Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of Rags, installation, 1967.


Commentary on the book “A season with Montaigne”, by Antoine Compagnon

“Words are half of those who speak and half of those who hear them”



Between 12:45 and 13:00 the radio game Le jeu des mille francs [The thousand franc game] was featured daily on the radio station France Inter by Lucien Jeunesse (1918-2008), animator, singer and actor, for thirty years, until 1995, when he retired.

Antoine Compagnon (1950), Professor of French Literature at the Collège de France and Blanche W. Knopf Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York, specialist in Marcel Proust, novelist and critic, did not miss a hearing of the The game…in adolescence.

Well then, Philippe Val invited him, at that same time and station, during a torrid summer, while the French were sunbathing or sipping an aperitif (or maybe both…), to speak every day of the week about the Essay, by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). “The idea struck me as very bizarre; and the challenge, so risky that I didn't dare to dodge” (p. 7), Compagnon said.

he makes his mea culpa, maybe a little long, but I think it's worth recording here: “First of all, reducing Montaigne to extracts was absolutely contrary to everything I had learned, to the reigning conceptions of my student days. At the time, the traditional morality extracted from the Essay in the form of sentences and a return to the text in its complexity and contradictions was preached. Anyone who had dared to carve up Montaigne and serve him to pieces would have been immediately ridiculed, treated like a minus words, destined for the dustbins of history as an avatar of Pierre Charron [1541-1603], author of a Traité de la sagesse [Treatise of Wisdom] made up of maxims taken from the Essay. To disregard such a prohibition or to find a way around it was a tempting provocation” (p. 7-8).

After mea culpa, Antoine wonders how to carry out the undertaking. He gropes for the answer himself and speculates about it: “choosing forty passages of a few lines in order to quickly comment on them and show both their historical depth and their scope: the challenge seemed untenable. Should I pick the pages at random, like St. Augustine opening the Bible? Ask an innocent hand to designate them? Or else, galloping through the main themes of the work, making an overview of its richness and diversity? Or even limit myself to choosing some of my favorite passages, without concern for unity or completeness? I did all of this at the same time, without order or premeditation” (p. 8).

Antoine Compagnon used Les Essais by Michel de Montaigne (The pocket book) under the direction of Jean Céard, according to the posthumous edition of 1595. In turn, the translation of quoted excerpts from Montaigne was based on that carried out by Rosemary Costhek Abilio, from 2000 (books I and II) and 2001 (book III), for the publisher Martins Fontes.



Since it is impossible to carry out a discussion involving the enormous critical fortune on Montaigne, I will use Conceição Moreira's brief introduction to his text dedicated to books, where he recalls that he “writes in the first person singular and, from the age of 38, goes writing the Essais (p. 8). After his father's death, “he inherits the name, the castle and the lands he will inhabit. He devotes himself to writing and adopts the motto 'What sais-je?’” (p. 9). He assumes himself as a free man – free to act, think and read, and reading constitutes the first exercise of reflection.

For Montaigne, “the only way to arrive at true knowledge is through life experience (…). You trials they embody the project of reflecting on all aspects of life, from a personal and individual perspective. Personal and everyday experiences lead him to pronounce on the religious, political and social problems of his time, not with the aim of solving them, but with the intention of describing and knowing himself better” (p. 10- 11).

However, the work is not an instrument of glorification of the author, but rather, above all, it constitutes a “space for reflection of a restless man, someone who has the courage to expose his thought to the public and subject it to the criticism” (p. 11). Montaigne doesn't seem to mind revealing his doubts and hesitations, constructing an erudite discourse that is permeated with quotations and at the same time marked by his life experience. The style that dominates the Essay it is very colloquial, “it constitutes the author's dialogue with other authors, with himself and also with the reader” (p. 11-12).

Conceição Moreira adds that the set of his reflections becomes a “work of crisis”, being “destroying and liberating”, as they “destroy the prejudices and assumptions of the European culture of the 13th century. They free reason, man, they show that there is not just one way, one criterion, one truth” (p. XNUMX).

Finally, for what matters to be highlighted in this article, Montaigne's commentator understands that he “could not foresee the course of history”, although he guessed some of his mistakes. “He Realized that there is no knowledge without attention and passion; only a personal and critical relationship with books produces truly free men; he realized that we cannot read all the books and that the relationship with knowledge is an individual exercise. Reading, reflection and recreation exercise. Aesthetic exercise too. He 'felt' his favorite authors. We can imagine him searching for the ideal quote, writing Latin as if it were French, and reading the newly written sentence aloud. We see him run his fingers over the paper, feel its texture, the smell of ink” (p. 14).



