Those who like anniversaries—and I am one of them—have recently celebrated Michel de Montaigne’s birthday (on 28 February), a reason to revel in the quality of his writing and thought. The buzz started in the summer of 2015 when Philosophie Magazine Hors-Série featured several contemporary French thinkers discussing Montaigne’s discourse and its connection with everything that serves as its influence, origin or referent. Or maybe five years ago when Sarah Backewell published her biography How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.
In fact, a vast, atemporal and impressive literature has been dedicated to his Essays, which have elicited a wide array of interpretations, from synoptic content analysis to concordances and formalist determination of harmony, gravity or decorum. The juxtaposition and interaction of diverse tendencies of the text illustrate a productive irresoluteness that virtually stimulates all possible approaches. A very active critical imagination has lead to the popularization series Montaigne Que Sais-je? that takes advantage of his motto in order to encompass aspects such as “Montaigne and Skepticism” or “Montaigne and His Horse.”
While his contemporaries suffused their texts with citations and took the liberty to use them according to their free sampling will, Montaigne admitted he shared his cultural authority with others and often used the trope of modesty in contenting his essays are but a collection of emprunts (« Les histoires que j'emprunte, j'en laisse la responsabilité à ceux chez qui je les ai trouvées » (i. Ch. 20, De la force de l’imagination). During his lifetime, collections of citations were like precious stones gathered in books and florilegia or scattered in letters to friends—mutatis mutandis, they were present everywhere the same way they are on Facebook today. Montaigne knew the ancient theories of citation mainly from the works of Cicero, Seneca and Quintilian whose books he had in his library: « Je suis si imbu de la grandeur de ces hommes-là » (ii, Ch. 32, Defence de Seneque et de Plutarque). Many of his quotations do not originate in those popular second-hand books of compilations but are to be found in the volumes that Montaigne owned and the proverbs he collected and had engraved on the wooden panes of his librairie.
According to Antoine Compagnon, a citation, as intentional transmission of a passage conserved intact in its original shape, is a foreign body in a text, whose existence, just like organ grafting, runs the risk of being rejected (31). For analytical purposes, the notion of citation has to stay flexible in order to incorporate several modes of historical deployment. The main characteristic of this form of appropriation is its referential character back to the original. Michael Metschier tells us that in the ancient Greek and Latin discourse, citations were only seldom points of departure for comments. Most of the times, their authority served to illustrate and to “ornate” an opinion, and, thus, their effect was most of the times that of delectatio (30). On the other hand, paraphrasing meant learning a text by heart and then reproducing it in a different manner, such as turning poetry into prose. It functioned also as an exercise preparing imitatio, that is, the internalization of the model naturally followed by emulatio, the audaciousness to compete with that source (35).
The use of citation is a common phenomenon in humanist Renaissance where authors lived in their ambiance as the most direct means to communicate with the ancients. As Anthony Grafton notes, well-educated authors quoted from books and not from memory (29). One of the most famous such intermingling with self-commentary that serves as a mode of self-authorization is Petrarch’s letter called “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” in which he describes his climbing like a spiritual initiation in the company of Ovid, St. Augustine, the Gospels, Virgil, Livy or Juvenal.
In The Praise of Folly, Erasmus denounced the tendency of his contemporaries, “scribbling fops, who think to eternize their memory by setting up for authors,” to be prodigal with ancient quotations just for the vain desire to legitimize their own work: “By doing so they make a cheap and easy seizure to themselves of that reputation which cost the first author so much time and trouble to procure.” In Adages, where he incorporates proverbs freely, he offers a series of precepts meant to indicate the righteous usage of these bits of traditional wisdom—they have to be inserted only where they are useful and their efficiency should not be diminished by an inconsiderate accumulation. In turn, Montaigne critiques authors who rely too much on quotations, asking for a law against « les écrivains ineptes et inutiles » (iii. Ch. 9, De la vanité), who attempt to present themselves via a foreign value. In the four editions that appeared during his lifetime, we could see a growing number of citations as an impure add-on to his écriture de soi; nevertheless, they are indispensable to his Essays. Latin, a stable presence in synergy with French, engenders a continuous dialogue with Virgil, Catullus, Horace or Ovid.
