Friday, May 4, 2012

How to Live, or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Preaching to the converted
Though I’ve often considered reading Montaigne’s Essays, I’ve always ended up finding some reason to avoid it. From descriptions of the work, I’ve never been able to figure out whether the Essays is an invaluable source of philosophical wisdom or merely a collection of casual ramblings on the mundane events of everyday life. As someone who is eager to learn more about Montaigne, has an avid interest in the philosophical schools which influenced him, and possesses an enthusiasm for French history and literature, I considered myself to be the target audience for How to Live, Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 biography of Montaigne. After reading her book, however, it’s hard to ascertain the intended readership. Bakewell includes a lot of introductory material suitable for those who have never even heard of Montaigne, yet she delves into debates over scholarly minutiae only the most informed expert on the Essays could appreciate.

The title of How to Live misleadingly implies that the book includes some element of practical philosophy, that the biographical narrative will be accompanied by life lessons gleaned from the Essays. However, that’s not the case. Bakewell offers the reader very little in the way of applicable wisdom from the mind of Montaigne. The twenty answers to one question structure comes across as a bit of an unnecessary stylistic gimmick, and the novelty wears off fast. By jumbling the chronology somewhat, it actually hinders the biography more than it helps.

Despite these shortcomings, Bakewell’s prose is lively and engaging. She’s obviously extremely knowledgeable about her subject and has done her research thoroughly. In one of the better chapters of the book, she discusses some of the philosophical schools of ancient Greece and Rome that influenced Montaigne’s thought and writing. Focusing on the Stoics, Epicureans, and Pyrrhonian Skeptics, Bakewell does an effective job of summarizing and simplifying their teachings into a clear and concise encapsulation. Another highlight of the book explores Montaigne’s fascination with Native Americans. Bakewell compares and contrasts Montaigne’s rational admiration for the American Indian with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s more romanticized conception of Americans as “noble savages.” As for the biographical account, the times that Montaigne lived through are far more fascinating than the life of the writer himself, and the book is at its best when Bakewell depicts the broader picture of French history. Her account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 is absolutely gripping.

Throughout the book, Bakewell constantly asserts that all readers see themselves in Montaigne’s essays. This continual insistence that Montaigne is all things to all people only serves to muddy the waters as to what the Essays are actually about. Apparently, whether you’re on a life-changing quest for profound philosophical wisdom or simply looking to kill some time over the navel-gazing reflections of a 16th century blogger, Montaigne’s got you covered. Radical freethinker or devout Christian? You’ll both love Montaigne! No matter what you’re looking for, we’re assured, you’ll find it in the Essays. Bakewell casts her net so wide for converts that the reader is left with a very amorphous understanding of what Montaigne really stood for. I’m less likely to take on the Essays now than I was before I read this book, and I doubt very much that’s what the author intended. Perhaps a more objective viewpoint is needed for clarifying Montaigne’s message, as Bakewell’s treatment of him is relentlessly adulatory and forgiving. The proper audience for this book are those who already share her unconditional love for the author and his work.

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