Each of Antoine Compagnon's interventions does not exceed four pages, including transcriptions of excerpts from Montaigne's writings, paraphrases and interpretations. However, like the dilemmas faced by the teacher and exposed in the initial item, I also had to make some options and discuss here only part of the various dimensions worked on in the 40 speeches pronounced over the eight weeks of the scorching summer.

In “An Engaged Man” Montaigne writes that when a public man lies once, he will never be believed again. Interpreting the thinker, Antoine Compagnon writes: “he chose an expedient against time and therefore made a bad calculation” (p. 11). He adds that, according to the philosopher, “sincerity, fidelity to one's word is a much more rewarding conduct. If moral conviction does not impel us to honesty, then practical reason should” (p. 12).

“Everything moves” refers to the chapter “On Repentance”, from Book III, where Montaigne notes that “the world is nothing more than a perennial movement. In it all things move without ceasing” (p. 17). Everything flows: “I portray the passage; not the passage from one age to another or every seven years, as the people say, but from day to day, from minute to minute”. He just notes how everything changes all the time. “He IS a relativist. One can even speak of “perspectivism”: at each moment I have a different point of view about the world. My identity is unstable. Montaigne did not find a 'fixed point', but he never stopped looking. An image expresses his relationship with the world: that of riding, of the horse on which the rider maintains his balance, his precarious seat. Seat, that's the word. The world moves, I move: it's up to me to find my seat in the world” (p. 19-20).

“A fall from the horse” is one of the most moving pages of the Essay, with him on the floor, unconscious, far from his belt and his sword. “Thanks to this fall from a horse, Montaigne, before Descartes, before phenomenology, before Freud, anticipates several centuries of restlessness about subjectivity, about intention; and conceives his own theory of identity – precarious, discontinuous. Anyone who has ever fallen off a horse will understand” (p. 28).

Death is always circling his thoughts, he always returns to this theme. “Aging has at least one advantage: you will not die all at once, but little by little, piece by piece (…) A tooth that falls out (…) becomes a sign of aging and an anticipation of death. He compares it with other failures that are affecting his body, one of which, as he hints, strikes at his manly ardor. Montaigne, before Freud, associates teeth and sex as signs of potency – or of impotence – when they are missing” (“The loss of a tooth”, p. 38).

“The New World” shows that he had just read the first accounts of the cruelty of the Spanish colonists in Mexico and “how they savagely destroyed an admirable civilization. He is an early critic of colonialism” (p. 44). He understands that contact with the Old World “will accelerate the evolution of the New towards its decrepitude, without rejuvenating Europe (…) It was not its moral superiority that conquered the New World, it was its brute force that subjugated it” (p. 43). ).

“The Nightmares” retrieves a small chapter from Book I, “On Idleness”, in which Montaigne describes the misadventures that followed his withdrawal from public life in 1571, at the age of 38, as previously mentioned. He resigned as a councilor in the Parliament of Bordeaux and placed the contemplative life above the active life. In solitude, “instead of finding his fixed point”, he found anguish and restlessness. “That spiritual illness is melancholia, or acedia – the depression that struck monks at siesta time, the hour of temptation” (p. 47). Seeking wisdom in solitude, he was two steps away from madness. “He saved himself, cured himself of his fantasies and hallucinations by writing them down. The writing of Essay gave him control of himself” (p. 48).

“If I were to seek the favor of the world, I would have arrayed myself with beauties on loan. I want you to see me here in my simple, natural and usual way, without care or artifice: because I am the one I portray” (“A boa-fé”, p. 51). You Essay thus, they present themselves as a self-portrait, even if this was not the author's initial project, when he retired to his lands.

His library, in Saint-Michel de Montaigne, in the Dordogne, near Bergerac, a large round tower from the 57th century, is all that remains of the castle built by his father (p. 57). There he spent as much time as he could – “his library was his refuge from domestic and civil life, from the agitation of the world and the violence of the times” (p. 59). He loved leafing through a book, not reading, dictating his daydreams, not writing, “all this without planning, without sequence of ideas”. Montaigne “advocated a versatile, fluttering, distracted reading, a reading of caprice and of poaching, jumping without method from one book to another, picking up what he wanted here and there, without worrying too much about the works he borrowed to decorate. your own book. This, Montaigne insists, is the product of reverie, not of calculation” (p. XNUMX).

Antoine Compagnon does not fail to mention in “The friend” Montaigne's meeting with Étienne de La Boétie, in 1558, and the friendship that followed until La Boétie's death in 1563 (p. 69). The writer, in “The other”, coined two phrases that I consider to be lapidary. If he looks at books, if he comments on them, it is not to value himself, but because he recognizes himself in them: “I tell others only to tell me more” – chapter “On the education of children” (book I), p. 81. The other sentence is found in the last chapter of the Essay: “Words are half of those who speak and half of those who hear them” (p. 82).

