- Of Fathers, Saints, and Dying Virgins:The Crisis of Exemplarity in "De fuir les voluptez au pris de la vie" (I, 33)
Si vostre volonté vous commandoit de tuer vostre fille, la tueriez-vous?Montaigne, "De L'Amitié" (189A)
Given the significant number of essays dealing with parents and children, and the extensive critical attention paid to the psychology of paternity in the Essais, "De fuir les voluptez au pris de la vie" (I, 33) remains surprisingly invisible in the hefty corpus of Montaigne studies. To be sure, when compared to the more developed later essays, it offers a formidable challenge to interpretation.1 A mere two pages in length, the text, if taken as a self-contained unit, resists any attempts to talk about the evolution of Montaigne's thought since no allongeails exist; its only stratum is the "A" level. What contributes to the biases against the early essays is a subject for another article, but with their dismissal comes another silence around some early sources of Montaigne's essays. In the case of I, 33, the intertext is Jean Bouchet's 1524 Annales d'Aquitaine. Regularly revised, updated, and reprinted, it was an important book in sixteenth-century France. By 1557, at least 15 editions were in print.2 For Montaigne, the work provided approximately 14 anecdotes. They appear in nine of his early essays, with eight found in Book I. Not surprisingly, the Annales has also escaped the serious scrutiny it merits.3
The Annales anecdote I shall be examining involves St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers and father of Abra, his only child. This tale is part of the corpus of amazing and confounding tales that appear in Montaigne's early essays. It gains its vividness from the fact that it proposes a limit event, that is, something that pushes a thought experiment to its extreme. Once we hear or read it, it haunts us because of its incomprehensibility, if we understand incomprehensibility in its etymological sense of marking something that cannot be contained within traditional parameters of thought or classification. St. Hilary welcomes the death of Abra. Even more remarkable is his active role in her death, and his unmitigated joy and contentment when his prayers for her death are answered. The idea of a father praying for the death of a healthy child in the prime of her life challenges imagination. Can religious fervor offer us a [End Page 64] convincing explanation? Or are we forced to conceive other explanations to fathom such an unnatural drive in a father? What does such a wish on the part of a saintly figure do to our conception of prayer? What is concealed when something is ritualized and rendered acceptable without discussion? A limit event, then, not only compels us to seek alternative answers, but also often destabilizes the explanatory power of categories that we may have previously accepted unquestioningly.
Up to now, any reference to "De fuir les voluptez au pris de la vie" has focused solely on this strange anecdote. Maturin Dréano's two-paragraph analysis appeared in 1936. Prior to my interpretation of the essay in this article, it was the longest. He aims to show that Montaigne's St. Hilary is admirable and worthy of imitation because he embodies a courage that "seul le christianisme rend possible."4 It is not until the 1980's that we find passing references to the essay. Whereas Dréano reads the essay as a serious commentary on what Christian faith and courage can achieve, the recent reaction, as we shall see, considers the essay more as an extended joke than anything else.
The form of the early essay complicates matters even more. Its constitutive elements are "sentences, apophtegmes et exemples," taken from readily available compendia which were source texts for many sixteenth-century writers.5 As Villey puts it,
Il était facile d'extraire de ces masses quelques exemples saillants, d'en rapprocher seulement deux ou trois sur chaque sujet; on pouvait dégager en quelques phrases l'enseignement qui leur est commun, et à l'occasion assaisonner le tout de quelques sentences et apophtegmes ... Quelque pauvre que fût l'idée...