thinking about culture, art and democracy
‘There should be some legal restraint aimed against inept and useless writers, as there is against vagabonds and idlers. Both I and a hundred others would be banished from the hands of our people. This is no jest. Scribbling seems to be a sort of symptom of an unruly age.’
Michel de Montaigne, On Vanity (1588)
David Tennant once suggested that Russell T. Davies was the Shakespeare of today. Certainly, it’s commonly said that, were Shakespeare living today, he’d write for television. It’s probably true, but it’s also meaningless.
Shakespeare, like all artists, was shaped by the culture in which he made his living. Removed from 17th century theatre and social life he simply would not become Shakespeare. In today’s commercialised television culture, he would scarcely be noticed among the clever, talented writers who create product or struggle to get work.
Montaigne was born 30 years before Shakespeare. A French nobleman, he lived through terrible wars of religion, spending long periods in the seclusion and relative security of his chateau, where he read voraciously and wrote almost as much. If Shakespeare may be said to have invented the modern play, Montaigne invented the modern essay. He wrote his thoughts about everything from friendship to cannibalism, inspired by the interaction of his experience and the ideas of the classical writers he loved.
In French, ‘essai’ means an attempt, a trial, perhaps even an experiment. Montaigne was not just a great writer: he was an obsessive re-writer. His Essays were published in three editions during his life, each time not just expanded but revised and altered, so that later editors have made a life’s work of untangling the development of his thought. That task is made still more delicate because Montaigne was never afraid to argue with himself, to change his mind, or to express contradictory opinions, while never being anything less than true to himself.
Montaigne’s integrity makes him as attractive a personality as Shakespeare (at least as encountered through their works). He is undergoing something of a revival in England with two recent books about him, including Sarah Bakewell’s outstanding ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’.
Montaigne’s capacity for living with doubt, while still being happy, makes him a reassuring presence in an uncertain age. He suits post-modernity and one can find echoes of him in writers as different as Slavoj Žižek and Clive James. If it’s hard to see Shakespeare flourishing while earning a living in television, it’s easy to imagine Montaigne the blogger. The blog’s discursive, open-ended nature seems perfectly suited to his character and literary style. He could rewrite to his heart’s content.
A freedom of expression that once depended on a substantial private fortune like Montaigne’s, is now open to anyone with access to a computer and a WordPress account. Though we have our own wars of religion, the risks of publication are generally inconsequential. On the other hand, a world much more interested in speaking than listening may find it hard to identify those voices of lasting wisdom. There is a Montaigne writing today and a Shakespeare, but we may never know.
Update: BBC Radio 3 has recently broadcast five short essays on Montaigne, and they’re currently available as podcasts on iTunes or from the BBC website. Contributors are Theodor Zeldin, Sarah Bakewell, Jonathan Bate, Alain de Botton and A. C. Grayling.
Update 2: (29 April 2013): I just came across this article in the Paris Review by Sarah Bakewell in which she makes the connection between Montaigne and blogging with much greater erudition and elegance. And the wonderful BBC has just broadcast a 45 radio programme on Montaigne in the ‘In Our Time’ series: you can listen to it here. Montaigne is so fashionable…