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Michael Wood MONTAIGNE AND THE MIRROR OF EXAMPLE As for the rest of life, so-called experience, who among us is serious enough for that? Or has time enough? —Nietzsche, The Genealogy ofMorals How do examples behave? How do they misbehave? Are they in the habit of misbehaving? If they misbehaved all the time, would this still be misbehavior? Would they still be examples? Might these questions help us understand the relation between literature and philosophy? No harm in asking. I arrive at such queries through thinking about my job, which is speaking and writing about literature. But the queries, or very similar ones, could come up in relation to law, medicine, physics, politics, indeed wherever we find ourselves trying to match instances to an assertion, cases to a rule, examples to an argument. Wittgenstein spoke of our "contemptuous attitude towards the particular case,"1 but if a case gets very particular, it just ceases to be a case. It becomes an event, an experience, a fact, or something we may not have much of a name for—not a case, instance, or example of anything. There are people, of course, who have or profess to have a contempt for the general case. This is what Nabokov must mean when he says reality is "specialization": false generalities are dispersed into an infinite array of truthful particulars .2 There is a worrying litde whiff of generality hanging about this very claim, though, and perhaps we need to recall the frightening story Borges tells of a man for whom the world was so particular that he could not think or generalize, or sleep, or forget: "Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic term dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that 1 2 Philosophy and Literature the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front)."3 This is funny, but also haunting. The world is a crowded nightmare for this man, all detail, all uninterpretable event. At its broadest then my topic is the riddling connection of thought to experience, or as Henry James might have put it, of theory to life, and I do want to look at Montaigne's essay, "Of experience." But I am going to use examples as my chief example, and I will work from a single sentence in Montaigne: less than a sentence—a clause, three words. These words have been running in my head for some time now, like a tune, like a motto, like a promise of understanding. I should like to try to unravel at least something of that promise. The three words are toutexemple cloche, "all examples limp"; four words in Donald Frame's translation, "every example is lame."4 Dictionaries give clocher in this sense as "archaic," although its figurative meaning of "not working" is lively even now. This linguistic point is not relevant to my argument at the moment, but might help or hinder some developments of it, since it allows a question of how metaphorical the clause was for Montaigne, or if you like, how dead the metaphor was. It may come out a litde too vivid in English, tilt us too thoroughly into the seen, physical world of motion. "Example" in many languages means model as well as instance, hence the uses of "exemplary" and "setting an example"; and Jean Starobinski lucidly traces a kind of slither in Montaigne from this meaning to the one that interests me here. "The example is the figure which, set apart (ex-emplum), but inviting imitation and generalization, is able to comfort the individual, in his virtuous singularity . . . ."5 On inspection, however, examples keep turning into mere reported facts, or anecdotes: "In the end, examples . . . exemplify then onlythe fact that their possibility has been realised___ The example is no longer a fixed term, rising and gleaming beyond the vicissitudes of the corruptible world. It is an element of this disordered world, an instant in its movement, a figure in the universal flux. . . . 'AU examples limp,' Montaigne will finally say . . . ."6 Or perhaps not so finally...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 1-15
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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