When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me? Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life

A whimsical tale fails to convey the power of a great thinker's insights, writes Biancamaria Fontana

March 24, 2011

The remark "when I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?", which Saul Frampton uses as the title of this book, is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in Michel de Montaigne's Essais. It is an image that displays all the cleverness of the writer's philosophical reflection - the unexpected shift of viewpoints, the highly individual character of experience - while conveying at the same time a sense of cosiness and domestic intimacy.

You do not need to be a cat lover to feel this: Montaigne may be a great Renaissance writer and philosopher, yet here he is, in the library of his chateau, among the vineyards of the Dordogne, playing with a favourite pet. All great works express different dimensions of human experience; the development of specialist academic fields has consolidated this complexity, and today the Essais takes on a different significance when analysed by literary theorists, philosophers or historians.

This is, however, a fairly recent phenomenon. At the time of its first publication in 1580, and for centuries after that, Essais was approached by lay readers as a mixed offering: a casual collection of personal and historical anecdotes, random philosophical observations, travellers' tales and ethnic curiosities; a book to be picked up and put down, choosing the pages based on one's mood, rather than to be read from cover to cover; in short, a book in which the author may well be seen while playing with his cat.

Montaigne had deliberately cultivated this episodic narrative style, as he believed it reflected the fluid, ever-changing nature of human experience better than any systematic presentation. Moreover, the casual tone and meandering structure of the Essais helped to divert attention from the subversive opinions it expressed in matters of religion and politics.

To some extent, Frampton's book reflects this original view of Montaigne's work as an easy companion, a kind of existential guide that associates the reader to the personal experiences of the author. Each chapter retraces a phase in Montaigne's life, combining some biographical information with a particular topic discussed in the Essais: friendship, sex, animals, death and so on. The structure recalls that of a documentary, as Frampton uses contemporary iconography to illustrate each point, while describing in highly emotional terms his own visits to the relevant locations. This personalised "existential" reading of the Essais is apparently undergoing a revival, since Frampton's book has appeared at virtually the same time as Sarah Bakewell's biography, significantly titled How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.

The merit of the "being in touch with life" approach is that it offers an accessible introduction to Montaigne's intricate prose, and to the alien world represented by Renaissance culture and the climate of the religious wars. It also helps remind us that the main scope of books such as the Essais, besides entertaining and instructing the reader, would have been to make them feel better about themselves, since the main purpose of philosophy at the time was not the production of theories, but teaching people how to live.

However, the same approach has - here at least - some serious limitations. By selecting from the Essais the topics that might appeal to the modern reader, Frampton fails to convey the power and internal coherence of Montaigne's enterprise, focusing instead upon a variety of commonplace or whimsical concerns. Thus, for all his efforts to make Montaigne look modern and sympathetic, Frampton's book tends to reproduce, perhaps inevitably, a set of predictable stereotypes about the writer and his age.

When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me? Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life

By Saul Frampton

Faber and Faber, 352pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780571234578

Published 20 January 2011

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