Michel Eyquen de Montaigne-Delecroix

Image courtesy theguardian.com
Image courtesy theguardian.com

By Christopher Zoukis

He was buried in the family cemetery near his chateau, which is actually a castle in the center of an opulent park.  Construction of the castle began in 1477.  It is located on the borders of Perigord and Bordelais, in the Dordogne part of France. 

A tall white floriated cross, or ‘cross botone’ marked the grave.  For reasons unknown, his remains were transferred from the family cemetery to Saint Antoine Church in Bordeaux.  Eventually, Saint Antoine Church was torn down, and the property developed into the Convent des Feuillants.  The convent, too, was later demolished. 

Supposedly, somewhere in there, his remains were moved once again.  This time to the Musee Aquitaine, Faculte des Lettres, at the University of Bordeaux.  Whether or not this is true is open to argument.  I suspect it is not, and that his bones lie unmarked and forgotten near the extinct Saint Antoine Church, whose precise location has also been forgotten.

And presumably his heart, pickled and bottled like so much fruit, is in the church of Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, which is located near the family chateau.  Which is a nice thought, because it means at least a part of him ended up right back where he started.  But this, too, is doubtful.  As no one knows when his heart was moved, or by whom.

All that to say this:  no one really knows where he’s buried.  Which is sad, for he created a totally new way of writing – the essay.

His name was Michel Eyquen de Montaigne-Delecroix.  Born on the family estate, the Chateau de Montaigne, which was purchased with money from a vast fortune made in herring.  The Montaignes were secret Jews, who converted to Roman Catholicism to avoid exile and probably extermination.  Privately, they continued to worship as Jews. 

Michel, immediately after his birth, was sent to live with a local peasant family.  He lived in a squalid cottage and ate slop.

This was his father’s idea.

His father was a liberal with definite opinions on how to educate his son.  This initial stage, which lasted until he was three years old, was to make him aware of the realities of the common man’s existence.

When he was three, his father brought him home to the chateau for the next stage of his education, which was to learn to speak Latin and only Latin.  The boy was not allowed to even hear French being spoken.  During this stage of his education Michel received private, unstructured tutoring by a German doctor.  No books were used and nothing was mandatory – he could do whatever he felt like doing. 

When he turned six, never having heard or spoken French, Michel was delivered to the College de Guyenne, an exclusive boarding school in Bordeaux.  Michel proved to be a prodigy, soaking up French and everything else like a sponge.  After graduation at the age of thirteen rather than the normal eighteen, given the choice, he studied law in Toulouse.  Shortly after graduation from law school, he received an appointment to the high court in Bordeaux, where he socialized with the liberal writer Etienne de la Boetie, who was not only his best friend, but more vitally, his soul-mate.  There is no implication that theirs was a homoerotic relationship. 

At the age of thirty-two, he “made himself fall in love” and married Francoise de La Chassaigne.  They had six daughters, of whom only one survived past the age of ten.  Later, in his writings, he stated that he believed marriage was a necessary institution.  But that he, personally, found marriage to be like the chains of a criminal, limiting his freedom.

This viewpoint, undoubtedly, had its origins in the freedom he enjoyed in his father’s system of educating him.

Fascinated by literature, Michel decided at his father’s request to translate Raymond Sebond’s book, Natural Theology, from Latin into French.  After an effort of four years, his translation was published, garnering much critical acclaim.

When his father died, Michel moved into the family chateau.  Now with more money than he knew what to do with, he decided to retire.  He was thirty-eight years old.  And from this point on, he became almost reclusive.  Hidden in his library, surrounded by his books, he began writing his Essays, which word means ‘to try.’  He was trying something new, trying a new style of writing.

Seven years later, at the age of forty-five, Michel felt an excruciating pain in his lower back.  The diagnosis was kidney stones.  For an entire year, he visited spas, hot springs, doctors and quacks in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria, trying to find a remedy for his affliction, which grew worse and worse, often incapacitating him for days.

During all this, he never stopped writing.  His Essays continued, and he published the record of his travels throughout Europe as he searched for health. 

Finally, four years before his death, Montaigne, while in Paris, was introduced to Marie de Gournay, who had read his Essays, finding in them refreshment for her mind and soul.  She was brilliant, beautiful and twenty-two years old.  Montaigne took her under his wing as his fille d’alliance, which meant he embraced her as an adopted daughter, not in any legal sense, but in spirit.  There is little doubt that Montaigne embraced her physical body as well. 

He moved into her home, using her as his secretary, dictating pages of the ongoing volumes of Essays.  His will made her his literary executrix.

He finally succumbed to kidney failure at the age of fifty-nine.

The central theme of Montaigne’s Essays was himself.  And only someone educated in such an unorthodox manner – with freedom – would have felt free enough to disregard the prevalent ‘rhetorical’ style of his day.  Montaigne wrote about himself in a new style that was reflective of him.

Montaigne was discovering himself as he penned his words.  He even warned his readers that “These are my humors and opinions; I offer them as what I believe, not what is to be believed.”  In other words, Montaigne was not attempting to convince, convert or persuade anyone.  He was simply expressing himself as he would in honest conversation with his friend La Boetie.

This new genre was quickly embraced by other writers because it freed their thoughts from the demanding structure of the indicative sentence.  There are other moods:  subjunctive, optative, and most importantly, the interrogative.  Literary artists decided that asking themselves questions was healthy, even if they had no answers.  For that’s what being human is – doubting, asking, seeking.  And by stirring at the pot of interrogation, perhaps answers might float to the top of the stew.

Like the ugly duckling, whose education was freely informed and unstructured, and who grew into a gorgeous, noble swan, Montaigne, once he retired from the constraints of public life, spread his wings and was carried to the wonder of a new metamorphosis.  Neither the ugly duckling nor Montaigne was arrogant, vain or elitist.  Though both could easily have been – the duckling in his glory, Montaigne with his wealth. 

Like Montaigne, the ugly duckling essayed – tried – and because of his trying he discovered more happiness than he could ever have hoped for.  On his part, Montaigne kept trying to communicate the doubts, the opinions, the chattiness of his mind.  He essayed because he needed to touch the mind of another human being.  He needed a friend.

In the end, the ugly duckling tried because trying is innate to truth.  And the truth was that he was a swan.  Montaigne tried in his writing because trying is innate to human beings as they search for the truth. 

And that’s probably the most remarkable thing about essays:  they allow us to be human.