Here is one of my favorite Andrew Sullivan blog posts in which he discusses Sarah Bakewell’s brilliant book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, about Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, author of Essais (“Attempts”), published in 1580.
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Reflections In A Mirror
[Sullivan then quotes from Bakewell’s article that appeared in The Paris Review.]
Montaigne raised questions rather than giving answers. He wrote about whatever caught his eye: war, psychology, animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, vanity, glory, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt.
Most of all, he wrote about himself, and was amazed at the variety he found within…
“In taking up his pen,” wrote the great essayist William Hazlitt of Montaigne, “he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind.” He wrote about things as they are, not things as they should be—and this included himself. He communicated his being on the page, as it changed from moment to moment; we can all recognize parts of ourselves in the portrait.
In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson felt this shock of familiarity the first time he picked up Montaigne in his father’s library. “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke my thought and experience,” he wrote. “No book before or since was ever so much to me as that.” From Renaissance winegrower to nineteenth-century transcendentalist seems a big leap, yet Emerson could hardly tell where he ended and Montaigne began.
These days, the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris. And it flourishes most of all online, where writers reflect on their experience with more brio and experimentalism than ever before.
Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago.
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Andrew Sullivan is a British-born journalist, blogger and political commentator who now lives in the United States. A self-described libertarian and “true conservative,” he is also gay, HIV-positive and a prominent same-sex marriage activist. He has written for or edited The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine and TIME. Sullivan currently writes for The Atlantic Monthly. His personal blog The Daily Dish, published via The Atlantic Monthly‘s website, is one of the most trafficked and linked political blogs on the web.
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