#41: MAXIMES, PENSEES, ESSAIS. If you have had your head in the cloudier regions of poetry, philosophy or metaphysic, nothing can bring you back to earth—a sharp tug on the leash of common sense and worldly wisdom—like a little time revisiting the French aphoristic tradition. It has sentences and sentiments with the gleam and point of beautifully fashioned daggers. The master of the form, even above Chamfort, is La Rochefoucauld, whose perfection of phrase is so matter of fact it’s like the edgeless moment between when you fall and when you hit the floor. Few writers can have made so permanent a reputation out of so low an opinion of mankind: his Maxims are a catalogue of man’s veniality, culpability, self-deception and amour propre—the untranslatably vivid French term for self-love, forever after to be associated with La Rochefoucauld’s name. In La Rochefoucauld’s world man persists in his folly but never becomes wise. Looking back after reading him, we may protest in our hearts; we may feel fiercely that there is something, even much, beyond his view; but sentence by sentence no author’s fluency makes for so quelling a presence as La Rochefoucauld’s. And he survives, unblinking, in even a mediocre translation. (Both Louis Kronenberger’s 1959 translation, reprinted many times in Modern Library, and Leonard Tancock’s version for Penguin Classics are very good.) Proceed at your own risk.
The years of composition of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims and Pascal’s Pensees overlapped, and only five years separates their appearances in print—1665-1670. But in reading the Pensees we sense the cynical and worldly-wise tradition grasping after the nutrients of seriousness, conviction and faith—all the areas La Rochefoucauld omitted and ignored. Pascal had brought a haughty brilliance in his youth to the experimental sciences, but at the age of 34 he was visited with a transforming mystical experience—the spiritual taking-fire he described in his Memorial, one of the most moving passages of French prose, which he wrote on a scrap of paper and carried with him the rest of his life. Out of that experience his earlier religious thought took form, and he set to writing his Pensees (literally, thoughts), which were intended to assemble themselves into an apology for and proof of the Christian faith. His attempt to reconcile faith and reason—a gap still nagging the French soul—gives the Pensees their peculiar shape and passion. One of Pascal’s recent editors wrote “The Pensees are, finally, a kind of infernal machine, from which one escapes either vanquished or persuaded: one of the only examples, like Rousseau, of a literary trap.” And yet, for those of us outside of Pascal’s faith, it is still possible to read him with love and awe. The passion of his Memorial—“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and teachers”—imbues the pages of the Pensees with an emotion that bypasses the logic of argument. One may not think in Pascal’s terms or speak his philosophical language and still be moved to the marrow by his devotion and his sense of urgency. Pascal too survives in all but the most feeble translation. The heart has its reasons.
It’s in that sense of a palpable, perceptible self that Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld as well, hark back to Montaigne. “Reader, I am myself the matter of my book,” he says; and characteristically adds, “There is no reason for you to spend your leisure on a subject so frivolous and vain.” The Essais were created out of unpromising circumstances. The death of Etienne La Boetie, the one great friendship and affection of his life, drove him to retire, at the age of thirty-eight, from civil and political life to the library in his tower, to evade his grief and to write. His marriage, we sense, was unhappy, and only one of his six daughters survived infancy. As he began to write the Essais, the St. Bartholomew massacre took place, and a mixture of religious and civil war became daily circumstance for the rest of Montaigne’s creative life. The war dragged him back to public service, a succession of battles, unsafe voyages, sieges and treaties, and during a term as mayor of Bordeaux, the city was struck by plague. Montaigne himself already suffered from gall stones, a condition inoperable at the time, and he spent a year traveling through France, Switzerland and Italy in vain hopes of a cure. The image of Montaigne as a man serenely sequestered in his tower is contradicted by his biography and by his writings. What is so wonderfully expressed in the Essais is an intense, abiding curiosity about life, which Montaigne above all wanted to take time to consider. In sixteenth century France knowledge was in flux, emerging from the theocentrism of Medieval thought; the Renaissance was by definition a rebirth not just of classical learning but of man’s interest in the world around him. It’s why the Essais are such a marvelous jumble: pieces on liars, prayer, cannibals, moderation, the Parthian army, Heraclitus, solitude, sleep, donothingness, Caesar’s war strategies, sumptuary laws, stinginess, fear, friendship, paternal love, imagination—to pick a few at random. In the Essais, this particular fact may be true, but this opposite fact may be equally true; Montaigne was, by Fitzgerald’s definition, the first-rate mind par excellence. The considering tone, a kind of ruminative nobility, makes the Essais utterly uncoercive—an antithesis of the aphoristic tradition that followed them. I cannot imagine anyone reading Montaigne and afterward going out and doing anything uncivilized—a special recommendation, perhaps, in these belligerent days.
Get a good copy of Montaigne—pay what you have to—as Montaigne will be a lifetime companion. In French, see if you can find the original printing of the Pleiade edition of the Essais, edited by Alred Thibaudet, which gives translations and sources of the Greek and Latin quotes in footnotes; the later Pleiade edition of the Oeuvres Completes includes the letters and the travel journals, but with backnotes, which is less convenient. There are innumerable paperback editions and selections; the Garnier Flammarion pocket book modernizes Montaigne’s spelling; the Folio edition does not. In English, Everyman’s Library has reprinted Donald Frame’s translation of the Works—still by a distance the best in English—in an affordable editon.
The problem with books about Montaigne is usually that it’s more fun to read Montaigne himself than to read about Montaigne; one pleasurable exception to the rule is Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (London, Vintage, 2011), which tells us much and tells it well, and has a free-wheeling spirit of its own.