Whosoever shall know himself, let him boldly speak it out.
—Michel de Montaigne
I spent last summer in France, living at a camp about an hour's drive from Michel de Montaigne's mansion in Bordeaux. For miles, if I were to leave camp and walk in almost any direction I'd be met only by farms, by fields of wheat or grass, or by thickets of tall trees where I could hide myself from the sun. There were trails around the camp, littered with the waste left behind by nearby resident swans and ducks, or with manure from the horses people sometimes rode through the woods. Whenever I thought of the horses I couldn't help but also think of how close I was to Montaigne's home—how, if I'd been able to rent a car, I could drive away from camp and find the place where Montaigne himself liked to walk in fields of grass or ride his own horse on a fine summer day.
I once told a friend who was studying philosophy about my introduction to Montaigne's Essais in my MFA program. He'd also studied Montaigne in school, and he thought it was fascinating that the course I was in at the time, History of the Essay, examined Montaigne as a writer, rather than as a philosopher. It was then that I became aware of Montaigne being taught in philosophy programs, as well as how infrequently he might be taught within the milieu of creative writing. I came to understand Montaigne as a writer who fits neatly in different circles, and who is often taught to students accessing him from angles far different from my own.
Of course there are other writers whose work might find its way onto syllabi not just in creative writing classes but in courses in other disciplines—names that immediately come to my mind are Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Susan Sontag, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida—and these are writers who've adopted modes of writing often examined through kaleidoscopic lenses, looked at as if they take on different shapes and colors every time we readers make a turn. In the light of the kaleidoscope, Montaigne's own work is no less colorful.
It's easy to wonder just how we should read Montaigne, and especially how to look closely at his essays. We could read him as a wise philosopher who's teaching us about idleness or cannibals, but looking at the writing itself is another game, coming at Montaigne from a wholly different direction—a re-strategizing, if you will, of our examination of one of France's great writers.
We can begin, I think, with the qualities of the Montaignan essay, and what have since become the qualities of the personal essay. For the record, I don't believe the Montaignan essay is the best or only valid form of the essay, nor do I, for that matter, want to call Montaigne the “Father of the Essay” (a moniker I'm more likely to give to Plutarch or Cicero). But I do think that because the Montaignan essay allows itself qualities like digression and anecdote, in addition to its conversations with other writers, it encourages aspiring essayists to follow his lead, and to consider the ways he synthesized the many elements of essay writing all at once.
In Terence Cave's book How to Read Montaigne, for instance, Cave writes (about Montaigne's “To the Reader”) that “[a]s in letter writing, it presupposes a reader who is not some distant, impersonal figure, but something like a friend. Or again, it may be expressed as a form of improvisation: 'essaying' can only be authentic when it avoids all premeditation and registers the random flow of thought.” Viewing Montaigne as a great letter-writer, as a belletrist at heart, might help us understand the position from which he essays, and, furthermore, how to essay ourselves. Montaigne isn't pedantic. He doesn't pontificate. He isn't condescending or conceited. He writes to us as friends, the dear in “dear reader” always hanging overhead, and the reason it might be easy for us to listen is because it's easy for him to speak. And just as with the epistolary form, Montaigne frees himself via an avoidance of forethought: He essays (the verb form never forgotten) in fluid motion, the pen held close and inhibition held at bay.
Conversely, Jane Kramer tells us in “Me, Myself, and I” that “[t]he best way to read Montaigne is to keep watching him, the way he watched himself, because the retired, reclusive, and pointedly cranky Michel de Montaigne is in many ways a fiction—a mind so absorbingly seated that by now it can easily pass for the totality of Montaigne's 'second' life.” And Sarah Bakewell, in the warmly-received How to Live, notes that “[a]s the novelist Gustave Flaubert advised a friend who was wondering how to approach Montaigne: Don't read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.” It seems that when we read Montaigne, it isn't as if we merely read the text but that we read Montaigne himself. This might be the only way to read him properly: First and foremost as a man.
