Make Essays Montaignian Again

Image credit: Antony Gormley
(TW: includes cannibals, zombies, bilingualism, and other monsters.)

[Updated 2017-08-13: with added apprehension]

I’ve updated an old post on here from November 2015: “On blogging and hospitality.

I’ve been teaching and therefore reading thinking about Montaigne; and reading how students have read and thought about a small sample of the Essais, and how they in turn have adventured in assaying, through writing commentaries and dissertations littéraires on Montaigne.

As happens every time, I worry about a term often used in introducing Montaigne’s idea of the essay to neophytes (neophages?), as an/the “anti-essay.” Montaigne is difficult, and one of his difficulties arises when you’re teaching the Essais and trying not to simplify or dumb down or erase difficulty, because otherwise what you were reading together would not be Montaigne’s Essais.

You would all miss the adventure of working on something that no-one understands completely, with everyone in the class in that same situation, working together as fellow curious people—Authoritative Faculty too—towards an End whose only known Learning Objective will be that we know a little more, mostly about what we don’t know and what thought we knew but it turns out we didn’t. It’s an exciting, dangerous adventure into unknowing and the unknown. The risk for an instructor (doing what I like, whimsically, to think of as “teaching Montaigne / literature properly”) is of showing their own limits while demonstrating raw intellectual honesty, thinking on their feet, and reading in action. That risk can be a reassurance for students, who see someone else doing literary work in live action (with all its awkwardness and clumsiness, tumbles and pratfalls, mistakes and failures), who see The Prof en ma façon simple, naturelle et ordinaire, sans contention et artifice. Mes defauts s’y liront au vif, et ma forme naïfve. They see that it’s difficult for you—yes, for you too, as difficult as it is for them—and that you’re not hiding that difficulty from them in the name of Showing Authoritative Mastery and Asserting Your Position. Difficulty, when shared, is a comfort and a consolation. We’re in this great Montaignian adventure together. We’re all the community of readers addressed as “au lecteur.”


This essay having been written, your humble blogueuse had a nice shower and changed out of her “simple, naturelle et ordinaire” writing-clothes (a.k.a. pyjamas) and into the appropriate t-shirt that she realised she should have been wearing while writing.
(Photo: last winter, in office.)

And you would be guilty of depriving fellow intelligent adults of a great pleasure: enjoying something because it is difficult. I worry that there is less and less place for difficulty and for the active enjoyment of difficulty—properly thoughtfully carefully slowly, as work and working out (and a workout)—in universities.

That is: in undergraduate courses, be they for students in the arts or humanities, or as distribution / breadth requirements for students in other areas. It would be weird, ironic, and maybe counter-productive, to have a Compulsory Montaigne Requirement; but I would happily replace all our current requirements, and the way that requirements are considered (which is always too perilously close to box-ticking compliance exercises), with Official Trasferable Credit in Deep Difficult Work and a Slow Learning Outcome of proven capability for otium and therefore potential for good citizenship of the res publica. Now, it could be said that this is already what a “BA” is, was in earlier universities, and (for a medievalist dinosaur like yours truly) ought to be. Other degrees are either variations on the same theme, with the BA, BSc, and so on as prerequisites for specialised “super-slow” advanced study or for professional preparation in the faculties of law, divinity, and medicine and their equivalents in cultural translation; or (BComm etc.) they are apprenticeships in trades.

An undergraduate degree prepares for life—or rather, towards life—but not in the senses publicised by careers centres and data on job prospects. We’re in the realm of analysis, not mere analytics. “Life” means rather more. “Preparation” is not just training: it’s pre-paration, “making someone ready before.” That “preparation” is related to “getting,” but beyond the narrow limited senses of acquisition and a short-term “vision” of immediate jobs that are immediately related to undergraduate courses and which therefore make them “relevant.” (This is also an error as it is based on a false sense of “relevance.”) Think about apprenticeship, apprehension, apprentissage & apprendre, and Montaigne’s “Que philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourir,” Essais I.20 ; re. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations; to be read in conjunction with I.18 on fear, 19 on not judging of our happiness until after death, and I.21 on imagination.


