Montaigne’s Essays – Part Two

Oh, Montaigne!  The more of his essays that I read, the more I like him.  He’s inquisitive, does not let anything get in the way of giving his opinion on absolutely any subject, has a clever but disordered mind, and because of the last point, really makes you engage your brain as you read.  I would have loved to meet him in real life, but, I get the impression that we’d probably have occasionally annoyed each other.  

Some of the readings for this section were:

On The Vanity of Words:  After reading Montaigne’s essay On Education, I suppose this attack on rhetoricians can’t come as much of a surprise.  To be eloquent is to foster a type of deception, and Montaigne is scathing in his condemnation of it.

Cicero & the magistrates disovering the
tomb of Archimedes
Benjamin West
source Wikiart

On the Inconsistancy of Our Actions:  This one is very interesting. Montaigne laments the inconsistency of men, stating that instead of following a path to wisdom throughout their lives, they are ruled solely by their appetites, living for the here-and-now and are merely motivated by opportunity, very much like animals. They blow with the winds.  He gives various examples on inconstancy, leading us to believe that consistency as Montaigne defines it, is virtually impossible.  One must plan one’s life to the utmost and follow the course, not being swayed by emotions or outside forces to be consistent and, as Cicero says, “For nothing can be consistent that has not reason for its foundation.”  Therefore, in Montaigne’s eyes, everyone is lacking true reason.  This is one of the few essays that I’ve read so far where Montaigne actually managed to keep on track with his subject.  Bravo!  This is certainly one of my favourites.

On Conscience:  Even if one finds pleasure in their vices, their conscience will always convict them, says Montaigne.  With one of his usual unexpected leaps of thought, he discusses the futility of torture, labelling it a means of testing endurance rather than a means to ferret out truth.  He uses some fun examples in this one, my favourite being Scipio tearing up his account books before the court when accused of dishonesty with regard to the money entrusted to him.  According to Montaigne, his actions declared him an honest man because his big heart could not bear to be accused of such a vulgar crime. Perhaps one should be grateful that Montaigne did not choose to be a judge as his profession.

Portrait d’un homme portant un exemplaire des
Essais de Montaigne
Johann Anton de Peters
source Wikiart

On Rewards for Honour:  Basically I understood that Montaigne feels that rewards should not be given out too liberally or their value is decreased. He’d rather not give out rewards at all, than have too many people get them.  Not a very modern viewpoint, Montaigne, when we presently strive to give everyone a reward for anything.  I tend to side here with Montaigne.

On Books:  Montaigne employs a coyness in this essay, stating that he reads books for pleasure only and has little desire to truly exercise his brain.  His goals in reading are to learn to know himself, and to learn to live and die well. His self-deprecation is quite startling as he confesses to having little knowledge and once again admits to having a poor memory.  Elaborating on his poor memory, he ends by giving a number of examples of literary criticism (not his title for it) that he has written at the ends of books, so if he picks them up again, he is able to ascertain why he liked them or not, and if he would read them again.

On Presumption:  It is not good to think too highly of ourselves, nor is it beneficial to think of ourselves worse than we are.  Montaigne advocates for balance and a practical self-knowledge.  Yet Man has such a variety of differing opinions, there is a “maze of obscurity” which makes the school of Wisdom uncertain, and this gets on Montaigne’s nerves.  He then meanders through a lovely forest of subjects, from self-deprecating statements to mediocre poetry to appearances of famous men, etc., finally ending with his disdain for modern education, in that it teaches learning instead of wisdom and goodness.

” It seems to me that the nursing mother of the most erroneous ideas, both of men in general and of the individual, is the exaggerated opinion man has of himself.”


On Giving the Lie:  Montaigne indulges in more modesty (false-modesty?) and finally gets to the title of the essay, lamenting that lying has been turned into a virtue by modern society.  He strongly condemns it:

“Lying is an ugly vice, which is painted in its most shameful colours by an ancient writer (Lysander) when he says that ‘to lie is evidence that we despise God and at the same time fear men.'”

To be honest, I feel that Montaigne could have benefited highly from the type of education that he despised, however, then he wouldn’t have been Montaigne and only another highly intellectual rhetorician with the same habits as all other rhetoricians.  And our Montaigne is unique, that is certain!  Not always simple to follow, but unique!


La Parure (The Necklace) par Guy de Maupassant

“C’etait une de ces jolies et charmantes filles, nées, comme par une erreur du destin, dans une famille d’employés.”

