- The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne’s Essays
Some studies of Montaigne attempt to understand the subjectivity at the heart of the Essays by reading them within a specific historical or cultural context. Lawrence Kritzman’s Fabulous Imagination opts for a different strategy: reading the Essays from a personal and modern point of view. Even if Kritzman’s critical point of view does remain grounded in the twenty-first century, the Fabulous Imagination does not, however, try to make Montaigne a citizen of the twenty-first century: the Essays remain resolutely in the sixteenth century. The methodological structure would seem to follow, consciously or unconsciously, that adopted by Montaigne in De la phisionimie (III, 12), in which the author of the Essays, through his own experiences, questions Socrates’s model, in order to imitate it, to make it his own (151). In the same way, Kritzman, through his own [End Page 136] experiences, questions the textual space created by Montaigne in order to imitate it and make it his own.
One of the critical strong points of this study is that it explicates not only the content of the Essays but also their “how.” Kritzman shows how the act of writing allowed the essayist to triumph over the loss of his friend Etienne de la Boétie through the narcissistic illusion of giving life to art (121). Kritzman cites Montaigne in De l’affection des pères aux enfants (II, 8), who cites Plato, to this effect: the written text becomes “these immortal children who immortalized their fathers” (121). Writing becomes, as Kritzman notes, a “form of self deception” that allows Montaigne to displace grief while at the same time keeping it alive and installing it as a series of living fictions refracted through the prism of language (121). Kritzman’s own experience allows him to recognize Montaigne’s highly productive, albeit paradoxical “self deception.” Writing finally becomes a means of exercising a necessary form of self-deception: it is what allows the human being to master that which ultimately cannot be accepted. That self-deception is what allows Montaigne to master the death of his friend and recognize him in death. A less personal point of view, from a less “montaignean” sensibility, would not have recognized how this imaginative process was so essential to Montaigne’s own grasp of reality.
Kritzman’s intimate portrait of Montaigne makes a historical point by demonstrating how resolutely Montaigne’s understanding of the world was filtered through the senses. The imagination was, as Kritzman notes, often frowned upon by many sixteenth-century thinkers, especially those who supported a more reason-based form of understanding. Writers such as Ficino believed it was necessary to turn away from the body and the senses in order to understand the world. Reason allowed the mind to understand the beauty of an earthly object in relation to a pre-existing ideal beauty. Montaigne’s use of the imagination places the Essays in a less ethereal intellectual context. Although Montaigne might adopt the Stoics’ belief in the superiority of the mind over the body, he does so by transcending the constraints of reason. As Kritzman shows, Montaigne, in De la vanité (III, 9), explains that his writing takes shape according to the peripatetic rhythm of a wandering mind (13).
The often obscure relationship of mind and body in Montaigne provides the basic material for one of the recurrent themes in the Fabulous Imagination. Unlike Socrates, who was “paralyzed by an ideal” understanding of human existence, Montaigne, as Kritzman shows, places his body at the center of his investigations. When Montaigne talks about medicine, Kritzman notes that the body is not an object of observation “to be considered in relation to the formulas proposed by science; rather it becomes the object of self-knowledge and the matter of experience itself” [End Page 137] 169). The mind does not contemplate the body. It is a thinking body (169). Instead of floating above or outside the body, observing the self and the world from a Ficinian ideal or a Cartesian mind...