Stories don’t teach

Malmitalo library
Malmitalo Library, Finland

In the third volume of his Essays, Michel de Montaigne writes a line that has since become famous: ‘Je n’enseigne point, je raconte’

It is almost impossible to put this into English. Donald Frame’s standard version – ‘I do not teach, I tell’  – makes telling sound didactic, which is contrary to what Montaigne meant. ‘Raconter’ is to tell a story, ‘un conte‘: it’s where English found the word raconteur. If it didn’t sound so arch, you’d get a better sense by rendering it as ‘I don’t teach, I yarn‘.  In using raconter to describe his work, Montaigne explicitly rejects any instructional intent, contrary to what a reader opening a book inspired, at least in part, by its author’s reading of classical philosophy might expect. Montaigne does not want to tell anyone what to think and that is the heart of his humanity and his importance.

Earlier today, I heard Giles Fraser say — in Radio 4’s A History of Ideas – that it is novelists rather than churchmen, scientists, philosophers or lawyers who are best placed to tell us how to live today. Even if we enlarge the category of novelists to include other artists – especially, perhaps, those working in TV and film, and whose work reaches a far wider spectrum of people – this seems to me simplistic. But it is not an unusual argument, particularly coming from writers. The idea that literature can ‘cultivate our sensibility’ is ancient and enduring, partly because it is (partly) true. (But to hear a counter argument, listen to Peter Lamarque explain why he doesn’t believe this in a Philosophy Bites podcast.)

But reading, like listening to music, watching performance or seeing art, involves two sensibilities, two imaginations, two existences. These experiences are all, literally, what we make of them. There is nothing inevitable about the lessons books offer or the change they may produce. All that can be said about them is that we can learn from them – just as we can learn from Montaigne. And it is because he doesn’t set out to teach that Montaigne leaves his readers space to learn.

That, at best, is what can be said of novels and other artistic creations: they give us the means to grow. But with this essential caveat: their creators have to be good – and we have to want to be.