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  • Montaigne Among the Moderns: Receptions of the “Essais”
  • Patrick Henry
Montaigne Among the Moderns: Receptions of the “Essais,” by Dudley M. Marchi; xiii & 334 pp. Providence, Rhode Island: Berghahn Books, 1994, $49.95.

This ambitious project is not a study of the Essais per se, but rather an analysis of their receptions from the seventeenth century to the present. Written by a comparativist with access to German, French, and English literature and philosophy, it deals with authors from diverse backgrounds and time periods and pays careful attention throughout both to intertextuality and to the particular “horizons-of-experience” in which the Essais were received. “Reception” here does not mean some un-Mont aigne-like passive acceptance, but rather the assimilation and reactivation of the essayist’s concept of literature, writerly project, and theories of reading and writing in the works of later writers, mainly “premodernists” (Emerson and Nietzsche), “high modernists” (Pater and Woolf), and “postmodernists” (Butor, Chaillou, Sollers). In the most general sense, what Montaigne shares with all these authors is the need to make central in the form and substance of his work the paradox of a rupture with the pa st and its simultaneous continuation. Here modernism is less a period concept than a recurring literary phenomenon whereby the essayist not only influences the moderns and the postmoderns but is one of them. This enables us, finally, to perceive in the Essais a dialogical process that resists closure and reenacts the literary and philosophical debates of our own historical situation.

Chapter One schematizes the history of the receptions of the Essais in France from 1580 to 1950 focusing mainly on the stylistic and religious readings of major figures in French literature. While much of this has already been done, Marchi syn thesizes well, makes his own original points, and offers us exceedingly interesting pages on the essayist’s covenant daughter and most active literary executrix, Marie le Jars de Gournay. Throughout he depicts how the shifting nature of the Essais’ textuality (their “hermeneutic undecidability” [p. 74]) allows them to assume various identities in the minds of different interpreters through the ages, thus problematizing the very act of reception and granting the reader a role in the production of me aning.

The next chapters constitute the most original parts of the study and analyze the reception of the Essais in the works of Emerson, Nietzsche, Pater, Woolf, Butor, Chaillou, and Sollers. In Emerson and Nietzsche, we find reactivated the Montaig nean dialogue between the unique self and cultural tradition. Emerson read the Essais in the Cotton translation and wrote about Montaigne in Representative Men but only relied on the essayist to help him reach his own intellectual independen ce, finally moving from a more ego-centered position to the security of past models and rejecting skepticism in favor of dialectical resolution. Nietzsche read Montaigne in the original and knew him through Emerson. Marchi finds “an active inter textual Montaignean dimension” (p. 124) [End Page 140] in Nietzsche’s work and underscores their mutual preoccupation with radical skepticism, self-cultivation, self-portraiture, mutability, the instability of language, and the crisis of representa tion. He discovers two sides to Nietzsche’s reception of the Essais: the Apollonian “Socrantic optimism” and the Dionysian “libertine transgression” (p. 165) and indicates how the essayist’s concreteness and acceptance of human limitations tempered respectively Nietzsche’s propensity toward abstract metaphysics and Schopenhaurean pessimism.

The third chapter unveils the aesthetic and thematic elements of the Essais in the critical and creative works of Pater and Woolf who went beyond the philosophical essaying of Emerson and Nietzsche, were the first to extend aspects of the E ssais in narrative works since Marie de Gournay, and created Montaigne the modernist “by insisting on the qualities of his textuality most akin to their own” (p. 186). The most interesting pages here delineate, on the one hand, Pater’s failed attempt to reconcile the religion of Pascal and the aesthetics of Montaigne and the essayist’s presence in Pater’s Gaston de Latour and, on the other, Woolf’s Montaigne-like essayistic techniques of weighing probabilities, suspending dogmatic judgment, and breaking of narrative sequentiality and her concomitant assimilation...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 140-142
Launched on MUSE
1995-04-01
Open Access
No
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