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  • The Matter at Hand:Normative Ethics and Self-Stimulation in Montaigne's "Du repentir"
  • Dennis Costa (bio)

Michel de Montaigne's extraordinarily insightful consideration of the act of repenting was written in the mid-1580's, some twenty years after the counter-Reformation Council of Trent had enjoined the Catholic faithful to punctilious examination of conscience and frequent confession of moral failure.1 Hence the honesty, apt to be taken as scandalous, of the essayist's opening remarks, as he writes: ". . . je me repens rarement."2 But such a statement is set rhetorically in the context of the writer's begging his readers' indulgence with respect to it: "Excusons icy ce que je dy souvent, que je me repens rarement et que ma conscience se contente de soy, non comme de la conscience d'un ange ou d'un cheval, mais comme de la conscience d'un homme" (Essais 806).3 Montaigne presents himself as an habitual [End Page S169] apologist for not apologizing very often. However conventionally authorial the first-person plural "Excusons" may be, it does succeed at signaling the necessity that repentance look beyond the first-person singular, beyond what will get defined in the essay as a vicious culture of self-justification. It both begs the readers' pardon with respect to something that may be looked at askance, taken amiss, and urges upon the same readers an attitude of toleration for a "human" person, the author of the essay, a being neither relatively perfect (the aeveternal angel) nor perfectly sensual (the beast). That curious juxtaposition (ange/cheval) also places the only being that is capable of a moral life at some real distance from what Montaigne considered the far too idealist anthropology that had been promulgated, a hundred years earlier, by Giovanni Pico in his "oration" on human nature, in which a person's actions could either rise to an angelic "dignity" or descend quite literally to the bestial.4 A few sentences further on in the essay, Montaigne is reading both Pico and any number of classical sources when he states that a certain kind of vice will inevitably be painful over time: it ". . . laisse, comme un ulcere en la chair, une repentance en l'ame, que tousjours s'esgratigne et s'ensanglante elle mesme" (Essais 806).5 The specific words with which Montaigne echoes certain Latin sources—"scratching," "ulcer," "ulcerous"—point to a violent, obsessive pattern, both of a given crime and of the guilt it occasions. But these verbal cues, in Pico and in the third book of Augustine's Confessions, had referred paradigmatically to masturbation, as to a bestial act.6 Some kinds of "scratching," clearly enough, are truly vicious; [End Page S170] or they are consequent upon serious vice. But I shall argue that the principle subtext of "Du repentir" (Essais III.2) is its author's essaying a habit of genital self-stimulation, apt to be looked at askance or taken amiss, that seems to him neither so serious a moral error nor necessarily a violent or obsessive one. A great deal has been written about Montaigne's frank and repeated reference in the essays to his physical disabilities and especially to his periodic impotence. But no critic, to my knowledge, has requited the very daring way in which "Du repentir" puts the fact of his impotence into such intimate textual dialogue with a matière of the highest moral and religious resonance. I believe we still under-read this much read essay, both with respect to its stated subject and to the somewhat scandalous subtext that Montaigne makes to be simultaneous with his painstaking "sorting out" of that subject.7

George Hoffmann's superb work on "Du repentir" has shown just how deeply it was in reaction to Henry III's spiritual advisors and particularly to the Jesuit Edmond Auger, whose French version of the Tridentine catechism appeared in Bordeaux in 1576 and who wrote an entire treatise Du Sacrement de la Penitence in 1571 and another, on conversion of heart, in 1584, when Montaigne was at work on "Du repentir."8 Hoffmann juxtaposes what appears to have been Auger's violently coercive "spiritual direction" with Montaigne's frequently...


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