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  • Montaigne and the Ethics of Memory
  • Andrea Frisch

One of the most densely layered sites of memory in the Essais is the report of Montaigne's notorious fall from his horse in "De l'exercitation."1 After the accident, the essayist draws on his own "recordation," the observations of his family and servants, and an assortment of ancient and contemporary poets in order to reconstruct an account of this experience which he believes has given him some acquaintance with his own death.2 The larger context of Montaigne's fall adds yet another dimension to the theme of remembering in the Essais: the riding accident occurs "pendant nos troisiemes troubles ou deuxiemes," not far from his estate, itself located "dans le moiau de tout le trouble des guerres civiles de France" (373). This is also where I would like to situate my inquiry, for here, in the middle of the civil wars, the question of memory had become an inescapably ethical one.3

The essay that treats the faculty of memory most directly is I, 9, "Des menteurs," in which Montaigne is as usual careful to distinguish between mémoire and entendement or judgment. "Des menteurs" does not approach memory in exclusively epistemological terms, however. Its very focus on liars necessarily gives Montaigne's reflections an ethical cast. The main issue here is not whether or what someone does or does not remember, but rather how a good or a bad memory impinges upon one's relations with others. Montaigne questions the degree to which ethical relations depend on memory when he rushes to defend his defective memory against the charge of nonchalance toward his friends: "Ils me font tort aussi en cecy, qui ne sçay rien si bien faire qu'estre amy, que les mesmes paroles qui accusent ma maladie representent l'ingratitude. On se prend de mon affection à ma memoire; et d'un defaut naturel, on en faict un defaut de conscience" (34). Not stopping at merely making a distinction between his good faith and his ability to remember, he goes so far as to list the ethical advantages his bad memory grants him. It serves as a check on a vice to which he feels especially vulnerable, namely, ambition; it keeps him from being too garrulous (a "B" claim belied by the long-winded "C' passage that interrupts it); it makes him less inclined to hold a grudge; it lends familiar places and books an ever-fresh novelty (35). This in turn leads up to the menteurs who give the essay its title: liars need to have good memory if they are to lie well.

All of this would seem to suggest that memory is more hindrance than help to ethical relations in the Essais. David Quint's account of Montaigne's [End Page 23] "ethics of yielding," which favors pardon over vengeance, could lend considerable support to such a hypothesis.4 Unlike the unfailingly friendly Montaigne, who invariably forgets offenses receuës, those who participate in rites of revenge bind themselves to the past. This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the cannibalistic rituals described in essay I, 31 and analyzed by Quint in a chapter entitled "The Culture That Cannot Pardon." In one example, the victim taunts his captors with a song that makes of his soon-to-be-sacrificed body "la substance des membres de vos ancestres"; when his enemies eat him, they will be eating "leurs peres et leurs ayeux" (212). The vengeance of the cannibals is steeped in memory; the past is its very flesh and bones.

There is more to this story, however, since the nature of pardon, presumably the forward-looking ethical counterpart to vengeance, was itself a matter of no little religious and political controversy in civil-war France. Moreover, these controversies would directly implicate the question of memory. During the reigns of François II, Charles IX and Henri III, the legitimacy of royal pardons was undermined by Protestants making a firm distinction between human and divine justice. This point of view found expression in an anonymous Grand Pardon de pleniere remission, which appeared in 1561 and which parodies the language of pardons for "ceux qui ont...


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