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  • Introduction:Reading the Ethical Turn in Montaigne Criticism
  • Zahi Zalloua

To find oneself reading an inventive work is to find oneself subject to certain obligations—to respect its otherness, to respond to its singularity, to avoid reducing it to the familiar and the utilitarian even while attempting to comprehend by relating it to these.

Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature1

To talk about an "ethical turn" in Montaigne criticism might strike some readers as unwarranted, considering the long-standing image of Montaigne as humanist. Presupposing a more or less mimetic approach, readers of the Essais have traditionally conceived of Montaigne's work as the expression of its author's humanist concerns and beliefs. The Montaigne that emerged from these readings tended to be seen as the sole source of truth and meaning of the Essais. But it was precisely this kind of faith in the subject's ability to control language fully that became the object of critique in the second half of the twentieth century. The problem of language was posed most forcefully by the emergent discourse of structuralism. With its theoretical roots in linguistics, structuralism called into question the alleged originary status and ontological priority of the subject.

Not surprisingly, the "structuralist revolution" or "linguistic turn" swiftly radicalized the reception of the Essais. Against the traditional importance attributed to the author's biography, (post)structuralist critics emphasized thelittérarité or poetics of Montaigne's work. Consequently, the figure that emerged from such readings was less that of a ready-made humanist thinker or a philosopher in pursuit of truths than a literary writer engaged in a different kind of writing, textually formed through the essayistic process itself.

Dissatisfied with this seemingly excessive investment in Montaigne's textuality, later critics opted to return to a referential Montaigne, placing him and his work in the dynamic context of the late sixteenth century. With the sixteenth century being a period of great, if not unprecedented, change—brought on by the Wars of Religion and the conquest of the New World, for example—a contextualist approach to the Essais, emblematic of a larger "cultural turn" in literary studies, seemed perfectly suited to the task of reading Montaigne's work ethically once again. In this view the Essais are not a self-consuming [End Page 1] artifact divorced from the referential realm. To understand the ethical thrust of the work, the critic must historicize Montaigne, that is, situate him and his writing firmly within the tumultuous socio-political reality of the late Renaissance, and pay attention to the ways his historical condition significantly mediates his ethical perspective.

Yet in the last two decades a strong desire to (re)think the ethical otherwise has emerged in poststructuralist circles. This poststructuralist ethical sensibility—visible most notably in the works of Jean-François Lyotard, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida—has for some time now influenced literary studies in general and Montaigne scholarship in particular. This attitude is perhaps best illustrated by J. Hillis Miller who defends an "ethics of reading," arguing against the reduction of the text to its context: "If a given literary work were fully explicable in terms of its context, it would not be worth reading."2 Poststructuralist critics such as Miller locate the ethical not in the content of the literary work (in its propositional statements or didactic messages) but in the act of reading itself, in the reader's exposure to the singularity of the work. Montaigne's own preoccupations with the manner and matter of his writing ("Nous sommes sur la maniere, non sur la matiere du dire") seem to welcome this type of concern.

Taking as a point of departure the absence of an unequivocal protocol of reading—the lack of shared assumptions about what constitutes an ethical Montaigne or an ethical reading of the Essais—this volume raises ethics as a question. Its contributors, many of whom have played a central role in shaping the current field of Montaigne studies, propose complementary and at times divergent ethical visions of Montaigne.3 It is our contention that doing justice to Montaigne's highly "inventive work" necessitates such an interdisciplinary approach to the Essais, that is, an...


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