Report: Will Self on Montaigne

Report on a talk by Will Self on Michel De Montaigne, hosted by Boyd Tonkin at Institut Français in South Kensington, London.

Kit Toda and Christine Fears

It is not everyday that a talk on a sixteenth century French philosopher becomes such a hot ticket that it is sold out a week before the event – even if the philosopher is Michel de Montaigne, a hugely influential literary celebrity of the Renaissance period, credited with popularising (and indeed providing the name for) the essay form. It is almost certainly not the promise of a discussion on Montaigne but Will Self, the twenty-first century literary celebrity whom we can hold responsible for filling up the large cinema-cum-lecture hall at the Institut Français. Will Self on Montaigne was the first of the ‘French Passions’ series of talks in which British authors talk on French writers. The talks – or the first one at least – are geared towards a non-specialist audience and Self’s discussion is delightfully anecdotal.

‘French Passions’ is, it turns out, a good choice of name for the talks. Montaigne is a philosopher with a beguilingly intimate style, a style which as Self said, makes him seem more like a ‘friend, not a guru’ – or perhaps even more like a lover. In any case the questions that Tonkin posed were often couched in playfully personal terms, asking Self ‘Was it love at first sight?’ (It was) and ‘Was it roses all the way? Or have there been arguments?’ (Yes and no respectively.)

This sense of immediacy and intimacy that Montiagne produces, despite his temporal distance from us, was referred to even before the discussion began, with Tonkin introducing Montaigne as the invisible “third person on our platform”. A feeling of intimacy was perhaps particularly magnified for Self, as he discovered Montaigne during a period of isolation in the Orkney Isles. The philosopher’s style is erudite but sensuous, intellectual but humane, and these mixtures infiltrated Self’s intellect until reading the essays felt, he said, like time spent in the company of an old friend; no other writer’s thoughts had penetrated his mind in this way – even his dreams were informed by him.

This, he felt, was due to the way Montaigne’s essays reflect the free play of his mind. Montaigne constantly rewrote and added to his work as his thoughts developed, and as a result his essays are joyously conversational and un-dogmatic, revelling in the mysteries of the world. Montaigne therefore seems of our time (or timeless) in many of his observations, but Self was keen to emphasise that while it seems possible to give the author the label ‘proto-’ (proto-environmentalist, proto-feminist) or compare him to a blogger in order to claim him as our own, Montaigne was a man of his time and cannot be torn from that background. He may seem almost like a personal friend but he is also a man of the Renaissance, whose thinking is inspired as much by the importance of antiquity and Catholicism to sixteenth-century France as it is by the philosophical scepticism and humane outlook that Self identifies with.

It is easy, however, to draw a veil over this; Self admits for example, that he thinks Montaigne’s Catholicism is a matter of convention rather than belief, despite there being no sign of actual revolt or agnosticism in his work. But there persists moments in which the familiarity between the writer and his reader is tested, as Montaigne’s voice suddenly recedes to the distance of nearly five centuries ago when, for example, he blithely expresses an anti-democratic sentiment.

What is striking however, is that for Self, Montaigne’s influence is such that he finds himself temporarily adopting Montaigne’s out-moded views instead of the views proper to his own time. Self began the talk by reading out a famous passage from Montaigne’s ‘On the art of conversation’ which includes the words, “What I myself adore in kings is the crowd of their adorers. All deference and submission is due to them except understanding. My reason was not formed to bow and stoop – that is for my knees.” This, Self told us, led to him having a “slightly erotically tinged” dream in which he had a conversation with the Queen (played by Tilda Swinton) while bowing on his knees to her. He then woke up and, hearing on the radio news of an Oldham by-election in which a new Labour candidate replaced the ousted Labour candidate, found himself so disgusted by the pointlessness of the developments that he felt that we may as well do without democracy at all.

The talk was, in many ways, a demonstration of how the acts of writing and reading can create an intimacy between two people, centuries apart. There can be no writer more appropriate to examine in this intensely personal and anecdotal way for Montaigne himself prefaced his work with the words‘Ainsi, lecteur, je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre’ (‘So, reader, I am myself the matter of my book’). Self summarised his relationship with Montaigne as a ‘vastly extended flirtation’ and credited its longevity, not to Montaigne’s wit and intellect but to his ability to provide solace. Indeed, Self raises the possibility of a book appearing “in the self-help section of Waterstones called something grotesque like How Montaigne Can Help You Be Happy and Fulfilled but the truth is that is why one reads him, why someone as abjectly fucked up as Nietzsche – a man off with the fairies, bad fairies – found comfort in Montaigne”.

Many of the people in the audience may have come to the event chiefly for Will Self, but judging by the crowd around the temporary stall selling Montaigne’s Essays, it is likely that even those who had never read him before left with hope of beginning their own French Passion.

The French Passions series at the Institut Français runs every month between January and June 2011:

Will Self’s talk can be found at Culturetheque:

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