the Latin, + the provided translation.)

I'll offer some comments after the passage.

When I chew over those words, rejicit, pascit, inhians, and then molli fovet, medullas, labefacta, pendet, percurrit, and Lucretius' noble circunfusa mother to Virgil's elegant infusus, I feel contempt for those little sallies and verbal sports which have been born since then. Those fine poets had no need for smart and cunning word-play; their style is full, pregnant with a sustained and natural power. With them not the tail only but everything is epigram: head, breast and feet. Nothing is strained. Nothing drags. Everything progresses steadily on its course: 'Contextus totus virilis est; non sunt circa flosculos occupati.' [The whole texture of their work is virile: they were not concerned with little purple passages.] Here is not merely gentle eloquence where nothing offends: it is solid and has sinews; it does not so much please you as invade you and enrapture you. And the stronger the mind the more it enraptures it. When I look upon such powerful means of expression, so dense and full of life, I do not conclude that it is said well but thought well. It is the audacity of the conception which fills the words and makes them soar: 'Pectus est quod dissertum facit.'[It is the mind which makes for good style.] Nowadays when men say judgement they mean style, and rich concepts are but beautiful words.

Descriptions such as these are not produced by skilful hands but by having the subject vividly stamped upon the soul. Gallus writes straightforwardly because his concepts are straightforward. Horace is not satisfied with some superficial vividness; that would betray his sense; he sees further and more clearly into his subject: to describe itself his mind goes fishing and ferreting through the whole treasure-house of words and figures of speech; as his concepts surpass the ordinary, it is not ordinary words that he needs…. The same applies here: the sense discovers and begets the words, which cease to be breath but flesh and blood. They signify more than they say….

When I am writing I can well do without the company and memory of my books lest they interfere with my style.… But I cannot free myself from Plutarch so easily. He is so all-embracing, so rich that for all occasions, no matter how extravagant a subject you have chosen, he insinuates himself into your work, lending you a hand generous with riches, an unfailing source of adornments. It irritates me that those who pillage him may also be pillaging me: I cannot spend the slightest time in his company without walking off with a slice of breast or a wing.

For this project of mine it is also appropriate that I do my writing at home, deep in the country, where nobody can help or correct me and where I normally never frequent anybody who knows even the Latin of the Lord's Prayer let alone proper French. I might have done it better somewhere else, but this work would then have been less mine: and its main aim and perfection consists in being mine, exactly. I may correct an accidental slip (I am full of them, since I run on regardless) but it would be an act of treachery to remove such imperfections as are commonly and always in me. When it is said to me, or I say to myself. 'Your figures of speech are sown too densely'; 'This word here is pure Gascon'; 'This is a hazardous expression' - I reject no expressions which are used in the streets of France: those who want to fight usage with grammar are silly - 'Here is an ignorant development'; 'Here your argument is paradoxical'; 'This one is too insane'; 'You are often playing about; people will think that you are serious when you are only pretending': 'Yes,' I reply, 'but I correct only careless errors not customary ones. Do I not always talk like that? Am I not portraying myself to the life? If so, that suffices! I have achieved what I wanted to: everyone recognizes me in my book and my book in me.'
Michel de Montaigne (1993/1580-95), The Essays: a selection, translated by M. A. Screech, Penguin Classics, pp.299-302

My reactions:

1. What an independent mind, insisting on displaying himself warts and all, including (in this essay) all sorts about the lusts of old age. He often feels 20th century, his honesty and desire to be open reminding me of, say, Meursault in Camus’ L’Etranger.

2. His notion of writing seems to anticipate the Romantics: powerful language comes not from fastidious attention to language (artful rhetorical crafting, as practised by his despised recent writers) but from the pressure of thoughts and intentions.

3. ‘Concepts’, images, thoughts, ideas etc may not in reality have such a definite independent existence prior to their expression in language; nevertheless, Montaigne is onto a truth about our experience of expression. We often have a ‘felt sense’, as someone called it, of something pressing for verbal articulation and then, indeed, we go‘fishing and ferreting through the whole treasure-house of words andfigures of speech’, to find the formulation that fits. (Must look up what the French word was that translates ‘concepts’.)

4. On fancy writing, compare the architect Adolf Loos: ‘Ornament is a crime’. King's Cross, not St Pancras. A real modern spirit, there.

5. Like the Romantics (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, e.g.) Montaigne values the language of ‘real life’ over that of books (though he can’t help himself imitating Plutarch).

6. His prizing of the Greek and Latin classics above the moderns. Although it seems that his knowledge of Plutarch, who wrote in Greek, came from a French translation (by Amyot), the power of Plutarch’s ‘concepts’ was such as to shape even a translator’s French into a language of unsurpassed power. For us, so much prose and poetry of quality have been written since antiquity that the ancient writers aren’t such an overwhelming inspiration. But in Montaigne’s time this wasn’t so – if you wanted to experience what language could do at full stretch, you went to Latin (which was Montaigne’s first language: his parents arranged it that Latin was all he was exposed to in his early years).

It wasn’t just a matter of language. As worked out in their writing, the thinking of the Greeks and Romans was more subtle, delicate and intelligent than anything to be found in French and English in the 16th century – or so it was thought. The education of a gentleman could only be in the ancient languages and literatures – what was the alternative?

I’m reminded of a book I read recently, The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy, that’s full of bits of medieval English writing, much of it by educated people. The writing struck me as like that of present-day ten-year-olds. Might write more on that, come to think of it.
Anyway: French as shaped by its native writers on their own offered too thin a resource; when infused with meanings carried across from classical texts, it became strong. (North’s Plutarch had something like a similar influence on English.)

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