Apprehension < Latin ad- (“to, towards, at”) +‎ prehendō (“lay hold of, seize” = prae– (“before”) + *hendo  English “get”)). Related to prehensile. With an element of anticipation; something between a healthy wary respect towards and a fear of the unknown. Apprehension is worrying, but it has the potential to get beyond worrying and not to become trapped in and by it, through worrying at that worry in a state of awareness. Learning, apprendre, apprehending: they are all about reaching towards something, respectfully and warily and while being aware. Like the Montaignian essay, higher education is an apprenticeship whose end is preparation for prehensile (“agile”) apprehension and whose means is assaying, through an attempt at comprehension. It tries to understand: but it has the wisdom to be aware of its limits and of what lies beyond, and to avoid the hubris of assuming that complete perfect (par “all around, throughout” + fait, “made, finished”) comprehension is humanly possible (or even desirable, laudable, or interesting in its dull static finality) or the error that “getting” is the same as “getting at.”

Preparation “makes someone ready before” … before what? That “what” is not included in the root sense of prepare, because it’s an unknown. It’s not wrong to be flat-footedly practical about a university education needing to have a purpose: “opportunity” and “preparation” include being aware that there is more beyond the BA, being creatively critically constructively apprehensive, looking forward to adventures in the unknown beyond, and having the potential to adapt to the unknowable so as to enable survival. Enabled survival goes beyond a minimal state of mere survival, to one with added ability and with the enabling of others. Enabled survival embraces unknowing and is sustainable thriving, resourceful resilience, revival, convivial co-existence, and culture. Education is a preparation that thinks ahead and beyond to possibilities of disaster, to changes of fortune, to becoming a real actual refugee (and supporting others in that situation when one isn’t there oneself, in solidarity); and it prepares The Educated for the slow difficult work (and enjoying that difficulty and thriving with it in a virtuous circle of lifelong learning) of being refugees together, building refuges, and verily being hospitable refuges themselves.

I also worry that there is less and less place for difficulty, its active enjoyment, and working carefully and slowly with it—again, that work, working out, and a workout—in universities themselves. A university is a whole innovative assaying entity. It lives, breathes, thinks, and is difficulty. It is a fundamentally Montaignian creature. Think also about what universities signify and represent, what they are and what their place is in an inter-connected environment, contributing from the immediately-local to the global in imagining, creating, and sustaining a progressive peaceful world.

I worry a lot when teaching Montaigne. I care. Montaigne taught me to worry and to care; and, as much as it was Montaigne, it was also the careful and caring exemplary humanist scholar François Rigolot who taught me to care: to care about Montaigne, about others too, about caring via Montaigne, about caring about caring via Montaigne and via caring about him (etc.). About worrying about what you’re caring about; for example, less about getting it exactly right (which is impossible: to err is human; see also, and above and beyond, Rigolot, L’Erreur de la Renaissance (Paris: Champion, 2002)) and more about being careful and trying not to get it wrong.

Another worry: I’m aware of the irony of asking students to write something that, in its idealised form, is even more sterile and stolid than the pseudo-academic essay in English; what a crushing shame it is that the essay has become such a terrible heartless mindless thing. A zombie, sufficiently self-aware to know that it is a shadow of its former self, somewhere between undead and unliving, it feeds on fresh brains and turns all it touches into further zombies. Learning its conventions in order to subvert them and actually write is one creative, critical, and constructive way around the problem. A way to resist intellectual zombification: of writing, scholarly work, academic institutions, and fellow sentient beings. It’s a start, un essai

One of the essays we read, and read in conjunction with the UBC Museum of Anthropology “Amazonia” exhibition, was of course the incontournable I.31 “Des Cannibales.”

Consider, then, the cannibal and the zombie.

A creative imaginative compassion is critical to a human / animal / sentient / ecosystemic duty of care. That includes monsters, as others more expert have pointed out many times and over many years, from Frantz Fanon to Donna Haraway and Sara Ahmed, from Mary Shelley to Ursula K. Le Guin and Star Trek, from Moby Dick and Jaws to Damien Kempf and Jeffrey J. Cohen to Lady Gaga, Paolo Bacigalupi, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Jeff VanderMeer, Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemison. It’s one of these truths universally acknowledged that move anyone all too naturally into pat pseudoessayistic “since the dawn of time / civilisation” statements. And thinking about monsters includes thinking critically and creatively about monsters and monstrosity, and being prepared to find that we are monsters too. To accept and live with it, and to find and make ways to live with others, in the interest not just of simple sur-vival but of general and generous, constructive, creative con-viviality.

Let’s try to live. Essayons de vivre.


