Monday, May 14, 2012


Michel de Montaigne, the 16th Century French author who invented the essay literary form, probed the human experience so deeply that most of his readers believe, when they read his essays, they are reading about themselves.  Examples:
Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book in some former life.”
Andre Gide:  “So much have I made him my own that it seems he is my very self.”
Bernard Levin:  “How did he know all that about me?” 
A favorite essay of most readers is “Friendship.”    As a young man Montaigne formed an intense relationship with Etienne de la Boetie, which, forever after he considered the most important relationship of his life.  La Boetie died suddenly of the plague when Montaigne was 30 years old. 
Writing years later, Montaigne compares his friendship with La Boetie to biological relationships.  “Truly the name of brother is a beautiful name…but why should the harmony and kinship found in these true and perfect friendships be found between brothers?”  He pointed out that biological brothers necessarily compete (we call it sibling rivalry) and “often clash with each other.”  “Likewise,” he wrote, “Father and son may be of entirely different dispositions, and brothers also.   He is my son, he is my kinsman, but he is an unsociable man, a knave, or a fool.”   Montaigne believed that the freedom essential to true friendship is unlikely to exist among biological relatives because “ they are friendships which law and natural obligation impose on us…and our free will has no product more properly its own than affection and friendship.”
La Boetie’s death began a tragic period in Montaigne’s life.  Three years later the father to whom he was devoted died.  Then his brother died improbably in a tennis accident and Montaigne himself nearly died while riding his horse.   His wife would eventually give birth to five daughters but only one survived infancy and lived to adulthood.
Sarah Bakewell, in her excellent recently biography of Montaigne, How to Live or a Biography of Montaigne, describes how in the last decade of his life a young woman, Marie le Jars de Gournay, came into his life.  She had read an early edition of his essays and felt, “she had found her other self in Montaigne, the one person with whom she had a true affinity, and the only one to understand her.”   They eventually met and though they were often linked only by correspondence, he eventually invited her to become his adopted daughter, an offer she quickly accepted, as well as his first great editor and publicist.  Bakewell thinks their relationship was not sexual, partly because Gournay remained on good relations with his mother, his wife and his biological daughter. One reason Gournay wanted Montaigne to adopt her was to replace her deceased father. 

Bakewell observes:  “What Montaigne’s real daughter Leonor thought of this claim to surpass biological family bonds is anyone’s guess.  One could not blame her if she felt put out, but it seems she did not.  She and Marie de Gournay became good friends in later years, with Gournay calling her “sister,” as was logical if they had the same father.”   

This is how Gournay and Montaigne described their relationship:
Gournay: In truth, if someone is surprised that, although we are not father and daughter except in title, the good will that allies us nevertheless surpassed that of real fathers and children, the first and closest of all the natural ties.  Let that person try one day to lodge virtue within himself and to meet with it in another; then he will scarcely marvel that it has more strength and power to harmonize souls than nature has.” 

Montaigne: “She is the only person I still think about in the world.  If youthful promise means anything, her soul will some day be capable of the finest things, among others of perfection in that most sacred kind of friendship which, so we read, her sex has not yet been able to obtain. (Note: That women were not capable of “sacred friendship” was a common view in the 16th Century!)  The sincerity and firmness of her character are already sufficient, her affection for me more than superabundant, and such, in short, that it leaves nothing to be desired, unless that her apprehension about my end, in view of my 55 years when I met her, would not torment her so cruelly.” 

Montaigne died at age 60, five years after he met Gournay.  This was, ironically, the same length of time he had enjoyed in his earlier intense friendship with La Boetie, which ended only when La Boetie died.   

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