Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Philippe Desan's Anti-Liberal (Historicist) Rant


“A man must be a little mad if he does not want to be even more stupid. My style and mind alike go roaming.”- Montaigne



[This is certainly the sense I took Essays when I originally read them many years ago. I had no certain knowledge of the times  in which Montaigne wrote, their original political purpose, nor the various  revisions and additions he made in the 1582, 1588  editions or the 1592 one he was working on when he died. I suppose I did have something of a philosophical or moral purpose in mind but it was the  ruminative style of the book that captured my interest and gave me the most pleasure its 'subversive' aspect, by comparison to contemporary prose styles, as did Doughty’s “Travels in the Arabian Desert” or whatever works I have read by  Derrida. I like it when I am not sure what an author is up to, I welcome discursive mayhem, as it might be called, as long as it is NOT stupid: a litany of half-formed thoughts and impossible inferences characteristic of so much of the public discourse these days - in the era of Trump). Here’s Desan’s rant, from Chapter 11 of his biography, Montaigne’s Political Posterity]:

“ The twentieth century has been largely occupied with determining what made Montaigne a modern and fundamentally secular scholar. Why are the Essais considered the first great text of modern philosophy, a work foreshadowing the arrival of Descartes on the scene of metaphysics. This question seems more interesting than ever. In fact, the idea of Montaigne’s modernity is not a recent one; every century has commented on it and explained it in its own way. It refers to our ability ceaselessly to reinterpret works from the past and too re-appropriate these objects so that they can be adapted to our current concerns. To do that, we accommodate  the texts to our present human condition, which is perceptible in our everyday life, on a moral level and in our cultural and scientific practices. Determining Montaigne’s modernity is supposed to consist in locating in the Essais what we have become today. As if the questions that the author of Essais asked were also our questions. There is no need to say that such a procedure can be gratifying, because it offers proof of a development or an implacable evolution towards progress and wisdom. Montaigne has finally been appropriated by philosophy.

The message is simple: the individual triumphs and always liberates himself from systems of thought that prevent him from expressing his most personal convictions. Montaigne is supposed to be the best proof of this unconditional freedom of the subject and of the victory of private judgment over systems or schools of thought. The birth of philosophy is supposed to coincide with a certain conception of of individual liberty and its expression. Modern liberal thought and discerns in Montaigne the starting point in its history. This is notably in the case for readings that see in the Essais a quest for freedom, that is, and intellectual posture that gives priority to freedom of thought and freedom of expression to the detriment of political action, which is deemed to be inessential and is thus relegated to the background. But let us make no mistake: most of the strictly philosophical readings of Montaigne are the expression of a form (unconscious) ideological appropriation that aims to place the universal subject on a pedestal, to the detriment of its historical and political dimension. The risk has always been that a philosophical Montaigne would be universalized at the expense of the political Montaigne whose writing situates him in his period and demands to be read in its immediate historical context This kind of philosophical  appropriation serves principally to reassure us by giving us the illusion of irresistible progress towards a better life in which the individual blossoms and finally asserts himself in all the complexity of his subjectivity. Confronted by this utopia of a Montaigne father of universal thought, it is essential to warn readers against  the  danger of a strictly philosophical approach that reinforces the myth of a universal subject.

Before becoming a modern author, Montaigne was necessarily an author of his own time. Historicizing his thought is hardly fashionable in a time when everything is supposed to converge at the present moment – as if history, since Antiquity, had been nothing more than a long phase preparatory to our period in which everything suddenly takes place. The ahistorical view of human thought lets us glimpse an ideology that conceives history only as a state of the present and systematically de-historicizes the thought of earlier centuries. Economic liberalism has forced systems of thought to adapt in order to relate them to the only possible view of its own notion of universal progress, of which  modernity is supposed to be the outcome. The best texts of the past would be the ones that include germs that prefigure our present human condition. This idea of an evolution of thought is in itself a problem of which Montaigne seems to have been fully aware: his interpretation of today- the moment when he was writing- never surpassed the one he had offered the day before. Still in the spirit of this liberal appropriation of Montaigne, he has even been seen as the first blogger, as if it were impossible to read Montaigne without relating him to our present activities, even the most insignificant ones. Montaigne’s modernity is said to be his anticipation of Twitter or Facebook, and even the invention of the “selfie.” The question that arises is how one is supposed to read Montaigne outside his history. Is it really necessary to reify Montaigne in our social networks and universalize the Essais as a blog of modernity?


There is no doubt that what appeals to us in Montaigne is his hyper-subjectivity with regard to a world that is increasingly objectified and globalized. For this reason, in the last ten years, Montaigne has become a truly ‘global’ author, bringing him sudden, worldwide celebrity. He is no longer regarded as a specifically  French or European writer and his thought has become internationalized and universalized. His readership has expanded world-wide and the Essais are now accessible in more than thirty-five languages,. Most often, the freedom of judgment, outside schools, is emphasized in order to prove that the subject can always understand the world by himself. His self-sufficiency of the subject, removed from his historical reality, is the trap par excellence of many contemporary commentaries on the Essais. We might say that in Montaigne the reader finds too few actions, but too many reflections. We like to see in him in the moment of introspection, of withdrawal and self-sufficiency. The possibility of a theoretical truth of the world confirms the dominant ideology, because it isolates the subject from his social and political environment. Montaigne, in retirement in his tower, anticipates Descartes closed up in his stove. Each in his own way, Montaigne and Descartes are said to have left the world to give us philosophy. This idea, which seek to essentialize  human experiences, expresses  expresses an abandonment of politics, because it transforms all reflection into a mediation in which action is relegated to the crowds or the masses who agitate outside good sense, and usually without good reason. By doing away with time, philosophy has separated itself from its history in order to produce the illusion that human beings are stable [their identities ‘fixed’]. Montaigne’s universality is supposed to save us from modernity’s insecurity. That is how Montaigne has been emptied of his political dimension, in the name a modernity  without history that refers us to a view of man as powerless to effect the events that surround him and has no solution other than to take refuge in his inwardness (his interieur), or in Montaigne’s case, in his tower, his inner fortress (fort interieur).

But the events of Montaigne’s life exercise an incontestable influence on the composition of the Essais. On the basis of that obvious  fact, I have undertaken to trace the practices, rules, decorum, ritualism, etiquettes, conventions, habits and customs that governed the milieus Montaigne frequented. Where is was not possible to verify particular attitudes and actions, I have appealed to the habitus of orders, clans, families, clienteles, and the constituted bodies; social and political practices that emerged from the rivalry between the different social orders out the importance of corporatist and clientelist behaviors, notably in the parlementary, diplomatic, and administrative milieus in Bordeaux, without forgetting Montaigne’s accession to the middle-level nobility of Guyenne, the outcome of the Eyquem family’s long social ascent. As an ambassador extraordinaire, representative, mayor and governor of Bordeaux, negotiators between Henry III and Henry Navarre, and as a man the Catholic League imprisoned  ‘as a reprisal,” Montaigne constantly saw himself as a political actor and navigated between different groups, sometimes abandoning his natural allies to join his former enemies . . . no matter what the author of the Essais says about it, his public life remains inseparable from his private life, because after many trials and tribulations during the civil wars, it was his political efforts (essais en politique) that enabled him to find the right tone for a literary and philosophical genre that prefigured modernity."

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