Reader Response

Posted: June 4, 2014 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

“Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.”
― Michel de Montaigne

I’m using a new book Alain De Botton’s quirky, exploratory text The Consolations of Philosophy to teach my summer course, the rather ambitiously titled Creative Reasoning and Investigative Learning: Critically Engaging Self & Society. Reading along with my students is a rare treat since I can be surprised by the assigned reading as my students are. This week’s chapter addresses the theme of inadequacy through a discussion of portions of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne.Essays

Every teacher of writing knows Michel de Montaigne as the “father” of the “modern” discursive essay, primarily because he was among the first to call what he was writing “essays” or “Essais” in French, meaning attempts, which casts a redemptively pleasant light on the endeavor to create meaning through reflective writing. Another important distinction of Montaigne’s work is that he wrote about anything and everything that interested him, sometimes including classical references and scholarly ideas, but most often not, thereby freeing prose writing from centuries of strict formality. Thus, the essays that my students consider excessively formal are actually a relaxed form encompassing a leisurely discussion of essentially anything.

A lover of words, I am a fan of eloquent statements, a trait I share with Montaigne (one of several similarities I can draw between my life and that of a man who lived and died more than 400 years before me). Montaigne collected and considered quotes from thinkers he revered, decorating the ceiling of his library with his favorites. I’ve posted favorite quotations to my walls since college, more evidence of the deeply personal relationship we seek to build with authors and texts we admire, seeing in them what we want to see in ourselves.A-Readers-Lens-and-Baggage-Framed-copy

One of my favorite books utilizes Montaigne’s essays as a means of understanding life. I may have already mentioned or recommended it here: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Bakewell’s writing style is equal parts fluid and fascinating.

After finishing the Bakewell, I read Montaigne’s original essays because her explication makes them seem so fabulous, which they are to a large degree, the historical distance causing few difficulties. A brilliant scholar, Bakewell elevates her source material, identifying the most enthralling aspects and glossing over the rest. In fact, Montaigne’s essays were a tiny bit disappointing after Bakewell’s glittering overview, because they contain dull bits she chose to exclude.

Alain de Botton’s exploration of Montaigne is decidedly different. He offers less in the way of interpretation; instead, he uses Montaigne to discuss the selected theme of inadequacy. Honestly, I would never have connected Montaigne’s work with the theme of “inadequacy” as De Botton has done, but the results remain intriguing.

One of the central discussions De Botton supports with excerpts from Montaigne involves sexual inadequacy. When I think of inadequacy, my mind does not immediately jump to that of a sexual nature. I almost never contemplate sexual inadequacy. Indeed, I was surprised to see the subtopic as much as the connection to Montaigne.

This, coupled with a different reading of a crucial part of Montaigne’s life reveals a wonderful attribute of interpretation—a great many are possible, and a large number can be valid, as long as ample textual evidence and sound logic make the argument reasonable.

Another key difference between Bakewell and De Botton’s discussion of Montaigne pertains to his most intimate friend, Etienne de la Boetie. The friendship was exceptionally close, and while Bakewell considers yet ultimately dismisses a potential sexual aspect to the relationship, De Botton doesn’t address this possibility at all.  The differentiation is analogous to two portrayals of Hamlet, an apt correlation because source material must be richly complex in order to support a range of responses. With the same source material, these two capable authors produce insights that are only potentially true, and certainly not all encompassing.multiple-paths

Thus, all readers can and should add their voices to the conversation. I tell my students that if there were only one way to think about something, there would be only one book on each topic in the library.

This is part of what drives my devotion to books, and reading, and ideas: all open endless avenues to explore, allowing each reader to forge ahead to create his or her own unique path.


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