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  • Montaigne after Theory: Theory after Montaigne
  • John Parkin
Montaigne after Theory: Theory after Montaigne. Edited by Zahi Zalloua. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. viii + 316 pp. Pb $30.00; £20.99.

Revisiting Montaigne in the context of what its editor terms the demise of theory, this volume comprises a set of detailed independent studies with no predetermined agenda. George Hoffmann re-examines the author's studied amateurism and its relation to his uneasy claims to aristocracy. Eric MacPhail treats his ambivalent attitude to humanism, emphasizing in conclusion the essayist's admiration for Socrates. John O'Brien links Montaigne's comments on fashion to his political conservatism, combining them into a critique of the late Valois court. Jacob Vance reassesses Montaigne's notion of duty in relation to historical contingency and his sceptical attitude towards ultimate values. Reinier Leushuis, explicitly connecting with the volume's title, revisits the author's sense of truth-telling (termed parrhesia) in further association with Montaignean scepticism concerning where truth might be found. Marc Schachter investigates the Servitude volontaire in relation to Foucauldian theory, La Boétie's own translations of Xenophon, and Montaigne's attitude to self-mastery. Drawing material from the later thought of, again, Foucault (theory lives on?), Virginia Krause reopens discussion of Montaignean parrhesia, be it free speech or idle chatter, and his confessional register. David Sedley contrasts the mindsets of Montaigne and Hobbes via their different senses of experience and the natural. Andrea Frisch analyses the contradictions implicit in the former's sense of (again) experience, as revealed both in essai III, 13 ('De l'expérience') and throughout his work, and particularly in 'Des cannibales' (I, 31), where he moves well beyond his own experience to create an idealized portrait of a supposedly natural society. Edith Benkov reconsiders Montaigne's understanding of sex and gender through his account of the girl Marie-Germain, whose sex-change Ambroise Paré had already applied to his own theories of monstrosity: Montaigne's view of unstable sexual identities is both the more modern and the more exceptional, a point Todd Reeser takes up on a related subject, though contrasting it with sections where Montaigne strongly implies an essentialist notion of what is masculine and/or feminine. Philippe Desan extends the concept of instability to his investigation of Montaigne's status (or non-status) as a philosopher: among a number of truisms he does effectively re-examine the notion of the forme maîtresse, denying — with my approval — its crucial status in Montaignean thought. Richard Regosin concludes by problematizing both theory and Montaigne as cited in the volume's own title, aptly reflecting the difficulty of reading him in relation to any presupposed order, development, or model theory, and looking particularly at the beginnings of his literary enterprise, at the text of the Essais, and at his professed aim of self-portraiture, though perhaps reading 'Au lecteur' (I)and the essay 'De l'oisiveté' (I, 8) too soberly. Within such densely argued and richly supported chapters the odd error is inevitable, as when essai III, 5 is mistitled (p. 10), descriées is rendered as 'descried' (p. 62), or we encounter characters such as Chrysostome and Xenophon's Ischomaches (sic, pp. 103 and 128). Marginally more serious might be Tom Conley's reference to Montaigne's 'famous syllogism' on blessing sneezers (p. 258), or Desan's (translated) claim that the subjective nature of judgement is 'lost to modern philosophy' (p. 244: Kantians beware!), but the volume's overall quality remains high, and the contributions are as stimulating as they are profound.

John Parkin
University of Bristol