Monday Morning Montaigne: Of vanity

I think Montaigne’s fighting with the Essays as much as I am. At least, after 56 pages of Of vanity (pp. 876-932), I feel as if I have less of a grip on them than I did before. Since I haven’t read any background material or criticism, I have no idea if he knew he was approaching the end of the last book of Essays, or if he considered this an open-ended project, but it feels as though he’s trying to justify what he’s been writing for the previous 15 years, trying to explain how his style has changed, why his titles don’t seem to match their subjects, why his chapters have grown longer, how he can and can’t live up to his father’s legacy, how difficult it is to capture the fluidity of his own life (a life he considers rather stable and stolid).

I grew frustrated plenty of times in this one, as M. flitted from subject to subject, as organized by , and then felt kicked in the nuts when M. wrote near the end (p. 927):

It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room. I seek out change indiscriminately and tumultuously. My style and my mine alike go roaming. A man must be a little mad if he does not want to be even more stupid, say the precepts of our masters, and even more so their examples.

M. justifies his expansively longer essays by declaring that the reader needs to make a longer commitment to understanding them. That is, the shorter essays were over too soon to get the reader’s full attention. But this one covers so many topics, so many internal and external subjects, that it truly does live up to its title, but renders itself nearly useless in the process.

I need to go back to this one and diagram the whole shebang, in hopes of finding some structure that makes sense of it. I won’t make you put up with that, unless I come up with something interesting. On the plus side, there should only be 4 more of these posts!

But, to be fair, I offer up a neat passage near the end of this one:

A thousand poets drag and languish prosaically; but the best ancient prose — and I scatter it here indiscriminately as verse — shines throughout with the vigor and boldness of poetry, and gives the effect of its frenzy. To poetry we must certainly concede mastery and preeminence in speech. The poet, says Plato, seated on the tripod of the Muses, pours out in a frenzy whatever comes into his mouth, like the spout of a fountain, without ruminating and weighing it; and from him escape things of different colors and contradictory substance in an intermittent flow. He himself is utterly poetic, and the old theology is poetry, the scholars say, and the first philosophy. It is the original language of the Gods.

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