Montaigne’s writings are available off- and online in several original and modernized editions both in French and English; Stanford Library’s Department of Special Collections has two of the 17th century versions of Les Essais (1602 and 1659), which I could consult and compare with the books of Adrien Turnèbe, Ravisius Textor or Jean de Coras. Systematically, but in an unpremeditated manner, in the discourse of Montaigne’s contemporaries, the French Turnèbe, Textor, Coras as well as the Flemish Justus Lipsius, the citations change their nature and become borrowings. The quoted authors loose their initial legitimizing function; the cuts, notes, annexes and juxtapositions proliferate and can also be found parenthetically, as notes, personal digressions or asides.
Montaigne sometimes hesitates between French or Latin and usually adds the translation or paraphrases the Latin text. In the editions I mentioned above, Latin citations are graphically separated in the text, italicized and always placed between two periods and never after a comma or a colon. Thus inserted (rather incrusted) and separated at once, Latin words seem to follow a loud reading pattern and be ready more for recitation than for citation. Punctuation usually indicates intonations or pauses that mark a paragraph in relationship with other instances of enunciation, such as quotations. The writer annotates freely and in all directions on the margins of his text without taking into account any layout, logical or grammatical constraints. Nevertheless, the quotations are visibly internalized as another form of authorial voice with multiple acts of presence.
It is precisely in their annotations that Turnèbe, Textor, Coras and Lipsius extend the range of their citational writing towards a condition of self-aware authorship. If their ebullitive erudition makes their texts less accessible and tedious, it is what I would call their unintentional fictionality and expressiveness that could rescue them from remaining fossilized in drudging historical commentary. Far from interrogating themselves on the formal tensions in their work, as Montaigne would do, they dilute everything in endless ethical or religious preaching. The transgressions are visible in their unforeseeable hybridity, liberty of interpretation, and fragmentation.
For instance, in the brouillons by Adrien Turnèbe (1512-1565) called Adversariorvm, the chapters are disjointed and sometimes instead of titles we only encounter quoted and explained phrases. In his dedication to Michel de l’Hospital, he presents his work as the “pages of Sibyl,” the woman oracle. His proto-Surrealist recipe of écriture automatique has the following ingredients: forgetting (notes); repeating (things one wrote before); transcribing (according to the laws of hazard); leaving (the dust settle): « Parfois, ayant oublié ce que j’avais noté auparavant, je le répétais sans changement sur d’autres papiers ; ceux-ci, comme les feuilles de la Sibylle, n’étaient pas numérotés ni rangés; je transcrivais sans choix et sans ordre – mon livre, sans que je le dise, le montrera bien par lui-même – j’écrivais au hasard, pêle-mêle, et je laissais tout cela moisir dans la poussière. » (modern transl. in Tournon, 148)
In his immense juridical opus called Officina, Ravisius Textor (Jean Tixier, c. 1480-1524) changes the initial purpose of the text, offering it the allure of a confession. At the beginning of a list reminiscent of People magazine’s classifications of the 100 most beautiful people in the world (Formosi et formosas, ex historicis, oratoribus et poetis), he places a long gallant poem dedicated to his very dear damisella Textoris (126-127). Such a passage in his laborious compilation has the unintentional but enjoyable effect of disrupting the didactic monotony of the discourse.