To read Montaigne “in order to live,” and to watch him “the way he watched himself,” we initially approach him not as philosopher, essayist, or former politician, but as someone who allowed the totality of the meaning of his life experiences to flow through his pen—as a confrère in the duty of living. Because his character on the page was shaped as much by his omissions as by his admissions, we trust more than anything else his thinking—the way it found itself sneakily placed, and its poignant presentation, should be our biggest considerations as readers.
“Today we would call him a gentleman ethnographer,” Kramer writes, “more enchanted than alarmed by the bewildering variety of human practices.” This enchantment is Montaigne's gravity, and it's easy to think of Montaigne as charming because of how he marvels at himself, and therefore how he marvels at the rest of us. Whether in “Of Thumbs,” “Of Vanity,” or “Of Practice,” Montaigne's examination of human nature never traverses into contempt, and for this we can be deeply grateful. Montaigne's essays, always so thoughtful, have every opportunity to cast a dark shadow over his perception of the world, but his writing, even when it's writing about the darkness of death, somehow gives us a portrait of a man nowhere near in danger of going scrooge.
The essay that helped me begin to understand the (Western) personal essay tradition and form was Montaigne's 1574 essay “Of practice.” In “Of practice,” Montaigne begins with a philosophical position by introducing a subject, and we dive in with him from the first sentence: “Reasoning and education, though we are willing to put our trust in them, can hardly be powerful enough to lead us to action, unless besides we exercise and form our soul by experience to the way we want it to go; otherwise, when it comes to the time for action, it will undoubtedly find itself at a loss.” He keeps us seated in the third person throughout his first paragraph, then opens his second paragraph with a sentence that serves as a slight turn on his initial thoughts: “But for dying, which is the greatest task we have to perform, practice cannot help us.” This is what we need for an awareness of what Montaigne will ruminate on throughout the essay—but rather than swiftly introduce death as a subject in the first paragraph he guides us in slowly, and only once we're waist-deep will he tell us to swim on our own.
This is a move Montaigne has borrowed (or learned outright, perhaps) from essayists before him, like Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero. There's the introduction of a subject as a part of the essay's introduction, which differs from the essays working outside of Montaigne's lineage, which might open with an image or a narrative beginning instead. (An essayist who comes to mind as working outside of this traditional move might be Joan Didion, while those like Roland Barthes or James Baldwin have kept the move alive in much of their own work.)
By the fourth paragraph in “Of practice,” Montaigne has brought the reader into the first person and into the collective “we,” also bringing those of us familiar with the literary essay as a form to a place of recognition: A look at one of the subgeneric attributes of the personal essay. His “It seems to me, however . . .” (my emphasis) leads us further into the process of essaying: After introducing the death-subject we come to see that this is beyond mere report, and that in order to dig into death there's an inevitable sense that, at some point, he'll have to provide a subjective examination of death itself.
Montaigne's sixth paragraph finally brings us that narrative switch, where, it could be argued, we see him get to the heart of what we understand as essaying. He tells us about a time when he took his horse out for a ride around his property with another man, and that eventually this man “spurred his horse at full speed up the little path behind me, came down like a colossus on the little man and little horse, and hit us like a thunderbolt with all his strength and weight, sending us both head over heels.” With this thunderbolt came fear: The momentary fear that, on the ground away from his horse, “ten or twelve paces beyond, dead, stretched on my back, my face all bruised and skinned, my sword, which I had had in my hand, more than ten paces away, my belt in pieces, having no more motion or feeling than a log,” Montaigne would succumb to death's grip.
From here we're given a meditation on what it means to die. More accurately, we're given Montaigne's observation that there is no way we can practice dying, the way we can practice our other skills and occupations. He illustrates through his narrative a philosophy appearing earlier in the essay, that “for dying, which is the greatest task we have to perform, practice cannot help us [. . .] we can try it only once: we are all apprentices when we come to it,” giving us the image of a helpless but ruminative Montaigne ready to pass away in that field, his body battered and broken but his mind still racing.