(from Montaigne (3) class / lecture notes)

[…] l’idée-même d’un “essai” et des “Essais” […] : essayer de représenter une seule idée qui se développe pendant tout le long d’un essai … ou vous en donner l’impression. Tout en essayant de représenter la progression de cette pensée elle-même. Le courant de conscience (“stream of consciousness”) avant la lettre (voir aussi : Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Claude Simon). On vous plonge directement dans le monde (ou : la culture, l’environnement, le milieu) intérieur de la pensée de Montaigne : essayant d’approcher d’un état d’immersion culturelle où nous sommes immergés ou plutôt, plus correctement, nous y sommes submergés (une idée voisine de la réalité augmentée de 2017). Cette visite d’une culture et d’un monde étrange(r) est aussi ce qu’on fait dans cet essai, chez les Tupinambas / Cannibales ; et comme nous avons fait à l’exposition “Amazonia” du MOA.

Rappelons que nous ne sommes que des visiteurs respectueux chez notre hôte, Montaigne : mieux vaut conclure qu’on ait compris une partie d’un Essai (et des Essais en entier), et que cette petite partie nous fasse poser des questions (au texte et à nous-mêmes, le “que sais-je ?” de Montaigne) ; et mieux vaut construire votre propre mini-version d’un Essai, composée des extraits que vous aurez compris et “digérés” et qui vous auront changés ; plutôt que d’essayer de résumer ou de capter “le” sens général, de conquérir et de coloniser. Lire, c’est essayer d’être des cannibales conscients, reconnaissants, humbles ; conscients de nos propres limites, et conscients que nous sommes nous-mêmes des cannibales. Mais : tout en sachant qu’il existe plusieurs façons d’être cannibale ou de cannibaliser. On peut essayer de vivre et de lire en bon cannibale.

Les paragraphes très longs (voire même la longeur d’un essai entier) seraient aussi pour faire travailler le lecteur, avec une lecture en voyage imaginaire et intellectuel, accompagnant Montaigne. Notons que cet Essai-ci, comme les autres, est censé être lu lentement, plusieurs fois, pendant des anées, et—en lecteur idéal—à chaque fois, d’un seul coup ; l’idéal serait de lire pendant plusieurs heures, par exemple dans un hamac au MOA … Cette lecture lente nous approche aussi de l’apprentissage par l’expérience vécue (voir II.6 “De l’exercitation” et I.26 “De l’institution des enfants”). C’est le plus près qu’on puisse s’approcher de la pensée de Montaigne et donc de sa compréhension, qui sont impossibles. [Ajoutons qu’elles nous sont aussi impossibles qu’elles ne le sont à lui…] Une impossibilité analogue / parallèle : Montaigne et [la connaissance et/par l’apprentissage stoïque de] la mort dans “De l’exercitation”. La lecture lente, concentrée, submergée (un « submersive reality » ; voisin de la réalité virtuelle de 2017) donne aussi l’expérience vécue directe de “l’oisiveté”.

(FREN 220 class notes on Montaigne and learning, part 3; there’s also a 1 & 2.)

Nous ne faisons que nous entregloser : nous ne faisons que nous entrecannabiliser, et c’est ainsi que nous convivons en bons convives et que nous nous entrembrassons.

The kind of critical—considered, compassionate—cannibalism sketched out above is the antithesis of zombism. It also stands proud against the hypocritical and hubristic false idols of pseudo-modernist “originality,” post-modern late-capitalist “passion,” and dispassionate “objectivity.” Cannibalism is innovation, hope, and potential salvation: for the essay itself; for all its writers including our fledgling-writer undergraduate students; and for the convivial survival of living minds, intelligent life, and the life of the mind and its natural habitat: universities, libraries, the other allied fifth estates of critical and creative comment (media, satire), and other communities of public intellectual life.

There was also a second reason for returning to some old writing in order to reread, unwrite, rewrite, and self-cannibalise. Along with fellow medievalist colleagues, I’ve been thinking about what it is we do, and why and how, and when and where, and who and for whom. About Medieval Studies and medievalism. About conviviality and convivencia. (My third reason is thinking about con– words and “with-ness.” “Towards With-ness over White-ness in Medieval Studies?”)


One of the changes I made to that old post was the following addition at the end.

[Original ending, with apologies for pre-SCROTAL excess of greatness…]
Great minds think alike. And that is good. Great, even. Vive l’essai : continuons tous d’essayer, de s’essayer, et de nous essayer.
[/end of apologetic edit]

It is right and proper that the last voices heard here should go to our current greatest essayist, Clive James, and to Montaigne himself. The last word is the latter’s first Essai-ing words “au lecteur”; to you and me and us, his readers and future essaying progeny and humanist posterity. The first item below is the classically-Montaignianly three-long-paragraph “Introduction” to The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001-2005. 



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