Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nancy Mairs: on herself, Michel de Montaigne, and you

In my writing, I try to sustain a kind of intellectual double vision: to see the feminine both as that which language represses and renders unrepresentable by any human being, male or female, and as that which in social, political, and economic terms represents experiences peculiar to the female. I want my femininity both ways—indeed, I want it as many ways as I can get it. I am the woman writer. Don’t ask me for impregnable argument. As far as I’m concerned, my text is flawed not when it is ambiguous or even contradictory, but only when it leaves you no room for stories of your own. I keep my tale as wide open as I can. It’s more fun this way. Trust me.

Like the French feminists, I subscribe to the premise that the world we experience is itself an immense text that in spite of its apparent complexity has been made in Western thought to rest on a too-simple structural principle opposing reason to emotion, activity to passivity, and so on, every pair reflecting the most basic dichotomy—“male” and “female.” Like them, I seek to disrupt the binary structure of this text, or Logos, through l’écriture féminine, which “not only combines theory with subjectivism that confounds the protocols of scholarly discourse, it also strives to break the phallologic boundaries between critical analysis, essay, fiction, and poetry.”

Hence, I write essays in the Montaignesque sense of the word: not the oxymoronic “argumentative essays” beloved by teachers of composition, which formalize and ritualize intellectual combat with the objective of demolishing the opposition, but tests, trials, tentative rather than contentious, opposed to nothing, conciliatory, reconciliatory, seeking a mutuality with the reader which will not sway her to a point of view but will incorporate her into the process, their informing movement associative and suggestive, not analytic and declarative.

“If my mind could gain a firm footing,” writes Montaigne, “I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.” In fact, the details of Montaigne’s life demonstrate that he was fully capable of making decisions; in his essays he set aside this capacity. “Thus his starting points are not intended to engage a war of opinions,” says John O’Neill of the Montaignesque writer, “they are rather subjunctive alliances for the sake of exploring what hitherto had been shared terrain. By the same token, the conclusions reached are not meant to be absolute, but only what seems reasonable as a shared experience.” And, as O’Neill points out, “Montaigne found thinking difficult because he rejected the easy assembly of philosophy and theology careless of man’s embodied state,” aware that the “loss in scholastic abstractions is that they can be mastered without thought and that men can then build up fantastic constructions through which they separate the mind from the body, masters from slaves, life from death, while in reality nothing matches these distinctions.”

Preference for relation over opposition, plurality over dichotomy, embodiment over cerebration: Montaigne’s begins to sound like a feminist project. Which is not to say that Montaigne was a feminist. (“You are too noble-spirited,” he was able to write to the Comtesse de Gurson when she was expecting her first child, “to begin otherwise than with a male.”) But whether intentionally or not, Montaigne invented, or perhaps renewed, a mode open and flexible enough to enable the feminine inscription of human experience as no other does. The importance of this contribution has been largely overlooked, perhaps because many of Montaigne’s statements, as well as his constant reliance on prior patriarchal authority, strike one as thoroughly masculine, and also because the meaning of essay has traveled so far from Montaigne’s that the word may be used to describe any short piece of nonfiction, no matter how rigid and combative.

“Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book,” Montaigne writes in his preface to the essays. “You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

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