- "Route par ailleurs": Le "nouveau langage" des Essais
André Tournon's new work culminates a long and distinguished career devoted to teaching, editing, and interpreting the Essays of the late sixteenth-century French author, Michel de Montaigne. Tournon has produced noteworthy studies of other French Renaissance authors, such as François Rabelais, Béroalde de Verville, and Agrippa d'Aubigné, but his main recognition derives from the series [End Page 1218] of publications inaugurated by Montaigne, la glose et l'essai in 1983 and highlighted in 1998 by the publication of a new edition of the Essays in accordance with editorial principles expounded in a lengthy series of articles and conference papers from the 1990s. Now, in this new book, rather than merely recycle previous material, the author has tried to synthesize the results of his long and careful meditation on one of the richest works of European Renaissance literature.
The book consists of an introduction, five substantial chapters, two appendices, an index, the obligatory list of essays studied, and a candid acknowledgement of previous publications reused in the current work. The title is a quotation from the beginning of the last essay, "De l'experience," where Montaigne evokes the interminable dissatisfaction of the mind, which resists any prospect of conclusion or certainty and restlessly explores sidetracks and detours, the "routes par ailleurs." Tournon proposes to take us on a frankly arduous tour of numerous such routes, traversing a comprehensive selection of essays, including famously digressive ones such as "Des coches" and "De la vanité" as well as many others considered among the most commonplace essays, or those with the least apparent discontinuity.
Tournon's method is to seize on what he calls an "inflexion" in the text, a sudden shift or change of course that reorients and complicates the meaning of even the simplest essay. His first example is drawn from essay I.30, "De la moderation," where the epilogue about Cortez's encounter with the Indians, who offer him three choices, remotivates the question of moderation as an exercise in moral autonomy, in deciding for yourself what is right and wrong. This decision, confronting both author and reader, is taken to be emblematic of the larger ambitions of the Essays. Characteristically, the detours, which Tournon follows so intrepidly, take the form of a reexamination, whereby the narrator stops in mid-essay in order to reexamine the presuppositions of his own argument. For Tournon, the difficulties inherent in this maneuver account for the long history of misreading to which Montaigne has been subject on the part of those incapable of grasping simultaneously what the essayist says about his ostensible topic, and the criticisms he makes of his own method of argumentation.
Chapter 2 covers Montaigne's "heterodoxy," defined in relation to a variety of orthodoxies, including scholastic philosophy, Aristotelian science, Counter-Reformation ideology, and even ethnographic orthodoxy as exemplified by Joannes Boemus. For me, the most interesting part of this chapter concerns the dialectic of identity and difference in the Essays, and the curious fragmentation of narrative subjectivity that results. On more than one occasion, the narrator will stop to observe, or even to apostrophize, his own mind as if it were outside of, and separate from, himself. For Tournon, such doubling is a necessary precondition of the essay, understood as a form of self-control or reflection on the self. Tournon applies this notion with particularly felicitous results to the essay "De l'experience."
The next chapter concerns Montaigne's political philosophy, and his attitude to the law and civil authority. Here Tournon is on particularly solid ground, deploying his expertise on Montaigne's legal training and his acute sensitivity to the juridical vocabulary of the Essays. From this legal background, Tournon derives [End Page 1219] an analogy between the essay form and legal testimony. Like testimony in court, the Essays aspire to be convincing without being systematic and authoritative, and they can also be seen to participate in the crisis of testimony that Tournon documents...