- From the Perspective of the Self: Montaigne’s Self-Portrait
In a note to Chapter One, the author explains that his is the third book to center on the self-portrait of Montaigne but, unlike one—Miroirs d’encre by Michel Beaujour—his deals only with Montaigne and, unlike both—the other is Montaigne’s Essays as the Book of the Self by Richard Regosin—his is not geared toward literary theory and offers no theoretical approach to self-portraiture or autobiography. What we have, then, is a close textual analysis of the essayist’s self-portrait which is shown to coexist with the ubiquitous voice of the moraliste, whose subject is mankind in general, and a third voice, particularly pronounced in the 1588 and 1595 editions of the Essays, that of the “essayer,” “whose topic is his own book, its aim, its method of inquiry, and its production” (p. 120). Throughout his study, even as he scrutinizes the self-portrait, Brush demonstrates that these three voices are interrelated, interdependent, and virtually inseparable. [End Page 173]
Brush’s exhaustive enterprise: to depict “how Montaigne came to the project [of self-portraiture], how he conceived it, how he practiced it, what he had to say about it, what he learned from the strange practice, how it became a way of life for him” (p. 8) takes him into areas that have been well-debated by Montaigne scholars. Thus we find lengthy discussions of the sense of the word “essay,” authorial modesty, the role of the reader, titles, beginnings, digressions, additions, endings, skepticism, nominalism, Catholicism, dialogue, ethics, evolution, the use of personal pronouns, the structure of individual chapters and of the book as a whole, the link between La Boétie’s death and the self-portraiture project, and the interplay between self and other.
On each topic, however, Brush inevitably offers a fresh insight, a quirky intuition, or a new departure that makes the discussion worthwhile. He paints the history of both domestic and official portraiture at the moment when Montaigne began writing; he explains why a self-portrait is not an autobiography; he opposes the treatise and the essay; he differentiates clearly between self-study, self-knowledge, and self-portraiture; he depicts what is missing from the portrait that the essayist deemed relatively complete, and he weighs carefully the opposed proclivities of the essayist toward self-improvement and self-acceptance. In addition, he points out how the impossibility of finding a “pure self” forced Montaigne “to paint himself in context” (p. 107) and argues forcefully that the essayist’s “love of life was a profoundly religious experience” (p. 210). In a particularly rich commentary on “Of practice” (pp. 82–83), Brush stresses the importance of writing for the author of the Essays. In this case, the writing of the essay may in fact have been more significant for him than the event that the writing narrates, thus underscoring the essayist’s claim that this book has made him as much as he has made it. Finally, Brush’s tenth chapter, “Study Without a Book,” eloquently elucidates the originality that Montaigne brought to his reading of the ancient adage “Know Thyself.”
It was inevitable that Brush would cover much familiar material but by keeping his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Montaigne criticism in the end notes and by rigorously analyzing the Essays, he has written an eminently readable, jargon-free study that will serve both the beginning student and the seasoned Montaigne scholar. Having no theory to impose, he is free to chart the amazingly rich variety and diversity of the Essays, aspects of the human condition that the essayist always underscored. His book, clearly the product of years of ruminating on the Essays, contains hundreds of quotations from Montaigne’s Travel Journal and from seventy-seven of the one-hundred-seven chapters penned by the essayist. By giving us, in the main, nothing but his own personal reflections on the Essays, he has also curiously and interestingly provided us with his...