Yes, she certainly was a pretty and charming girl who was born by a mistake of destiny into a family of office workers.  Mathilde would dream of riches and fame and jewels, covering her life of drudgery in a tapestry of fantasies and longings.  Finally, one day, her husband arrives with an invitation to a party.  Mathilde manipulates this honest, hard-working man into purchasing a new elegant dress for her, but when she complains of a lack of jewels, he has the answer: borrow some from her wealthy friend Madame Forestier!  A lovely diamond necklace of Madame’s catches Mathilde’s eye and she must have it.  Her friend, generous to the end, gladly loans it and the evening of her dreams begins.  She is admired, she is catered to, she is wrapped in a heavenly realm of blissful wealth and prestige.  Late do she and her husband return home, reluctant to leave the party until the end but, oh no!  The necklace has disappeared and she is sure that she left it in the taxi.  Days of searching yield nothing and finally there is only one thing to do.  Withdrawing their life savings and taking out a loan, they replace the necklace, hoping that Madame will not notice.  But this painful action causes them ten years of needless toil and suffering.  Why is it needless?  Well, you will have to read the tale to find out!

This short story was really a gem and, in spite of having an inkling of the final twist, it still held my attention to end.  In fact, I had expected to get fatigued by reading such a long (for me) story in French and I had planned to take a break, but instead, I was held rapt until the end.

I did wonder at the title of this story.  In the tale, the necklace is mostly referred to as “la rivière“, yet the title is “la parure“.  When I looked up “la rivière” in my French dictionary it says “river“, and “la parure“means “finery” or “jewelry“.  So then I looked up necklace and it had “le collier“.  What?  Do any of you Francophiles understand the distinction between these terms? Help!

In any case, this story has definitely been a huge incentive to read more of Maupassant.  His short stories are very readable and a good way to keep improving my French.  I certainly struggled here and there in parts of it and learned a number of new words, yet I was also pleased with my progress.

This will probably be the last book for my Summer Freak Language Challenge, unless I can squeak in a short children’s book before the end. Thanks Ekaterina, for holding this wonderful challenge.  It’s given me a chance to practice languages that I wouldn’t normally read in.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge!

La Curée by Émile Zola

“On the drive home, the barouche was reduced to a crawl by the long line of carriages returning by the side of the lake.”

The title of Émile Zola’s third novel (in Zola’s recommended reading order) of the Rougon-Marquart series, La Curée, or The Kill, refers to the spoils of meat thrown to the dogs at the completion of a hunt, and so is a reflection of the wild and uncontrolled speculation in Paris of the 1850s and 1860s, where monetary greed runs rampant, spewing the biproducts of immorality, licentiousness, fraud and hypocrisy.

Aristide Rougon, has arrived in Paris from Plassans with his first wife, Angèle. Poor and provincial, Aristide dreams of wealth and a life of luxury and notoriety.  Ignited by his near fanatical desire for money, he manages through dishonest dealings to cheat and finagle his way into property speculation in this city, that is expanding at a near-combustible rate.

As usual, Zola grabs you and pulls you into the story with his lush and vibrant prose, and vivid descriptions:

“This was the time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches.  The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.  The city had become an orgy of gold and women.  Vice, coming from on high, flowed through the gutters, spread out over the ornamental waters, shot up in the fountains of the public gardens, and fell on the roofs as fine rain.  At night, when people crossed the bridges, it seemed as if the Seine drew along with it, through the sleeping city, all the refuse of the streets, crumbs fallen from tables, bows of lace left on couches, false hair forgotten in cabs, banknotes that had slipped out of bodices, everything thrown out of the window by the brutality of desire and the immediate satisfaction of appetites.  Then, amid the troubled sleep of Paris, and even more clearly than during its feverish quest in broad daylight, one felt a growing sense of madness, the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh.  The violins played until midnight; then the windows became dark and shadows descended over the city.  It was like a giant alcove in which the last candle had been blown out, the last remnant of shame extinguished.  There was nothing left in the darkness except a great rattle of furious and wearied lovemaking; while the Tuileries, by the riverside, stretched out its arms, as if for a huge embrace.”

Aristide changes his name to Saccard and, as his wealth grows, after the death of his wife he marries the young Renée Béraud du Châtel and later brings his son, Maxime, to live with them in Paris.  Renée, perpetually bored, is delighted at the thought of someone to pet and coddle and use as a tool to gain attention, and so becomes highly involved in Maxime’s moral development (or perhaps I should say, amoral development).  When we meet him in the novel as a twenty-year-old young man, he is happily aping his parents’ generation, as money flows through his fingers like water and unlimited pleasure is sought as nourishment, with little regard for the consequences.