Jean Jehasse makes the generic argument that erudite books of comments have their own particular way of presenting the institutional practices that enforced the application of law to the social, economical and political realities of the Renaissance. Jean de Coras (1515-1572) is one of the judges in the now famous case of the two men who claim they are Martin Guerre. His Arrest Memorable, du Parlement de Tolose, Contenat une histoire prodigieuse, de nostre temps, avec cent belles, & doctes Annotations was published in 1561. Coras’ notes either serve the text and add additional meaning or become autonomous and depart from the very message that engenders them. He offers several moral lessons that do not explicate the main text and its factual information but develop a life of their own. Such details are chatty digressions: when Martin Guerre’s uncle cries after having seen him in chains is a pretext for Coras to make a taxonomy of possible causes of crying (no. 30, 51). An inquiry into Martin’s private life becomes a three-page lesson on friendship and intimate confidences (no. 4, 9-11). When taking act of Martin Guerre’s return from Picardy, Coras composes a short tourist guide about the geography and history of the region (no. 102, 144). On the one hand, we have in front of us a multifarious juridical document; on the other, a tome succumbed to the desire of its author to say everything and prove his moral, historical, and scientific erudition. This is a heterogeneous collection of several unfinished projects in terms of intentionality and style. The main text is pulled apart in all directions by the glosses and annotations implanted on virtually each paragraph.
Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) in his Politica offers the remarkable example of hundreds of heterogeneous citations assembled to illustrate a discourse. In Book IV, while discussing what he considers legal and illegal, he uses about one hundred borrowed phrases from thirty seven different authors but he places them methodically within the frame of his argument, which retains its coherence until the end (IV, 13-14, 71-76). Cicero’s sententiae appear everywhere—they are used to claim a rigid sense of morals and to counterpart various political assertions. Ancient texts are an immense repertoire of words available for new usage. Having read Justus Lipsius, Montaigne approvingly calls his writing a « docte et laborieux tissu » and considers him the most scholarly man that exists (i. Ch. 26, De l’Institution des enfants; ii. Ch. 12, Apologie de Raimond Sebond, respectively).
Any analysis of a type of production in which the accident and the tampering with the normative function of the discourse will produce fiction-like effects leads to several interrogation: where are we supposed to look for meaning in such texts? what are those "expressive" effects for a contemporary reader? The diversity of annotations and didactic lessons does not seem to accept a definite answer. If the purpose of these commentators is to offer a systematic explanation of their object of study, we have to focus on the notes, glosses and comments only as a pretext for a more ambitious scientific discourse. But expressiveness seems to appear and develop in the interstices where a more inspired authorial voice claims its right upon the neutral informative writing.
Les essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne. Edition nouvelle, prise sur l'exemplaire trouvé apres le deces de l'autheur, reveu & augmenté d'un tiers outre les precedentes impressions. Leyden: J. Doreau, 1602.
Les essais de Michel de Montaigne. Nouvelle édition. Enrichie et augmenté aux marges du nom des autheurs qui y sont citez. Avec les versions des passages grecs, latins, & italiens. Paris: C. Journel, 1659 [-1669].
Coras, Jean de. Arrest memorable du Parlement de Tolose, contenant une histoire prodigieuse, de nostre temps, avec cent belles et doctes annotations, de Mõsieur maistre J. de Coras... Prononcé es Arrestz Generaux le xij. Septembre, M.D.LX. Paris: 1565.
Lipsius, Justus. Les politiques. Livre IV : édition de Paris, 1597 / Juste Lipse ; avant-propos de Jacqueline Lagrée. Caen: Presses universitaires de Caen, 1994.
Textor, Ravisius /Tissier, Jean. Officina , nvnc ... emendata ... per Conradum Lycosthenem ... Cvi ... accesservnt: eiusd*e[m] Rauisij Cornucopiae libellus ... Item eiusdem ... epistolae .... Basileae: Apud Nicolaum Bryling, 1562.
Turnèbe, Adrien, 1512-1565. Adversariorvm. tomus primus. Parisiis: Ex officina Gabriëlis Buonij, 1564-65.
Compagnon, Antoine. La seconde main : ou, Le travail de la citation. Paris : Seuil, 1979.
Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote. A Curious History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Jehasse, Jean. La Renaissance de la Critique. L'essor de l'humanisme érudit de 1560 à 1614. Publications de l’Université de Saint Étienne, 1976.
Metschier. Michael. La citation et l'art de citer dans les Essais de Montaigne. transl. by Jules Brody. Paris: H. Champion ; Genève: Diffusion, Editions Slatkine, 1997.
Tournon, André. Montaigne: La glosse et l’essai. Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1983.