So, this is Michel de Montaigne’s personal blog. What gives?
Good question. Before we get to the blog part, though, let’s talk a little about the man himself.
Michel Eyquem was born into the wealthy Montaigne family in 1533. Montaigne’s father and grandfather, who both held titles of nobility, ensured that the youngest member of the family received a comprehensive, classical education – which included speaking Latin exclusively for the first half dozen years of his life – at the family’s Château de Montaigne in southwestern France.
Montaigne went on to fulfill familial obligations by becoming a member of the Bordeaux Parliament. In his spare time, he translated books; his first project, a French translation of Spaniard Raymond Sebond’s Natural Theology commissioned by his father, later made an appearance in the personal writing Montaigne became famous for.
After he retired from public life in 1570, Montaigne devoted his life to the aforementioned personal writing, compiled in the three books of Essais (Essays). Today, the 1580 publication of Essays marks the establishment of a new literary genre: the – you guessed it – essay. In turn, Montaigne is attributed with being the inventor of the personal essay.
Inventor of the personal essay, eh? Tell me more.
In Essay‘s 107 chapters, Montaigne covers a wide range of haphazard topics, ranging from the profound (“By Diverse Means Men Come Unto a Like End,” “Of Experience,” “An Apology of Raymond Seybond”) to the seemingly trivial or even inane (“Thumbs,” “Smells and Odors,” “Of Drunkenness”), with most falling somewhere in the middle. Above all else, however, Montaigne focuses on his favorite subject of all: himself. The personal nature of Essays is established from the book’s first pages; in the preface, Montaigne pens, “I desire therin to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple and ordinary manner, without study and artifice: for it is myself I paint…[I] am the matter of my book” (Book I, The Author to the Reader”).
Montaigne’s thoughts on Montaigne – his blatant, thorough exploration of self – is why he is credited as the first personal essayist, for the idiosyncratic personal self was a topic previously unexplored in print. Sarah Bakewell, author of How To Live: A Life of Montaigne, elucidates this, writing, “This idea – writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity – has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person” (as cited in Cohen, “Conversation Across Centuries”).
Indeed, Montaigne’s meandering personal reflections have resonated with readers and writers – Shakespeare included – throughout time. In his own essay on Montaigne, titled “Montaigne; or the Skeptic” (part of Representative Men), transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the familiar nature of the 16th century Frenchman’s writing, saying, “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke my thought and experience.”
The appeal of Montaigne’s writings largely lies in the fact that, though personal, the essays are not egotistical. Montaigne doesn’t consider himself an authority on anything, least of all himself. His frequently-quoted question “Que sçay-je?”– What do I know?” – is representative of his skeptical, inquisitive nature, and the self-doubt he often harbored. He was meticulous about avoiding egocentrism, and criticizes those who boast of their own knowledge.”The opinion of wisdom,” Montaigne writes, “is the plague of man” (Book II, Chapter XII: An Apology of Raymond Seybond). The very title of his work – in French, “Essais” translates literally to “Attempts” – speaks to the fact that Montaigne considers his writings to be experimental and not to be taken too seriously; least of all, Montaigne does not want to be considered a philosopher or intellectual. He just wants to be seen as human.
Okay, got it. Can we get to the blog part?
Sure. Instead of writing an essay about essays, this is being elucidated through a blog because, along with being the first essayist, Montaigne can, in a way, be considered the first blogger.
Think about it. A blog, as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a web site that contains online personal reflections and comments provided by the writer.” So, what is a blog, in its broadest sense, if not a collection of online personal essays?
Blogging as a form of personal essay is not a novel idea, and I’m not the first person to make the connection between Montaigne and blogging, either. Bakewell, aforementioned author of How To Live, articulates this in a Paris Review article derived from the subject of her book: “The weekend newspapers are full of them. Our computer screens are full of them. They go by different names – columns, opinion pieces, diaries, blogs – but personal essays are alive and well in the 20th century…there seems no end to the appeal of the essayist’s basic idea: that you write spontaneously and ramblingly about yourself and your interests, and that the world will love you for it. No end – but there was a beginning.” That beginning, of course, was Montaigne.
Montaigne’s writings are laden with features associated with many of today’s personal blogs – especially the “good” ones. His writing style is relaxed and largely conversational, personal but not egocentric, and his coverage of a wide-range of topics – himself most of all – is reflective, inquisitive and, perhaps most importantly, transparent.
Also, like a compelling, interactive blogger who aggregates content from other websites, Montaigne often draws upon the words of others – he’s particularly fond Cicero, Socrates and Virgil – to best articulate his thoughts. He writes, “I do not speak the mind of others except to speak my own mind better” (Book I, Chapter XXV: Of the Institution and Education of Children). Despite the emphasis on the individual self throughout Essays, Montaigne knows that he, as a singular source, cannot always illustrate his points in a reliable, objective way – even when the topic is his own self.
