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Montaigne, Essays
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler



Montaigne, Essays

Que scais-je?
What can I know? So said the medal Montaigne had struck as the symbol of himself. He was the inventor of the empiric ego. He was the inventor of the word essai applied to a literary form. The title of his collection Essais did not mean then what we mean. In fact it still doesn’t in French — but rather “assay” or the noun of our verb “to essay.” For Montaigne existence was an experiment. The subject was experience; the instrument was the self defined in terms of the experiment. Expérience in French also means experiment.

Since Montaigne there has always existed and sometimes flourished one type of characteristically Gallic personality that makes a principle of the equivocation experience-experiment and in literature presents all its products as essays in Montaigne’s sense. Raymond Queneau’s “Nicolas chien d’expérience” — “Nicholas, the Experimental Dog” — one of the most comic modern poems, not only depends on this equivocation but might well stand as a parable of the Montaignian spirit in France and of Montaigne himself. So Gertrude Stein on her deathbed: “What is the answer?” and after a few minutes, “What is the question?” — a very French death.

There is no answer, no Quod erat demonstrandum at the end of a logical operation, but an attitude at the end of a lifelong, inconclusive experiment:

I have suffered rheumes, gowty defluxions, pantings of the heart, megreimes and other suchlike accidents, to grow old in me, and die their naturall death; all which have left me, when I halfe enured and framed my selfe to foster them. They are better conjured by curtesie, then by bragging or threats. We must gently obey and endure the lawes of our condition.

In the final essay, significantly titled “On Experience,” epistemology becomes not the reduction of psychology to logic but the basic concern of a kind of psychosomatic medicine, a matter of mind-body “tone.” This is the Stoic law of obedience to nature so reiterated by Marcus Aurelius — but the slight difference in mood results in a fundamental difference in meaning.

Because he was afflicted with one of the most painful, in his day incurable but seldom fatal, diseases, kidney stone, the latter part of Montaigne’s life was a long medical experiment, and the Essays throughout are haunted by the spirit of Hippocrates and Aesculapius. Today such a description would mean that Montaigne would be a hypochondriac, fascinated by his own morbidity. He was quite the opposite. Paragraph after paragraph in “On Experience” are the first French prose poems, written in wry humor to the stone, in thankfulness that the touch of death, so sharp, yet so fleeting and easily sustained, has taught him wisdom. The rhythms of Montaigne at his most lyric survive in the prose poems of Léon-Paul Fargue, the greatest prose poet of the twentieth century and a very Montaigne reborn in the cafés of the Faubourg Saint-Germain between the wars.

Marcus Aurelius struggling on his throne and in his purple tent to achieve the unruffled acceptance of life was a moral hypochondriac tortured by scruple; the resulting virtue, a kind of anguished amiability. Montaigne, writing of the most gruesome subjects, radiates an active joy. His scruples are those of the chemical laboratory, never of the couch or confessional. The dilemmas that create the tensions in Marcus Aurelius are met by Montaigne with the simplest possible solutions of ethical activism, the commonplace relations of a country gentleman with common people, with Henri IV or the woodcutter on the estate.

Of course, it was the historical situation that made Montaigne possible. The viciousness of all parties in the Wars of Religion had canceled out all ideologies. Montaigne is a kind of passive Henri IV. “Paris is worth a Mass” — by this, the French have always known, their greatest king meant not the crown, but a great city “in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also much cattle.”

We think of Montaigne as the begetter of the English secular sensibility at its most acute, and we trace his influence on Shakespeare and Bacon and Locke; but we must not forget that his great popularity in seventeenth-century England also helped to form the peculiarly English tradition of sweet-tempered spirituality. Hooker, Browne, Jeremy Taylor, even William Law and the Quaker Barclay learned from Montaigne to respond with an amiability new to the Christian Church to the old questions that burned men alive — the older, and newer, answer that turns away wrath. When Barclay says when questioned about the sacrament of Holy Communion, “I do not think that I ever broke bread or drank wine without being conscious of Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for me,” he is returning an answer Montaignian in temper. It is this temper, forged in the most troubled period in European history before the twentieth century, that is Montaigne’s specific contribution to civilization, and it is the essence of civilization itself. In its own day it seemed utterly without influence, yet it made its way. Weariness stopped the Wars of Religion, but skeptical magnanimity healed their wounds. Who can be sure that it is, as it seems to be, ultimately failing in our own time?