As Saccard’s insatiable lust for money drives his every action, and he balances on the wire between wealth and ruin, Renée and Maxime fall into a comfortable and close relationship, which becomes the catalyst for a semi-incestuous affair driven by Renée’s boredom and lust for a new inventive perversion.  Yet instead of being entertained and satisfied by their liaison, through different circumstances, Renée finds herself debased and abandoned.  There are no loyalties in the new Paris, except with the reward of monetary gain, and true human feeling has all but been extinguished by obsessive desires for money and decadence.  Renée is a casualty of little importance.

Le Forhu à la fin de la curée
1746

Zola’s novels have an air of tragedy about them that is not necessarily brought on only by the actions of the characters or the plot of the story.  In Zola’s eyes, each character is trapped by their inherent nature in a cycle from which they cannot escape.  They are helpless and we get the sense of a drowning man who cannot be rescued, or a figure who cannot be pulled from in front of a speeding train.  This echoes the ideas of fate supported by the ancient Greeks, in that there is nothing you can do to change your destiny.  I’m not certain that I agree with his presentation.  We all have the ability to choose in each situation and, while each choice may entail a different degree of difficulty, our decisions do shape our fate to a greater or lesser degree.  Choice is what separates man from animal, and Zola’s portrayal of man trapped in an hereditary cycle exemplifies the destructive consequences when man follows only his instincts without an ethical or moral base.

This was the only Zola I was able to finish for Fanda Classiclit’s Zola Addiction, but I was happy to finish only one.  Zola is not an author I want to rush through; he makes you want to sink into his settings, try his prose out on your tongue and learn more about the historical content.  Money is the next Zola on my list and I’m looking forward to it!

Other Rougon-Macquart Series Reviews (Zola’s recommended order):

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

“We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk.”

Emma Roualt has been raised in a convent but during her formative years and religious education, she has somehow managed to get sentimental romance novels smuggled in to her.  When she leaves the convent, the sisters are relieved to see her go as there is some indication that Emma is not the pious, compliant young woman that they were hoping to produce.  Does Emma come by her stubborn and idealistic outlook naturally, or are the novels responsible for corrupting her character?

Soon after Emma returns to her father’s house, she meets the doctor, Charles Bovary, and imagines the feelings of emotion she experiences under his regard, love.  When the first wife of Charles passes away, Emma is happy to become his wife, yet almost immediately begins to wonder why the passionate, overwhelming feelings of a romantic love seem to elude her.  Quite soon she seeks admiration and passion outside her marital relationship, first with Leon Dupuis, a law clerk, and then with the sophisticated Rodolphe Boulanger. Drawn into a web of deceit by her need for a story-like romance, Emma begins an affair, first with Rodolphe and later with a more worldly Leon, who has now spent years in the city and knows how to conduct himself like a truly indulged and hardened man-about-town.  Neither man truly cares for her.  Each is attracted by her beauty and her passionate regard for him, yet soon these shallow emotions begin to unravel and the men tire of their paramour.  Emma, now heavily in debt and still lacking the love and desire that she equates with a meaningful life, decides to take poison and her death culminates in the tragic death of Charles and the sentencing of her daughter to a life of poverty and toil.

The Death of Bovary
Charles Léandre (1931)
source Wikimedia Commons

And so, what can we say about Emma?  She is certainly not a sympathetic character and it seems rather apparent that Flaubert didn’t mean to make her one.  How is responsible is she for her fate?  Does she perpetrate her own demise or is she an unwilling victim of circumstances?

One could certainly make excuses for Emma and say that she was trapped, not only in a simple, colourless and rigid society, but in a loveless marriage (on her part), and in a situation where she had little opportunity for following anything other than the status-quo.  However, Emma had been given an education of a type through the nuns, and though it might not have been wide in its scope, it certainly should have taught her the importance of honesty and virtue and goodness.  Emma chooses to sneak sentimental romances into the abbey to read, just as she chooses to believe what she reads should be the way of life, in spite of the evidence in front of her face against it, and she chooses to have adulterous affairs at the risk of the ruin of her reputation and that of her husband’s.  She also chooses to borrow money, placing her family heavily in debt and, the means of borrowing the money are brought about with deceit on her part to keep her actions hidden.  So I don’t really buy the “poor Emma Bovary, she is a victim of circumstance” excuse.  She keeps her illicit relationships secret, as well as the fact that she is borrowing money, and by the very fact that she does these things covertly, she MUST know that these actions are wrong.  Instead she chooses to do them anyway, for her own selfish emotional gratification and, as we see, she reaps consequences that were perhaps beyond her scope of imagining.