He tells us how he's saved—by nearby family and friends who rush to his aid after believing he might've been killed by the fall—before returning to Montaigne-as-essayist in his eighth paragraph with “this recollection, which is strongly implanted on my soul, showing me the face and idea of death so true to nature, reconciles me to it somewhat.” Montaigne's own wandering mind took him to a place of reflection in order to better make sense of the death-subject, and in many of our own essays today we can see what we've learned from Montaigne's writing moves in “Of practice”: 1) that essays, by their very own meditative nature, employ narratives without necessarily becoming them, 2) that a linear (and non-digressive) form is difficult to maintain if an essay is going to essay, and 3) that in order to write our “honest-to-God” essays we need to make meaning out of our narratives—because that's what essays are supposed to do. Otherwise, we might as well try our hands at short stories.
In Phillip Lopate's 1996 essay “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” Lopate spends considerable energy defining the essay-film for the unknowing reader, but works toward a definition of the essay-film by first illustrating the qualities of the personal essay. While these two subgenres of nonfiction need distinction from each other, discerning between them shines an accidental light on the qualities I've learned to use to classify the personal essay—or, at least, my ideal of the essay as a form.
The essay, Lopate writes, “tracks down a person's thoughts as he or she tries to work out some mental knot, however various its strands. An essay is a search to find out what one thinks about something.” This lines up nicely with Montaigne's use of the term essai, from the French “to attempt.” I'll piggyback on Lopate's idea here in saying that the essay is an attempt at working through the author's mental knot; at figuring out what we really think about our subjects. And especially within the Montaignan tradition, the characteristic we look for as we judge the quality of an essay bears on how much digging into their own mind the essayist is willing to do. To keep the metaphor going: Good, Montaignan essays are going to search for the essay's bedrock moment, the place where you can't dig any deeper without it actually being therapy.
In digging, Montaigne gives us a bodiless epistolary voice—bodiless because he doesn't actually address the reader by breaking the Fourth Wall, yet we never lose the sense that he perceives us as friends. I think this technique is one that's trickled down through other essayists, and Lopate might agree: He asserts that readers of an essay “must feel included in a true conversation, allowed to follow through mental processes of contradiction and digression, yet be aware of a formal shapeliness developing simultaneously underneath.” When I go to contemporary essayists like Baldwin or Barthes, like Didion or Biss, I assume that Montaigne's disembodiment somehow coached them, that it influenced a slightly indirect “dear reader” attitude they employed while writing their essays.
It's this emphasis on mental processes that also helps define the Montaignan essay, and that gets us closer to understanding which tools (a shovel or a spade, perhaps?) we need to de/construct the essays in this tradition that we've described as sharp, poignant, heartfelt. When Montaigne returns to his essaying after detailing the story of his fall from his horse, for instance, he grounds us in his “dear reader” voice again with a reminder of the importance of recounting his fall. He tells us that
[t]his account of so trivial an event would be rather pointless, were it not for the instruction that I have derived from it for myself; for in truth, in order to get used to the idea of death, I find there is nothing like coming close to it. Now as Pliny says, each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up. What I write here is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me.
Montaigne's statement about how “the capacity to spy on oneself from close up” is useful primarily to himself, but might what's useful for Montaigne to reflect on also be useful for others? This spying is an occasion not just for “Of practice” but for all of his most personal essays, and with Montaigne's self-study we become witnesses to the usefulness of reflection within the essay form. It's not merely for the purposes of exposition or confession, or for Montaigne to say to us “this is this weird thing that happened to me once,” but to mix meditation on a subject with a reflection that might illuminate this meditation, the product of which moves us both toward grasping “the idea of death” as well as—if we're essayists reading Montaigne in order to essay by his example—what it means to experience a brush against death. We have as much reason to ponder what Montaigne has done as an essayist as what he's done as a model for how we might learn to live.
