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Sifting through the textual ruins of antiquity: fragment and body in Montaigne's "On some lines of Virgil"

Ariane Schwartz

In his collection of Essais, Michel de Montaigne communicates with antiquity through its textual remains; in nearly every single one of his essays, classical fragments are interspersed with his narrative in French. As Sedley 2005 observes, “each essay presents a ruin and the Essais as a whole represent the ruins of antiquity.”1  Montaigne responds to his own aging process by transforming his text “into a surrogate object of pleasure mediated by an interplay between the fragments of classical writing and the rhythm of a subject in search of self-­‐knowledge.”2 The essay “On some lines of Virgil” is a hyper-­‐fragmentary example of the collection; it reveals Montaigne’s mental and physical state through a linguistic fabric of his own words woven with fragments of antiquity. He places two selections from Virgil and Lucretius at its center, surrounds them with various fragments from predominantly Latin poetry, and then constructs a confessional narrative that effectively uses all of these pieces of text.

In this paper, I use this essay as a case study, arguing that Montaigne attempts to reach a state of self-­‐knowledge within this realm of textual pleasure by using these classical fragments, which are part of his subconscious from his early education, as supports for his own words within the essay, and brings himself closer to reaching that self-­‐knowledge by interacting with his text as if it were his own body. As Montaigne himself points out, “If you are taut as you proceed [in using the French language], you can often feel it weakening and giving way under you; in default your Latin comes to your aid – and Greek to the aid of others.” Through the lens of the body topos, we can best understand why classical quotations, Montaigne’s body, sex, and confessional statements in narrative are all found together in the same framework if the essay itself functions as Montaigne’s body, with the two central quotations from Virgil and Lucretius functioning as the bones of his two legs, and the others as other bones in his body that support, even in old age, Montaigne’s French.3

I explore why Montaigne draws so heavily on the writings of classical authors in this highly confessional essay, and at what level they are working in the context of his own writing.4     It is clear that throughout the essay Montaigne uses antiquity in two ways: first, to quote the ipsissima verba  of classical writers, generally verbatim, in order to reinforce and define what he has already said in his own words and, second, to provide exempla within his narrative in order to tell a story. Given  the emphasis that Montaigne places on language in this essay, his readers discover that words are important to him; after all, at the beginning of his discussion of his main subject, sex, he emphasizes the human sexual vocabulary, “the words which are least used, least written and the least spoken are the very ones which are best known and most widely recognized.” The words and language that express human sexual activities are in fact “printed on each one of us without being published; they have no voice, no spelling.” Montaigne’s quotations of ancient writers are similarly printed on him, and only become published, acquire a voice, and acquire a spelling when Montaigne is in his most private, personal, confessional state, providing structural support for his material, whereas the exempla further his narrative.

1 Sedley, D. Sublimity and skepticism in Montaigne and Milton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

2 Kritzman, L. “My body, my text: Montaigne and the rhetoric of sexuality” in Berven, D. ed., Montaigne: A Collection of Essays, vol. 3. Garland: New York & London, 1995, pp. 307-­‐321.

3 Yandell, C. “Corps and corpus: Montaigne’s ‘Sur des vers de Virgile’ in Modern Language Studies 16 (3) (Summer 1986), pp. 77-­‐87.

4 Screech (Screech, M. ed. The essays : a selection / Michel de Montaigne ; translated and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech. London : Penguin Books, 2004), in his introduction to the essay, points out that Montaigne here “is partly making a general confession; partly (for the first time ever) giving a self-­‐portrait in which the sexual drive is openly portrayed; partly showing how old age may come to terms with dwindling physical potency yet powerful erotic dreams and memories.” (260)

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Fragments from Theory to Practice

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