Tuesday 22 February 2011

Book review: Sarah Bakewell ' How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer'

Annoyingly, I spent three quarters of an hour drafting a tremendous review of this book in Goodreads, and then promptly lost it by accidently flipping to Wikipedia (Goodreads needs an autosave feature). Here's the dim shadow of what may have been - I persisted simply because I think this is a terrifically good book.

I have been trying to read Montaigne's essays for about 12 years now. Montaigne entered my consciousness in my first year at university, when I somehow picked up the notion that every well-rounded reader should be acquainted with his writing.

However, my every attempt to grapple with the Essays has thus far left me flummoxed by the As and Bs and Cs that are scattered through the sentences, the snippets of Latin and French, and the roundabouts and whirligigs of the language. While every commentator dwells upon Montaigne's personal appeal to the reader (a dangerous seduction for those who find his writing seditious; a sense of self-identification for those who don't) I couldn't find my entry point.

Sarah Bakewell has given it to me. She notes at the end of this book that it was five years in the making, and I don't doubt that at all. Not only must the research and reading required been prodigious, but that crafting of research into the eventual structure of the book must have been a painstaking process (unless Bakewell is touched by a genius for textual visualisation).

A little background. Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) was a landowner, writer, politician and diplomat who live in the Aquitaine region of France, near Bordeaux (his father was a winemaker, and the label still exists). Montaigne lived through a period of French history characterised by religious conflict and civil war, but also an intellectual context that mirrored that of the Italian Renaissance, with great love and respect for Greek and Roman culture and philosophy.

During his life, Montaigne was perhaps better known for his influence as a politician and go-between in royal matters, but he was also known for his Essays; short pieces of that reflect from his own point of view on various topics. The word 'Essay' here comes from the French, essai, for attempt or trial - Montaigne's pieces were the first example of a new genre: short, subjective takes on a chosen topic.

Bakewell's book, as the title declares, takes the overarching question asked in Montaigne's essays - How to live? - and offers twenty answers drawn from the texts. Both the structure and the answers - Use little tricks; Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted; Don't worry about death; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Be ordinary and imperfect - can sound glib. But both, when ventured into, prove to be rich, engrossing, pragmatic, and humane.

Bakewell manages to move roughly chronologically through Montaigne's life, setting his writing within his biography, his personal relationships, his work as a public servant, and his historical context. She shows us the prevailing intellectual modes of the day, and does an especially good job of explaining how Montaigne's writing has been received and perceived, used and abused up to the present day; from his contemporaries, who admired his application of Stoic philosophy and collation of extracts of classic texts, to Descartes and Pascal, who were horrified and transfixed by his Scepticism, to the 17th century libertins who celebrated his free thinking, four centuries of English readers and interpreters, who took some pleasure in adopting this son of France who was cast out from his native literary tradition and placed on the Index of Prohibited Books for 180 years, the modernist writers who wanted to replicate the immediacy of his writing, the sense of being fully-grounded in the present, and in today's world, the proliferation in the late 20th-early 21st century of the public-private personal essay in the form of the blog.

Each chapter, then, does not simply recap what Montaigne says about reading and remembering what you read, or marriage and how to raise children, or friendship, or how to prepare oneself for one's death. And it would not be that simple, as Montaigne's writing is not that simple. It would be easy to recast his writing as self-help speak: to achieve goal X, apply methods Y and Z. But that wouldn't be true to Montaigne's own approach, which was circular, occasionally contradictory, always exploratory, never authoritative, and often ended with a Gallic shrug, a wry smile, and whatever the French is for 'Eh, what do I know?'.

Underpinning Montaigne's essays - and his entire approach to life - are three schools of classic philosophy. My favourite chapter of Bakewell's book - 'Use little tricks' - lays out this territory, but to give a rough summary ...

Stoicism taught Montaigne to face up to the life unflinchingly. Scepticism taught him question everything to never take anything fro granted, to always seek other perspectives, and to avoid making or building off assumptions. And Epicureanism taught him to focus on the pleasure available in life whilst living in these ways.

All three schools, despite their different approaches, share one goal: to achieve 'eudaimonia', a way of living that is translated as happiness, or human florishing. This means living well, without fear, with the ability to enjoy every moment, by being a good person. The best way to achieve eudaimonia is through 'ataraxia' or becoming free of anxiety; of (consciously) developing the ability to move through life on an even keel. To do this, one must overcome two major hurdles: controlling one's emotions, and paying attention to the present. All three schools taught ways - little tricks - of achieving these ends. None offer an answer to the question 'How to live?'; none say that if you do X and obey Y you will be happy. Instead, all three offer a method, thought experiments and mental tricks that will help you calm yourself and bring yourself into the moment. From there, it is up to you. As Montaigne himself wrote: 'Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself'.

So Montaigne's essays show him attempting to live out these precepts, to apply them to moments like the death of a friend, the fear of armed bandits, the passing of a kidney stone, playing with one's cat (somehow, in a way I still don't fully understand, Montaigne's sudden switch of perspective, from seeing his cat as something he played with to himself as a toy for his cat, got him blacklisted by Descartes and led to his posthumous falling-out with the Catholic church).

Bakewell's book is utterly beguiling, which makes me think Montaigne must be too. So I am going to tackle the essays again, this time feeling a little more prepare, knowing what to look for, and ready to be surprised.

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