I don't think that I typically write Montaignan essays. I'm likely to ground myself in a narrative first, and then I try to make sense of that narrative, like Montaigne might do were he to begin with his horse instead of with the death-subject. I take my cues from James Baldwin or E.B. White, placing myself in an image before looking at the little pieces that eventually come together as a bigger picture. Montaigne's essays haven't driven me toward strict imitation, but I see the merit in using Montaigne to learn how to essay well.
Reading “Of practice” taught me a lot about writing essays, though, and what it taught me most of all is how the personal essay operates as a subgenre of nonfiction, making me wonder how it hasn't been seen by more readers as essential—quintessential, even—to Montaigne's corpus. I want to root for it more than “Of thumbs,” “Of cannibals,” “Of the education of children,” or “That to philosophize is to learn to die.” I want it to be the essay that teaches us all how to essay.
It also makes me a little sad. Not because of Montaigne, but because of readers and writers trying their hands at nonfiction who easily ignore what Montaigne shows us is the potential for the genre. I'm sad when college composition students think the essay is only an academic thing, which makes me wonder how we might rescue the essay from its history in classrooms. I'm equally sad when writers of “creative nonfiction” write narratives without questions and call them essays, when the essay as a form resides in the space between scrutiny, philosophical investigation, and self-interrogation. I'm all for narrative nonfiction, but let's not write narratives without questions while still calling them essays.
“An essay is a continual asking of questions,” Lopate writes, “not necessarily finding 'solutions,' but enacting the struggle for truth in full view,” and “Of practice” is an excellent example of how we can do the work of asking questions without necessarily getting every one answered. We have no certain answers about death, for instance, but this shouldn't keep us from talking about how it affects us, how our perceptions of death might alter with age or experience, or how it feels to look death in the eye—to know that we might be put beside our own lives by accidents that shock us into reflection.
I leave you as Montaigne himself might: Not with my own words but with those of another. Specifically, I leave you with Montaigne's words. Words that might guide us in both essaying and in life, and that shed light on how and why we essay: to paint our own thoughts, and to give testimony of ourselves.
My trade and my art is living. He who forbids me to speak about it according to my sense, experience, and practice, let him order the architect to speak of buildings not according to himself but according to his neighbor; according to another man's knowledge, not according to his own. If it is vainglory for a man himself to publish his own merits, why doesn't Cicero proclaim the eloquence of Hortensius, Hortensius that of Cicero?
Perhaps they mean that I should testify about myself by works and deeds, not by bare words. What I chiefly portray is my cogitations, a shapeless subject that does not lend itself to expression in actions. It is all I can do to couch my thoughts in this airy medium of words. Some of the wisest and most devout men have lived avoiding all noticeable actions. My actions would tell more about my fortune than about me. They bear witness to their own part, not to mine, unless it be by conjecture and without certainty: they are samples which display only details. I expose myself entire: my portrait is a cadaver on which the veins, the muscles, and the tendons appear at a glance, each part in its place. One part of what I am was produced by a couch, another by a pallor or a palpitation of the heart—in any case dubiously. It is not my deeds that I write down; it is myself, it is my essence.
Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other, 2011. Print.
Cave, Terence. How to Read Montaigne. London: Granta, 2007. Print.
Kramer, Jane. “Me, Myself, and I.” The Best American Essays 2010. Ed. Christopher Hitchens and Robert Atwan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010. 53-63. Print.
Lopate, Phillip. “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film.” Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film. Ed. Charles Warren. Hanover, NH: U of New England, 1996. 243-70. Print.Montaigne, Michel de. “Of practice.” The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters.
 Translated here by Donald Frame. The essay also exists in Charles Cotton's translation, entitled “Use makes perfect.”
Micah McCrary’s essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits , is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. His book manuscript, Island in the City, was a finalist in the Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2015 Essay Collection Competition and a semifinalist in Ohio State University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize Competition.