Essays is akin to one of those rare blogs – whether it’s that of journalist on assignment or of a college student spending way too much time on Tumblr (or anyone else) – that easily finds connections between the individual experience and humanity as a whole while doing so in a compelling and accessible way; a sort of high/low brow hybrid that manages to do it all. Michael Dirda, reviewing two books on Montaigne (including Bakewell’s) in The Washington Post article “Celebrating Montaigne, Celebrating Life“), expressed this, saying “[Montaigne’s essays] discuss the philosophies of life, quote widely from the ancients and are full of anecdotes from Plutarch, but they also tell us that their author is short, suffers terribly from kidney stones and wishes he didn’t have such a small penis.” Doesn’t that sound like a blog you’d want on your favorites tab?
Right…but how does this blog specifically elucidate this?
Well, I won’t make the claim that looking at this blog, sans this about/FAQ question, immediately screams “Montaigne was the first blogger!”, especially if one has zero familiarity with Essays. These ideas, and how they specifically relate to our Technologies of Text class (we’ll get to that next), could no doubt be articulated well – better, even – in an essay.
However, the very act of creating Essais1580 signals part of what I’m trying to get across – that personal blogs are akin to personal essays; that Essays parallels a blog, and Montaigne a blogger. The posts and other content I’ve included on this blog (all created with a disregard for historical accuracy, of course) are meant to sample some of the aforementioned elements that Montaigne’s writings and a “good” personal blog share: mainly, informal but compelling, reflective writing on a wide-variety of subjects, with the idiosyncratic sense of self being at the forefront.
Really, though. How does all this relate to Technologies of Text?
Let’s turn first to one of our introductory readings, “What’s New About New Media?”:
“[We need to] consider emergent media within their historical contexts – to seek out the past on its own passed terms. We do so, in part, to counter the narrow devotion to the present that is often evident today in “new media” studies” (Gitelman and Pingree, 1).
So, how can we think historically about the affordances of the personal essay in Montaigne’s time, when print culture was still very new, and of the blog today, when the digital age is still very new? The answers to such questions are innumerable, so here I’ll focus on just one aspect: the emphasis on personal, on the individualistic element of personal essays and blogs.
The standardization of print is pertinent in this conversation. Elizabeth Eisenstein discussed this in “Some Features of Print Culture,” from The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. The establishment of standardized printing, of course, allowed for the increased dispersal of alike copies of texts and, in turn, this encouraged the literate to become more familiar with people, places, and ideas that were previously foreign to them; ultimately, standardization cultivated a greater recognition of diversity.
Somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, a fuller recognition of diversity made people more conscious of individuality. Eisenstein writes, “One might consider the emergence of a new sense of individualism as a by-product of the new forms of standardization. The more standardized the type, indeed, the more compelling the sense of an idiosyncratic personal self…[standardized books] presented [figures] which made readers ever more aware, not merely of their shortcomings in their assigned roles, but also of the existance of a solitary singular self, characterized by all the peculiar traits that were unshared by others – traits…deemed to be of no literary worth” (Eisenstein, 56-8).
Montaigne created a new literary genre – the informal personal essay – based on this recognition. He perfectly illustrated the idiosyncratic personal self in Essays, establishing himself “as a volatile creature, concerned with trivial events, [who] contrasted in almost every way with the ideal types conveyed by other books…By presenting himself, in all modesty, as an atypical individual and by portraying with loving care every one of his peculiarities, Montaigne brought this private self out of hiding [and] displayed it for public inspection in a deliberate way for the first time” (Eisenstein, 56-8).
Looking further back than standardization of type, though, the beginnings literacy itself contributed to the expression of the idiosyncratic personal self. Though most would argue that oral communication is more intimate than the act of reading the words of someone far removed in space and time (something Ong could certainly speak to), literacy is what allowed Montaigne to articulate that “the isolating sense of singularity which was felt by the solitary reader had been experienced by another human being and was, indeed capable of being widely shared” (Eisenstein 58).
All of this, of course, relates back to the essential question of our Technologies of Text class: “What is the message of this medium?” As Marshall McLuhan states in Understanding Media, “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (8). How does the medium of the personal essay, and the medium of the blog, impact our society? What are the personal and social consequences of these mediums?
While this blog does not provide definitive answers to such questions, hopefully Essais1580 and its contents can act as a sort of tangible resource to consider when applying these questions and engaging with the ideas presented in our readings and Technologies of Text class as a whole.