March 2011

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life by Saul Frampton

We are in the midst of a Montaigne renaissance. Last year saw Sarah Blackwell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, a book that beats Montaigne’s own in an Amazon search; last month, James Miller’s Examined Lives revisited Montaigne’s biography; and now, Saul Frampton, an editor for the London Review of Books, brings us When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?, an introduction to the writer’s life and work.

Michel de Montaigne, a French nobleman four centuries dead, would have appreciated the interest: he famously made himself the study of his work, so that the world, “having lost me (as they must do soon)… can find here again some traits of my character.” In over 100 essays (in French, the word essais means to test, or possibly, in Frampton’s reading, to taste), he treats subjects as diverse as war, experience, thumbs, and cannibals, but established his own being as the focal point of the inquiry. By turning self-investigation into philosophical method, Montaigne redirected the quest for knowledge away from the church and the state. We’ve been prying wisdom from authority ever since.

For all that, his life was humdrum. He was educated in Latin, fought mildly in battle, inherited his father’s estate, wrote, traveled, made wine, and died. Frampton wisely circumscribes the biographical portions of his book to the telling or absurd details, such as the phenomenal fact that Montaigne’s father, so enraptured with the classics, died cursing in Latin. Death, in fact, torments Montaigne: his brother was killed by a blow to the head from a tennis ball (they were heavier then); most of his children passed in infancy; and his best friend La Boetie died young from stomach pains, so depressing Montaigne that he took to his tower and began to write.

And Lord, what a writer. On pleasure: “How I enjoy bashing people’s ears with that word.” On Seneca and Plutarch: “I can clearly see the spiral by which those great souls wind themselves higher.” On the grumpiness of old men: “Chagrin and feebleness imprint on us a lax and snotty virtue.” Young, passionate marriage is a “boiling rapture,” while an affair is “a pleasure set ablaze by difficulties.” And on experience: “To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing: we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads.” Nor was his talent confined to the sentence. Among the invigorating joys of reading Montaigne is the surprise of his arguments. “On Repentance” shifts into a defense of risk, repentance be damned; “On a Some Lines From Virgil” becomes a tract for female equality; “On Drunkenness” condemns excessive drinking, then lists enough exceptions to suggest Montaigne might have written it drunk; and an essay on fatherhood becomes a stunning treatise on the corporality of writing, such that Montaigne would sooner sire a good book than a good son.

Frampton is no tourist: he maneuvers ably across this intellectual terrain, and sharply contextualizes the religious strife wracking France. But not until late in his guide does he show the same nimbleness as his subject. A chapter on Montaigne’s diplomacy takes up the modern idea of promexics, “the anthropology of people’s relationship to each other in space,” the school of thought that introduced the concept of personal space. Arguing that Montaigne had an early sense of promexics, Frampton reads in Les Essays the necessity of personal presence to the meaning of life. Montaigne’s early essays, written before he shed his Stoic shell, glorify war and death; but the longer he writes, the more he renounces Stoical isolation, instead feeling an elemental magnetism in the proximity of bodies. Whereas Stoics advised detaching oneself from the physical world, Montaigne comes to see this exact relationship -- our presence in others’ lives and their presence in ours -- as the animating agent of humanity.

Frampton follows Montaigne as he projects this idea onto to the endless sectarian battles outside his door and finds a corruption of presence: in civil war, one’s neighbors are one’s enemies. Montaigne cites a moment when his subjects refuse to help an injured man in the local woods for fear of aiding a Protestant. We have reached the inevitable end of Stoic withdrawal: people with each other without being present, near each other without being neighbors -- a form, to Montaigne, of living death.

This is good stuff, and it’s too bad Frampton’s other arguments don’t quite match it. Frampton picks a fight with Descartes, who separated the body from the soul thirty years after Montaigne, but his allusions to the thinker keep suggesting a Plutarchian dual biography that never materializes. And the insightful chapter on Montaigne and animals that gives the book its title does more to recommend Montaigne’s writing on the subject than Frampton’s own. Instead, it is up to Frampton’s asides -- for instance, that Wittgenstein died while reading Black Beauty -- to rouse the rest of the text.

“May death find me planting cabbages,” Montaigne proclaims in my favorite of his lines. Swatting away contemporaries who fret they will die before finishing their work, Montaigne says we should be so lucky to be brought down in the midst of our passion, even if it is for gardening. In his fleshy philosophy, all the deaths -- his father’s mid-curse, his brother’s mid-game, Wittgenstein’s mid-chapter -- become a dance of activity against cessation, of presence over absence. Three days before his own death, Montaigne lost ability to speak, and summoned a pen and paper. After over half a million words, such an embodiment of himself that he remains with us 400 years later, Michel de Montaigne died writing.

When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life by Saul Frampton
Pantheon
ISBN: 0375424717
277 Pages