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  • Unsettling Montaigne: Poetics, Ethics and Affect in the ‘Essais’ and Other Writings by Elizabeth Guild
  • Eric MacPhail
Unsettling Montaigne: Poetics, Ethics and Affect in the ‘Essais’ and Other Writings. By Elizabeth Guild. (Gallica, 34.) Woodbridge: Brewer, 2014. 291 pp.

Elizabeth Guild’s book aims, if not to unsettle Montaigne himself, at least to draw our attention to ‘the representation of unsettled and unsettling thinking in Montaigne’s writing’ (p. 3) and to show how the Essais can ‘unsettle our reading or sense-making habits’ (p. 17). The notion of unsettling, as used here, is oddly reassuring since Montaigne’s capacity to unsettle himself and his readers testifies to his tolerance and open-mindedness and thus to his ethical exemplarity for our own fallen age. What I found unsettling about this book is its ahistorical approach, to which the author confesses ingenuously when she declares programmatically: ‘We need, for clarification, to turn not to the past, but to what is in the future for Montaigne, to what Lacan suggests about our desire to remain deceived’ (p. 126). Who needs history if you have psychoanalysis? Yet, despite the gratuitous detours through Derrida and Lacan, Guild’s book does offer the patient reader a series of coherent and persuasive readings of key passages from a variety of essays that encourage our appreciation of Montaigne’s ethical actuality and verbal dexterity. In particular, Guild demonstrates through attentive reading the inextricable relation between figurative language and sceptical thought in Montaigne’s work. The best of the seven chapters in this study is the third, which offers a very fine commentary on metaphors of hunger, taste, and digestion in ‘De l’amitié’ and ‘Des cannibales’. I especially recommend the clever reading of the anecdote from I, 28 of Eudamidas, who bequeaths his financial responsibilities to his friends, in relation to La Boétie, who bequeaths his editorial responsibilities to Montaigne ‘la mort entre les dents’ (pp. 98–107). Throughout her study, Guild engages with a great deal of criticism but not much of it is Montaigne criticism. Her theme owes a lot to Terence Cave’s notion of ‘textes troublés’ and she makes good use of Quint’s Quality of Mercy, but it is ill-advised to work on confession in Montaigne without consulting Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani’s Montaigne: l’écriture de l’Essai (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1988) or Montaigne, ou, La vérité du mensonge (Geneva: Droz, 2000). Moreover, it is a beginner’s mistake to cite the old Pléiade rather than the new one. The last chapter takes a provocative survey of the essayist’s anxiety for the future of his book and brings to mind an anecdote worth revisiting in the company of Montaigne. In Book 1 of Herodotus, Solon, the wise tourist, advised Croesus, the self-satisfied king, that no man can be judged happy until his death; for all things, you have to see the end, which yields the Erasmian adage Finem vitae specta, echoed in ‘Qu’il ne faut juger de nostre heur qu’après la mort’ (i, 19). When he revisits the subject in i, 3 and ii, 8, Montaigne, following Aristotle, wonders if anyone can be judged happy even after death, when one’s posterity or fame is still subject to the vicissitudes of fortune. In effect there is no end. This insight, which unsettled Montaigne, is amply borne out by Montaigne criticism. [End Page 386]

Eric MacPhail
Indiana University


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