Retiring to his sun-gilded tower on his country estate, unguarded, his gates open to all factions, and surviving amidst the pillagings and burnings of religious war, it might seem that Montaigne the skeptic renounced all effectiveness and responsibility. The man who questioned the very existence of the Stoic ordered cosmos without and constantly questioned the evidences of a moral cosmos within to discover if they were delusions — such a man might be said to represent in history the final resignation of Plato’s Guardian, the philosopher-aristocrat.

On the contrary, Montaigne was more like the indifferent Bodhisattva or Taoist sage devoted to government by inaction — wu’wei; the scholar-statesman who left high office for a thatched cabin amongst mountains and waterfalls and whose meditations were the most powerful force in Chinese civilization. “A wistful tolerance so rare in that age,” said Walter Pater, “was the outstanding trait of Montaigne’s character.” So rare in any age.

* * *

One of the great classics of English prose is the John Florio translation read by Shakespeare, available in a Modern Library Giant and many other editions. The best accurate modern translation is by Donald M. Frame, Stanford University Press. There is an excellent selection translated by J.M. Cohen in Penguin Classics.



Cervantes, Don Quixote

Many people, not all of them Spanish, are on record as believing that Don Quixote is the greatest prose fiction ever produced in the Western world. Certainly it is one of the few books a genuinely international critic would dare to group with The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Tale of Genji or The Mahabharata. It epitomizes the spiritual world of European man at mid-career as The Odyssey and The Iliad do at his beginnings and as The Brothers Karamazov does in his decline. It is so vast, so ecumenical, that it serves only inadequately as the epic of Spain — a role better played by the more national Poem of the Cid. Don Quixote represents only a part of Spain, but a part that is far greater than the whole.

Much is made in schoolbooks of Cervantes’ intention to satirize and destroy the popular romances of chivalry. What he did in fact was to transubstantiate them. Don Quixote is the Quest romance of the Middle Ages raised in power and elevated to an entirely new plane of being. The Mediterranean countries never took kindly to the legend of the Grail, a myth spiritually closer to northern paganism than to Christianity. For all its pseudosacramentalism, the Grail legend is also far more Protestant than Catholic. The doctrine of the body and blood of Christ shared by all the Grail romances has nothing to do whatever with the Catholic dogmas of the Blessed Sacrament. The Quest of northern romance was a Quest of the Utterly Other — true from the Mabinogion to Franz Kafka.

Don Quixote starts on his quest with his head full of phantasm. What he finds is his own identity, but he finds it in communion with others. He discovers what Don Quixote is really like by discovering that other people are like himself and that he is like them. The mystery that is slowly unveiled in the course of his complicated adventures is the mystery of the facts of life. His encounters are the opposite of the Gnostic trials and questions of the soul.

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the ghost of the dead man must answer the riddles of The Mystery with formulas of The Incomprehensible. In Don Quixote the living man advances, stage by stage, toward reality through the puzzles of fact. Sancho Panza and the facts themselves share the skepticism and ingenuity of Ulysses. These Sirens and Cyclopes are the subjective corruptions in Don Quixote’s head. In both epics the same Mediterranean man of many devices and a thousand journeys seeks the same redemption. What is that redemption? It is merely life lived.

The comic delusions of Don Quixote — the sheep and the windmills — fall away as the narrative progresses, but they are far from mere foolishness. As we read we learn that they are not delusions at all, or if so, merely delusions of reference. They are misreadings of intent, misunderstandings of the powerful mana, the secret force, with which windmills and sheep and the commonplace life of the country inns and farmhouses of the Spanish highlands are surcharged. Sancho Panza always undercuts this mystery, as Don Quixote overshoots it. For Sancho the common is only commonplace; for Don Quixote it is continually revealed as being its own transcendence.

Possibly all great fictions deal with self-realization, with the integration of the personality. This is, in a special way, the subject of Don Quixote. Even more than in the wise reveries of Montaigne, Cervantes in this golden book gives us the purest expression of humanism — not just its message, but its special wisdom that can be found only in adventure in the manifold, inexhaustibly eventful ways of men.

