sundry appropriations & reflections

First, the appropriation (1) : Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), founder of the essay-genre, was the first blogger! (2)

Because blogs, really, are nothing but variations on the essay-genre: private persons’ honest attempts to make sense of their miscellaneous observations. Blogs, just as essays, espouse a personal viewpoint to examine the many perplexities spawned by our daily intercourse with the world (and with ourselves). In fact they are dialogues, with the self and with the world, strewn with quotes & links & tentative insights.(3)

Montaigne was both modest and confident about the purport of his essays. He “only paints himself” (4), he says , for the sake of friends and family, oblivious of glory, proposing “an unimportant life without luster”. But still, he deems himself a worthy subject to write about, since “each man carries the entire form of the human condition”. He blithely confesses that he knows nothing, “que sais-je” , but that should not keep him from writing about “matters that he does not understand, because it is not these matters themselves but his ignorance of them that is his real subject”. (5)

Montaigne did love to quote his ancient authors – his collected essays could well carry the subtitle “quotations for all occasions”. And the fact that these quotes are in Latin bestows an irresistibly grave authority upon them:

“Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius” .

No need to understand Latin to be impressed by such thunderous, calamitous wisdom! (compare this to the pedestrian admonition “Miserable is the mind which is worried about the future”. (6))

But so, there we have Mr. de Montaigne, withdrawing from family and public obligations into his private castle-tower-with-library. Surrounded by a thousand books, conversing with the great authors of antiquity, meditating and thinking. All very private and individual, these ruminations, bound not to leave a single trace, if he had not arrested these most fleeting and perishable thoughts, and had not tried to give them some relative permanence in his essays. Now isn’t this, in one way or another, what most bloggers attempt to do too? (7)

But speaking of fleeting & perishable things – this spring outside…., oozing the sheer bliss of being alive, this blazing sun, mocking the very idea of either essays or blogs. (8) Time to let myself out – there’s this twisting path in the forest, cutting through ferns in a deep shadowy vale. With a suddenly accelerating slope, where you have to release all gears on your mountain-bike, stand upright on your pedals, and keep furiously moving, moving, else you’d slip & fall.


(1) Appropriation: “to take or make use of without authority or right” – this is, by the way, the blogging dilettante’s main vice
(2) we moderns & post-moderns are só self-centered and conceited: praising the past for its supposed “modernity” whenever we spot some trait deemed characteristic of our own age. If we were humbler, we'd rather bemoan the lack of originality of our 'modern' age, and we'd just sigh “nothing new under the sun”.
(3) The potential interactivity of the blog also confers to it some aspects of the “salon” (credits go to Antonia for this insight) - the salon! that lovely societal realm, somewhere in-between the private and the public, a realm where speech reigned .
(4)"[dans ce livre] je ne me suis proposé aucune fin, que domestique et privée. Je n’y ai eu nulle considération […] de ma gloire. [...] Je l’ai voué à la commodité particulière des mes parents et amis : à ce qu’[…] ils y puissent retrouver aucuns traits de mes conditions et humeurs, et que par ce moyen ils nourrissent plus entière et plus vive, la connaissance qu’ils ont eu de moi. […] car c’est moi que je peins. […] Ainsi, lecteur, je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre : ce n’est pas raison que tu emploies ton loisir en un sujet si frivole et si vain. "
(5) Charles Rosen in his Feb 2008 NYRB article « The Genius of Montaigne»
(6) quite true!
(7) “we only see what we look at” – I’m aware of my own tunnel-vision, enthusiastically zooming in on any contemporary incarnations of humanist dignity. There’s of course nothing Montaign-esque about the millions of techie-blogs and specialist blogs out there. And also, obviously, most of us do not have a “castle-tower-of-our-own” nor the unrestricted leisure of the gentleman-essayist. What we have at our disposal is, at best, the spare time of the animal laborans.
(8) Am avidly collecting Spring quotes these days: here’ s one from Baudelaire: “Et le printemps et la verdure , Ont tant humilié mon cœur” – “Spring and greenery, have so humiliated my heart”


Roxana said...

ah 'moderns' - we forget too often that the first querelle des Anciens et des Modernes took place in the Middle Ages (and not the 17th century, as we usually assume), this should mean something to us!

especially note 2 makes me think of that, for these are arguments which have sparkled the fight between the camps since ages :-) however i think that, especially in Montaigne's case, it is not 'us' who appropriate him as 'modern', if this is what note 2 implies - he belongs to a generation (Fr. Bacon, Pascal, Descartes etc - he comes a little earlier, but still) who clearly posits itself as 'modern' against antiquity.

btw, i love your self-portrait (superfluous to say?)

and adore note 8! :-)

ffflaneur said...

Note to note 2: Well, you’re eminently right, Roxana, the mis-appropriation is indeed the one which would claim “modernity” for “our” present times only. Modernity has been around for quite a while yet.

Now just to recalibrate our formulations (and out of sheer Sunday idleness & curiosity) I asked Google who then was “the first modern man”. Which yielded following entries: William Hazlitt, Albrecht Dürer, Oscar Wilde, Augustine, Petrarca, Rousseau, Machiavelli, [“first modern woman”], Madame de Stael, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mina Loy, Greta Garbo, Christine de Pizan. A certain self-centered introspection and a good deal of well-publicized self-consciousness seem prerequisites for men to qualify as “modern”. The list of women is more diverse, mostly they seem to share a “modern” sense of autonomy and personal ambition.

But I suppose that what note 2 wanted to denounce, was the present-times-centrism of some art-commentators who would rather praise, say, a blurry sketch by a renaissance master than his main works. Just because the sketch is oh so spontaneous & unfinished, oh so “modern”, (ie so much more accessible to a shallow viewing).

Note to note 8: obviously, dear R, a good spring quote is never lost on you -:)

Roxana said...

how many notes to notes to notes are we allowed to make without falling into the postmodern 'dérive du sens'? :-)

i've just read this about contemporary art, pessimism and blogging, and thought it might be somehow related:

"And we’re left to wonder – what new aesthetic will spring from the void?

“It’s impossible to define a new aesthetic movement because movements really no longer exist,” says Erik Plambeck, a recent art school grad living in Southern California. “Art today is just one big clusterfuck of artists doing what will get them paid, what will get them laid or what will get them famous.”

“If anything can be said to be an aesthetic movement right now,” he continues “it’s Facebook and blogging – that’s exactly what’s happening in contemporary art. Individuals use generic templates and hope to somehow achieve a sense of acceptance and community. They’re helplessly trying to define their influence by counting how many friends they have.”

i know it is very bleak and you will not agree entirely, i don't either, but it is still interesting (and i remember you mentioning Hirst too some time back) - the rest of the article here:

ffflaneur said...

"artists doing what will get them paid, what will get them laid or what will get them famous"
well R, that is bleak indeed! :-)
quite in tune with my contemporary- culture-pessimism! (although I do think there are a lot of dis-interested, creative bloggers around, enough to make up for the prevailing cynicism in "commercial" art) .

as to my own blog-aesthetic: well obviously i'm just counting how many notes to notes to notes a single post can sustain! :-)