Monday 25 January 2010
I love the work of Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, one of my favourite literary forms; a man who wrote in a beautiful, self-effacing, humorous and precise fashion, expressing in limpid prose some simple and universal truths. Here is my favourite passage on memory and its defects;
Memory is the receptacle and case of science: and therefore mine being so treacherous, if I know little, I cannot much complain. I know, in general, the names of the arts, and of what they treat, but nothing more. I turn over books; I do not study them. What I retain I no longer recognize as another's; 'tis only what my judgment has made its advantage of, the discourses and imaginations in which it has been instructed: the author, place, words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.
I am so excellent at forgetting, that I no less forget my own writings and compositions than the rest. I am very often quoted to myself and am not aware of it. Whoever should inquire of me where I had the verses and examples that I have here huddled together, would puzzle me to tell him, and yet I have not borrowed them but from famous and known authors, not contenting myself that they were rich, if I, moreover, had them not from rich and honorable hands, where there is a concurrence of authority with reason. It is no great wonder if my book run the same fortune that other books do, and if my memory lose what I have written as well as what I have read, and what I give as well as what I receive.
You will find this in the Penguin edition of his Essays in the section On Presumption.
Now Sarah Bakewell has written a biography of the great master, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, a wonderfully whimsical title that I feel sure he would have appreciated. I haven’t read it so I can’t offer a review, but the reviews I have read are all very positive. So, acting on their recommendations, I have now added this to my ever growing ‘to buy’ list. Once acquired – and consumed – I shall add my own assessment.