Such humane wisdom is hardly the Spanish temper we associate with San Juan de la Cruz, El Greco, Unamuno, or García Lorca. Black Spain — the Spain of blood and sand, the dark night of the soul, the equation of love and death — is often attributed to the heritage of Islam. Nothing could be less true. The notion of life itself as a kind of auto da fé arose in specific reaction against the sensuous humanism of the Caliphate of Córdoba.

Fully as much as The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid, or the Byzantine romance of Digenes Akrites, Don Quixote is a Border Epic, an artistic resolution of the culture clash of Islam and Christianity. Cervantes spent most of his life in fighting or in captivity with the Muslims who had so recently been his countrymen. Here, if ever captivity took captivity captive, Don Quixote is just such a romance as might have been written in Córdoba in its splendor, in Fatimid Cairo, or in the Baghdad of Haroun al Raschid — for the immemorially civilized audience of The Arabian Nights.

There is a most important difference of tone. It is an evangelical difference. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza go their way through the windy barrens of La Mancha as Christ and his Apostles wandered through a very similar landscape, snapping the heads of wheat and chewing the green grain on a Sabbath morning, the Don learning, as they say, “the hard way” that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. This is a moral that half of Spanish culture has consistently and bloodily refused to accept — most surely a vision of real splendors surpassing any imagined ones and, says Cervantes, accessible only to the nobility of a Fool, the most noble fool in literature.

How urbane it all is, although Don Quixote’s adventures are set amongst peasants and castles, squalor and brocade. The intelligence operating on this material is the intelligence of a citizen of no mean city — that universal Mediterranean republic that goes back to Stone Age Jericho with its sand-swept streets, its efficient sewers, its adobe houses closed around their garden courts, its forums where men came to hear and talk about every new thing, its life of decency and order. Iberia answers the Visigoths.

Nothing shows better the all-encompassing humanity of Don Quixote than the immense literature to which it has given birth. There are as many interpretations of Cervantes’ hero as there are of man himself. Theosophists, Christian Scientists, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and the apostles of Service-with-a-Smile — all find themselves in the Bible, and so too can they in Don Quixote. There are as many interpretations as interpreters, and most interpretations are very antagonistic indeed to my own.

It is this universality that makes the problem of the translator close to insoluble. The standard classic translations in English of Motteux and Shelton were done in the English Renaissance and to contemporary readers overflavor the narrative with grotesquerie. Modern translations, on the other hand, seem too commonplace. The best writing, grotesque or no, is still Motteux’s, and with it I guess we must be content.

* * *

There are any number of editions of Don Quixote in paperback and hardcover. If the newcomer to the novel only had time and patience enough, he would be well advised to read and compare more than one translation, classic and modern.

There are, incidentally, a number of anthologies of the critical literature on Don Quixote that make fascinating reading, not least for their amazing disparity of interpretation. Were it not that my interpretation would then seem unduly flattering to myself, I would say that every man finds himself in Don Quixote, as Don Quixote finds himself in his adventures and as Sancho Panza is never lost.

[Don Quixote translations]



Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler

“Sweetness and light” may be a catch phrase used in our time only sarcastically, but it applies with the greatest accuracy to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. Aestheticians have quarreled for years over the question “Can a thoroughly bad man write thoroughly good books?” The reason, of course, is that most writers are not very nice and the number who owe their artistic preeminence to their personal morality is very small indeed. Izaak Walton above all other writers in English owes his enormous popularity to his virtues as a man, and these virtues are what condition his style and give his work its fundamental meaning.

Millions have read Walton with joy who have never caught a fish since childhood, if at all. Indeed, he is not a terribly good guide to the art of fishing, and in America at least, most of the kinds of fish he talks about are left to small boys. The second half of The Compleat Angler was added in late editions and written by Charles Cotton as a guide to trout fishing in rough water. Those who want to know how to catch fish can learn most from Cotton’s additions. In fact, many people on first acquaintance skim through the main body of the book in considerable puzzlement and much prefer the later part. Then, as they keep the book about, and idle through it in the winter months, Izaak Walton overtakes them and captivates them for life.

We do not read The Compleat Angler for the fish, or for instruction in how to catch them. There are hundreds of more efficient books for such purposes, whether manuals or ichthyologies. We read Izaak Walton for a special quality of soul. Other books, mostly religious or mystical treatises, may describe such a quality and may even provide the reader with onerous instructions on how to obtain it. Walton simply embodies it unaware, and his example is possibly the most convincing argument that this is the only way it can be embodied.