“A well-made head”, for Montaigne, is the opposite of a “well-made” head. He already protested against the “crowding of heads” by the school in the chapters “On pedantry” and “On the education of children”, in book I of Essay, recriminating the teaching of his time” (p. 93-94). Antoine Compagnon sums up the author's thought in a few words: “education (…) aims at the appropriation of knowledge: the child must make it his own, transform it into his judgment” (p. 95). In the radio broadcast “A fortuitous philosopher”, transcribed here, in the first line it can be read that “Montaigne did not trust excessively scholastic education” (p. 97).

In the chapter “About three relationships” he compares the three types of relationships that occupied the most beautiful part of his life: “beautiful and honest women”, “rare and refined friendships” and, finally, books, “which he considers most useful, more salutary than the first two” (p. 105).

Montaigne disliked doctors, saying that those who follow doctors' prescriptions are sicker than others, for “doctors impose remedies or regimens that do more harm than good; to the inconveniences of the disease he adds those of the treatment; doctors make people sick to assert their power over them; doctors are sophists who disguise health as a harbinger of an illness. In short, it is better to stay away from them if we hope to remain healthy” (p. 122).

Medicine at the time was crude and uncertain – so Montaigne had reason enough to distrust and avoid it. However, “one single medical technique deserved his benevolence: surgery, because it cut the evil at the root when it was undeniable (…) As for the rest, he did not make much distinction between medicine and magic…” (p. 122). In the name of nature, Montaigne “eliminates the boundary between illness and health”. Diseases are part of nature; it has its duration, its cycle of life, to which it is more prudent to submit than try to contradict it. The refusal of medicine is part of submission to nature, therefore, Montaigne modifies his habits as little as possible when he is sick” (p. 123).

In “The finality and the final” we recover what the thinker wrote in Book I about death, understood as “the purpose of our journey”, “and the necessary object of our aim; if it frightens us, how is it possible to take a step forward without fear?” (p. 125). For him, the sage must control his passions and thus the fear of death. Antoine Compagnon completes: “Since it is inevitable, it is necessary to 'tame' it, get used to it, think about it always, in order to master the fear that this implacable adversary inspires” (p. 126). Montaigne ironizes this lost fight in advance: “if it were an enemy that we could avoid, I would advise adopting the weapons of cowardice”, that is, fleeing (p. 127). But, “torn between melancholy and the joy of living”, he quibbled and returned to express what he had already said in Book I: “I want (…) that death finds me planting my cabbages” (p. 128).

“The hunt and the capture” (p. 133-136) is dedicated to working on an aspect that is very dear to him: “without expectation and without desire we do not advance with profit” (p. 135). So, the pleasure of hunting is not in the capture, but in the hunt itself and in everything that surrounds it: “the walk, the landscape, the company, the exercise. A hunter who thinks only of prey is what they call a predator. And Montaigne would say the same of many other activities (…) such as reading or studying, those spiritual hunts from which we sometimes think we come back with nothing, when in fact the good fruits have accumulated along the way. Our school, as Montaigne says, is that of leisure, of otium of the free and literate man, of the book hunter who can dedicate his time to another occupation without an immediate objective” (p. 135-136).

“The lost time” is the last radio program by Antoine Compagnon that I comment on here. He recovers a passage from Book II in which Montaigne writes the following gem: “While modeling this figure on me, I had to comb my hair and get myself ready so many times to transcribe myself that the mold consolidated and, in a certain way, formed itself. In painting myself for others, I painted in myself more vivid colors than my first ones. I didn't make my book any more than my book made me” (p. 161).

For Antoine Compagnon, Montaigne feels a certain pride in “having succeeded in an unprecedented undertaking, since no other author had ever aspired to realize this total identity between man and book” (p. 162-163). He knows that the fact of writing, “of writing himself, changed him, interiorly and in relation to others” (p. 163). For him, writing, above all, “was a distraction, a remedy against boredom, a help against melancholy” (p. 164).

A season with Montaigne is wonderful and, perhaps, like Rayuela [O hopscotch game] (1963), by Julio Cortázar, the book by Antoine Compagnon can be read in a “disordered” way, without an ideal path or sequence. Antoine Compagnon shows us the pleasure that Montaigne experiences while writing the Essay, as highlighted on several occasions in my commentary. The act of moving, researching, wandering between books and ideas is as important or more important than writing. It is not an exaggeration to recover, about Montaigne's work, a statement by the Uruguayan writer Juan José Morosoli (1899-1957), for whom “travels only begin after we return” (p. 73).

*Afranio Catani he is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution. Visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus.



Antoine Compagnon. A season with Montaigne. Translation: Rosemary Costhek Abilio. São Paulo, Publisher WMF Martins Fontes, 2015, 168 pages.


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