I didn’t dislike this book, but when I read I like to find something that stirs an emotional or an intellectual response, which is part of the conversation with the author.  With Flaubert, while there were certainly moments that sparkled, overall I was left a little flat.  The whole plot was built around a shallow, vain, deluded young girl who was supposedly corrupted early in life by her choice of reading.  No one noticed and, judging by the manner in which Flaubert portrays the setting and characters, even if they did, they perhaps would have done nothing to enlighten her.  While I wanted to pity Emma and make excuses for her, there was something fundamentally wrong with her thinking and the mechanisms she used to process life and the world around her.  Was it due to her reading material, or was she already a damaged person and the books only served to increase the self-serving, emotional fantasy-life that was already expanding within her?  I don’t think we can know.  For me it would have been infinitely more interesting if Flaubert chose to investigate this issue but instead we only see the effect of her delusions without being able to truly surmise the cause.  And that is a tragedy because Emma Bovary deserved a story that generated compassion for her and not distaste and impatience at her emotionally bankrupt behaviour and dramatic actions.  In spite of some spots of brilliance, I feel Flaubert missed a great opportunity and, once again, Emma seems to be the one that pays for it.

Translated by Lydia Davis

Candide by Voltaire

“In the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia, there once lived a youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters.”

Published when Voltaire was 66 years old, Candide was expressly written to satirize the philosophy of Optimism.  This optimism was not simply the positive hope of better circumstances, but the belief that everything that happened was for the best, no matter if good or bad, happy or tragic.  This philosophy disgusted Voltaire because he felt that it left no facility for bettering oneself or one’s surroundings and that it supported fatalism and complacency.  The tragic earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 seemed to precipitated the writing of this novel, causing the author to question justice in such a calamity, and reflected in his poem, “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon,” written weeks afterward.  Candide was further emphasis of Voltaire’s rejection of the attitude that life was the “best of all possible worlds” and that everything that happened in it was for the best.

Voltaire
detailed portrait by Maurice Quenton de la Tour
source Wikipedia

Voltaire was an established writer and thinker by the time he wrote Candide, yet a controversial figure who by many was both admired and hated.  He  was continuously clashing with the government and the church, suffering two periods of incarceration, and most of his adult life was spent exiled from Paris, the city of his birth.  Much of his works were published under a pseudonym to avoid prosecution.  During a stint in exile, he spent three years in Great Britain and, impressed with the freedoms of England, particularly that of speech, his stay intensified his desire for reforms in his home country.  In 1758 he settled in Ferney in eastern France, spending his time farming, writing and supporting local business.  Candide was written there, not long after his move.

Satire:  the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues

Candide is a young man who has grown up living in a state of perfect happiness, guided by his tutor, Pangloss, who is entrenched in the doctrines of Leibnizian Optimism.  Leibnizian Optimism, a philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, believed that this world is the best of all possible worlds because it was created by an omniscient God who would not create flaws if a better world could have been created, therefore, whatever we experience in this world, be it good or bad, must work towards good.  When Candide is thrown out of his paradise, he travels the world, at times escaping persecution, and at others, searching for his love, Cunégonde, experiencing many horrific trials and suffering that challenge the philosophy entrenched by his tutor, causing him to question over and over, if this really is “the best of all possible worlds.”

I really whiffle-waffled over how I felt about this book.  On one hand, Voltaire can write a fast-moving, engaging tale.  His storyline was amusing and it did contain deeper themes that, if the reader had a strong attention span, challenged him to think about his view of the world, his place in society and his response to injustice.  Yet Voltaire’s method was rushed and honestly, just too absurd to ellict introspection for long.  Candide flew from one adventure to the other, characters threw philosophical comments around, but there was no time or room for philosophy itself.  Voltaire never took a thought or comment from a character into deeper conversation; he simply told the reader what the characters did or thought, but we weren’t privy to the conversation.  As a reader, you were often left swimming in a murky haze of Voltaire-imposed ignorance ……. Yet perhaps this was Voltaire’s intention.  Perhaps at the end of the book, as Candide states, “we must cultivate our garden,” Voltaire meant that we should all mind our own business, not examine things too closely, and just work with what is at hand.  Okay, but it is self-introspection that causes a human being to better himself, it is dialogue and discussion that can often help a society, as well as having the possibility to harm it.  People need to have hope, and to cultivate hope it often means having dreams that reach outside our immediate circle of life.  Within the light-hearted narrative that almost masked the tragedy, I felt a fatalism with which I could not accept or sympathize.

