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Lecture Series

2, 4, 9, 11 December 2008
Image of the Lecture

The participants summarise their talks

  • Montaigne and the idea of essay (In English, with simultaneous translation)
    Peter Burke
    Peter Burke's conference will focus on the invention by Montaigne of a new literary genre, the essay, and in the reasons why the writer considered this invention was needed. Nevertheless, Montaigne did not construct this genre ex nihilo. In the first part of the conference, "The essay before Essais", he will describe some close genres, with which Montaigne was familiarized, and from where the idea of his book bloomed. In the second part of the session "The essay after Essais" he will address how was Montaigne received, and particularly, the essay concept (including the term "essay" in several languages). In the same way, we will pay special attention to the tradition of the essay genre in England and in Spain.
  • Precursors of essay and originality of Montaigne
    Carlos García Gual

    Montaigne did not invent the essay genre, although he did give it a proper name ("essay") and boosted like no one before its personal nature by portraying himself with singular lucidity. Presenting his ego in the foreground and marking the genre with his personal stamp in a way that no one had done before. Thus, it is not a matter of haggling him the originality when we mention some clear precedents to his Essais. Short reflexive texts on different topics with a strong personal component and full of references and anecdotes, have already been found in the Antiquity, in Greek and Latin authors frequently visited by Montaigne. This is the case of Plutarch and Seneca (and to a lesser extent, Cicero and Lucian), who not unexpectedly are among his preferred and most cited authors. The topics treated by Seneca and Plutarch are in many occasions the same ones that Montaigne assays, and he frequently refers to their woks using their books and citing them. Sometimes the format is not too different (in Greek, these short prose texts received the general designation of "lectures", "dialogues" or "letters" (homilíai, or diatribaí, epistolaídiálogoi) and had a certain declamatory nature. Montaigne cites these classical authors in many occasions, but sometimes he uses them without mentioning. He does not do it for an itching of scholarship, but because he uses them as a support for his own reflections and digressions. He takes from them what he likes and what suits him, and thus, is a "hedonistic" reader in words of Borges. As a matter of fact, the authors he cites also used to do something similar. Plutarch made an effort to remember historical anecdotes (not only in his Lifes, but also -and especially- in his miscellaneous Moralia) to find in them a certain "sagesse", while Seneca was more judgmental and moralist, but with a much more personal style. He was also liberal, as he was as generous in citing Epicurus as his Stoic masters, or even more. During the Renaissance, this genre attained a renewed relevance, partially due to these same influences (Erasmus  especially appreciated these two same masters, Seneca and Plutarch, and his abundant letters show a colloquial style and a singular spiritual opening of great influence). The essayist tries to connect with the readers through a faked conversations, using a certain familiar tone, and enjoying the references to other texts, always separated from sermons and technical tones, using an agile and modern prose. In Spanish literature of the 16th century we find a peculiar precursor of the essays, although its Plateresque and rhetoric style proper of a court preacher is very differentiated from the free sincerity and clear and precise style used by Montaigne. Friar Antonio de Guevara (particularly in his Marco Aurelio and his Epístolas familiares, both of them with great success across Europe and very well known by Montaigne) deserves being considered in this framework due to his "will of style" (as pointed out by J. Marichal) and to his relationship with the readers. This is so, not to hinder the work of Montaigne, but to further appreciate the singular originality and acuity of his Essais.

  • The mouse and the trap: The idea of writing in Montaigne
    María José Vega
    The Essais of Montaigne deal on very diverse topics, from friendship and old age to ambition, repentance, the cannibals, the verses of Virgil, fatherly love, the morality of the young Cato, or the war strategies of Julius Caesar. Within this miscellaneous there is nevertheless a capital and repeating topic that does not have a particular epigraph, but is in a way what articulates all of the other topics: the act of writing, or if you wish, the own textuality of the essays themselves. The singularity of Montaigne's work probably does not lay in its inorganic and digressive structure, which is shared with a mix of other 16th century authors and also has antique precedents, but in the auto-reflexive way of writing that describes itself continuously. Few books speak that much, and so many ways, about the process of its composition: Montaigne refers to his text for example as un mouvement perpetuel, a continuos annotation, a re-writing, an extensive digression without beginning or end, like a sort of marginal, inorganic and moral-less speech. It is a kind of labyrinth, a self-portrait, a part of his own body, a mirror of himself, a stunt, like the barrel of Danaides, like a mousetrap, or even like a banquet whose success does not depend on the magnificence of the host but on the desires for pleasure that each of the diners show. This way, the Essais are constantly representing themselves and the author, sometimes inextricably like if book and author were the same thing. As a matter of fact, Montaigne speaks about his work as un livre consubstantiel à son autheur, in a time when "consubstantiality" was a very strong term that is used unequivocally to describe the relationship between Christ and God the Father. But Montaigne also referrers to Essais like a process for building the subject, the same way that writing shapes the conscience, conscience shapes the way of writing: Je nay plus faict mon livre que mon livre ma faict. The Essais create this way a very powerful autobiographic illusion, and foster in the reader a strategic feeling of intimacy with the author of the text. Montainge applied in the Essais a very significant analogy when referring precisely to this relationship of the readers with the texts, and their difficulties to interpret and comment, to the barriers that man finds in each of the reading intineraries that a book proposes: the analogy of the reader trapped within the textuality ut mus in pice, this is, like a mouse in a trap. And above all, in the complex and labyrinthine trap that  of the Essais.
  • Montaigne: A meditation against absolute truths
    Rafael Argullol

    I want to highlight in this conference the anti-dogma nature of Montaigne's thought and the unique characteristics of his mental construction. All of this, first and foremost, from the symptomatic validity of Montaigne in an time like ours suffering the aftermath of the sinking of the Great Truths in the midst of an acute confusion.

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