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Grand Old Men of Letters : THE COMPLETE ESSAYS, By Michel de Montaigne (Viking: $60; 1,269 pp.)

August 16, 1992|Peter Rainer | Rainer, a Times film writer, is editor of a collection of essays on controversial movies, entitled "Love and Hisses," due in October from Mercury House

We are awash in the era of the essay in the cult of the essay. In our newspapers and our magazines, on our airwaves, between covers hard and soft, the current proliferation of the essay certifies the notion that every thought, no matter how stray, is eminently airable. The cult of the essay is really the cult of personality; the particular popularity of the "personal" essay, rife with the superannuated Me Generation fulminations of the Robert Fulghums and the Alice Kahns, represents a narcissist's swoon-a-thon in which any ego can play.

The appearance of a new edition of the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated and annotated by Oxford scholar M. A. Screech (a name to tickle a Monty Pythonite!), should go a long way in redeeming the "personal" essay for a generation untutored in the richness of the form. Montaigne was not only its inventor but also its greatest practitioner; he justified the essay not because he deigned to voice his own piping philosophies and innermost musings but because he contained within himself the protean dimensions of all mankind. His essays proceed from man to Man.

Montaigne first published his "Essays" in 1580, when he was 47, adding new editions in 1582 and 1588, four years before his death. He came late to writing--later, perhaps, than any other comparable literary giant. He sometimes regrets in his "Essays" that he didn't begin his project earlier, but maybe the riches needed to be stored up before they could spill over.

By the time Montaigne retreated with his wife to his family estate to read and meditate and write his essays--he had previously studied law at the University of Toulouse and served on the parliament of Bordeaux--he had already absorbed the humors and horrors of the Late Renaissance. His worldview was bracketed by the explorations of the New World, which deepened his far-flung sympathies and fascination for the human condition, and by the wars of religion, with their protracted cruelties.

Although the popular image of Montaigne is that of a solitary, almost ascetic scrivener ensconced in his tower lined with thousands of books and decorated with an ever-changing array of Greek and Latin inscriptions, he was far from a hermit. He ran his estate; he traveled to Germany, Italy, Austria. (His notebooks were published in 1774 as " Journal de Voyage, " the only non-essay writings, except for some letters, in the Montaigne canon.) Like his father before him, he was elected mayor of Bordeaux. He became the confidant of both Henry III and Henry IV.

"I myself am the subject of my book," writes Montaigne in his opening note to the reader, quickly adding, "It is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and vain."

This is a classic double-whammy from Montaigne: the stout proclamation followed by a self-deprecating blush. It's a coy tactic, but throughout the essays, Montaigne's immodest modesty has an endearing genuineness. He can't hold back from the thrill of what he is doing, the sheer novelty of it, and as the essays accumulate and resound and become increasingly personal, his philosophical forays and digressions--on everything from cannibals to friendship to children's education to thumbs--begin to cohere and circulate about each other. As mammoth as the collected essays are--more than 1,200 tightly packed pages in the Screech edition--they form a unified field of experience. They take on the shape of a human life. We grow old with Montaigne, and his deepening presence is like a balm.

No matter how loftily his essays are billed, Montaigne recognizes in the mundane particulars of our lives the sweetmeats of existence. He was a celebrant--a sensualist--of our routine humors: of our habits, our vanity, our melancholy. Montaigne is perhaps the one great exemplar of sanity in literature, the most voluminous demonstration of how art can reside in the quotidian. Yet--and this is a quality even his admirers sometimes miss--he had a profound tragic sense. (That's why we trust his sanity.) His credo may have been that "The greatness of the soul is dignified in the Mean," but he was painfully aware of the treacheries on either side of that mean. There is no more sorrowful passage in literature than the brief paragraph that closes the essay "On Coaches," with its description of the Spanish army's capture of the King of Peru as he was "borne seated on a golden chair suspended from shafts of gold." Each sentence follows the next like a deadfall, as the slaughter takes hold and then abruptly passes from our eyes.

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