That said, these were only my impressions of a book that touches on topics of which I have a limited understanding.  To give an informed opinion on Voltaire’s stance, you would really need to have more than a cursory knowledge of Leibnizian Optimism, as well as having at least summary knowledge of his contemporaries, with a dollop of the study of the Enlightenment on top.  So I will count this as the beginning of my inquiry into the Enlightenment and Voltaire, and hope that my journey fairs better than the journey of Candide.  And until my next foray into Voltaire, I will be cultivating my garden.

Translated by Lowell Blair

Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon by Émile Zola

“For a moment the President remained standing amidst the slight commotion which his entrance had caused.”

I had met Eugène Rougon in Zola’s first book of the Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons.  The oldest son of  Pierre and Felicité Rougon, he had been stationed in Paris, working for the cause of Louis-Napoléon Buonaparte as Emperor Napoleon III.  In Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon, we encounter Rougon as a man in disgrace, a man who has offended the Emperor and who has decided to resign before he is formally removed from office.  As he packs up his documents, a myriad of characters flow in and out of his office, almost in the formation of a dance, and each individual is as colourful as the next.  Yet as the respective characters speak their piece, the dance turns into a circling of sharks, as they all wonder how their position will be affected by Rougon’s fall and how much he can still impact their various personal causes.

The book chronicles the political scene in Paris during the government of the Second Empire under Emperor Napoleon III.  Through Rougon, we see the political machinery grinding through the career of a politician; his fall from favour, his subsequent rise through the help of his sycophantic supporters, their fickle desertion, and so forth.  Behind the glamorous facade of the Second Empire, manipulation, betrayal, coercion, conspiracy and fraud seep from between its seams, and only the clever and opportunistic will survive.

Chameleon-like Rougon is a man who knows how to bend with the force of political volatility.  Initially, after giving his resignation, he is slow, methodical and patient, rather like a toad waiting in the mud for an insect to come buzzing around his head.  Yet when he regains his title as minister, he comes alive; robust, loud, and outspoken, he soaks in the approbation of those around him while ruling with a heart of iron.  Yet Zola does a marvellous job of retaining his provincial nature; his sometimes wild, untamed speeches and stubborn and shortsighted actions reveal a man who has not been able to completely shake off the country dust of his origins.

Pont de la Tournelle, Paris
by Stanilas Lépine
(source Wikipedia)

Zola’s prose is so exquisitely compact, yet with it he constructs such a wide scope for the reader.  I felt I was really present during the baptismal procession for the Imperial Prince; I sensed the barely suppressed excitement in the air, the feel of the crowds and people pressing against me, the impatience, the festivity.  Zola doesn’t just allow us to view the Second Empire with words; he takes us right into its grandeur, its character and the various intricacies that gnaw at its foundations.  

This novel is not amongst Zola’s most popular books of the Rougon-Macquart series, but I really, really enjoyed it for its dynamic appeal and attention to detail.  Can Zola write a poor novel?  Somehow I don’t think so.

(translation by Ernest A. Vizetelly)

Other Rougon-Macquart Series Reviews (Zola’s recommended order):

Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge

Words and Peace is having a Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.  Since I am going through the Rougon-Macquart series by Emilé Zola, this will be an easy challenge for me.

The rules for this challenge are:

Any book related to France

  • it can be set in France
  • written by a French author
  • written in French, by authors from any country
  • about a French theme: French cuisine, French fashion, etc.
  • it can be a book counted for another challenge

All genres are accepted
All media is accepted

LEVEL 1: “un peu” = 3 books

LEVEL 2: “beaucoup” = 6 books
LEVEL 3: “passionément = 12 books
LEVEL 4: “doublement passionément” = 24 books
LEVEL 5: “a la foile” = 52 books

Please see her post for details about a special giveaway!

I will go for LEVEL 1, because I’m not sure if I will make LEVEL 2 but I will give it a try.

1.  Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon – Émile Zola

2.  Candide – Voltaire

3.  Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

4.  La Curée – Émile Zola

5.  La Parure (The Necklace) – Guy de Maupassant (en français)

In addition to Zola, I am going to try to read at least one book in French in 2014, possibly two.  Sadly I am going to make them children’s books, because my French needs serious review.  My choices are:

 

Bonne chance!