It would be easy to claim that Izaak Walton is the most Chinese of all Western writers — he and his companions wandering by flowing waters and reciting poems to each other. We know nothing of Lao Tse, or even if he existed. The book that goes by his name is certainly a compilation made over a long period of time; but it has a recurrent symbolism which, although extremely simple, is a revelation of a definite personality. Whoever wrote the little psalms of the Tao Te Ching believed that the long calm regard of moving water was one of the highest forms of prayer.

Westerners miss the point of the later Taoist saint who fished with a straight pin and a single filament of silk. It’s not that he did not catch fish, but that he caught them with ease, because he was so perfectly attuned to the rhythms of water and of life. We read Izaak Walton for his tone, for his perfect attunement to the quiet streams and flowered meadows and bosky hills of the Thames valley long ago.

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, in fact all the writers of Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy except Thomas Dekker, portray life in the English countryside as robust and comic enough but also as harsh, brutal, and unclean, for so they saw it. Not Walton. His landscapes are enameled like the meadows about the feet of Medieval saints. His innkeepers are both gentle and jovial. His barmaids are as wholesome as the ale they serve.

What a luminous world it is — delicious fish, twenty inches long, caught in clear, sweet streams that now are gone or flow underground, laden with filth. England was unspoiled and unpolluted then, but the landscape of The Compleat Angler is so clean and bright because it is bathed in a light that comes from a lucid heart.

So he saw life, and he would have pictured it thus whatever he had written about. Had his subject been the most squalid modern slums of London and his judgments of the life there an arraignment and denunciation of their evils, his conclusion surely would have been “There springs the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Many sports are actually forms of contemplative activity. Fishing in quiet waters is especially so. Countless men who would burst out laughing if presented with a popular vulgarization of Zen Buddhism, and who would certainly find it utterly incomprehensible, practice the contemplative life by flowing water, rod in hand, at least for a few days each year. As the great mystics have said, they too know it is the illumination of these few days that gives meaning to the rest of their lives.

The Compleat Angler has often been compared to the Idylls of Theocritus. The ancient Greek may have written great poetry, but his pastorals are not meant to convince. Nobody has ever supposed that Sicilian shepherds and shepherdesses talked like that, however golden the age in which they lived. The Idylls are written literature; the diction is a courtly literary convention. The Compleat Angler is a country idyll made of talk. The rhythms of speech and turns of thought, however quaint to us three hundred and more years away, are completely convincing. We believe that this is the way gentlemen talked on an outing in those days — learned, peaceable gentlemen in a time of troubles, whose speech had been formed by the gentler passages of the Book of Common Prayer: “Hear what comfortable words . . .”

It has been said of Izaak Walton that he was scarcely a literary man and that his style is a perfect example of complete naïveté. Maybe, although there is manuscript evidence to the contrary. But it is this quality that the greatest literary men have sought in pain and conflict and countless revisions in sleepless nights. Like the transparent narratives of those Chinese novels which do not seem to be written at all, Izaak Walton’s style is completely lucid. Everything is there that should be there. Nothing is obscure or troubled. Once we have accepted the archaic diction, nothing stands between us and the subject — except the personality of Izaak Walton, and that is as transparent as crystal, with an innate clarity achieved without effort. This may be called naïveté, but a better word is innocence.

It may sound outrageous to say that Izaak Walton wrote one of the Great Books — and that about catching fish — because he was a saint, because of an abiding sweetness of temper, but so it is. It is important to realize that he is not alone in English literature. He is in fact an unusual embodiment of a quietly powerful tradition, that of the contemplative layman — Saint Thomas More, Nicholas Ferrer, William Law, Gilbert White. After the eighteenth century, this type is more commonly found in the sciences than in religion. And like Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne, The Compleat Angler is in a sense a scientific work, an outstanding example of the piety of science.

Kant, following Ptolemy, contemplated the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Izaak Walton contemplated fish and flowing water, the streams and banks of the beautiful landscape that is now deep in the slums of greater London. He was more the contemplative because he was the more unaware and the more modest in his methods.


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

[Other “Classics Revisited” essays]





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