Montaigne the Proto-Blogger?

Our friends at The American Interest sort of shoot down the idea that Montaigne was an inspiration for the modern-day blogger:

Bakewell presents a thoroughly contemporary Montaigne, undogmatically liberal in his moral and social views, radically modern (even postmodern) in his freewheeling approach to the writer’s art. But I think she knows that Montaigne was in some crucial ways rather less like us than all this might suggest.

The superficial similarities are certainly striking. His avowed interest in every aspect of his own life and character and their frank revelation in prose of sometimes improvisatory immediacy have (to Bakewell and others) suggested affinities with the world of blogs and social media today. It would be wrong, however, to push this too far. Montaigne’s literal self-centeredness has more in common with the self-portraits of the Renaissance painters who created the form (one element in an evolving complex of ideas about Man and his place in the universe), than with the compulsive exhibitionism of today’s Facebook or Twitter users. For Montaigne it’s a matter not of self-display to the world, but of self-discovery in the world and through engagement with it. Writing in the way he does is essential to that process, as he quietly contemplates the workings of his own mind. He has none of the blogger’s fear of silence or the desperate modern need to connect and communicate.

He enjoyed his own company, it is true. As a civil and civilized man, he hoped his readers might enjoy it too. But he wouldn’t depend on that or on them. After the early loss of a dear friend, and the deaths of most of his children in infancy, dependency of any kind held little appeal. If only by way of self-preservation, he thought, every man should create for himself une arrière-boutique, a little room all his own behind the shop. That’s what he did.

…in which we read one commenter’s disdain of bloggers as having a “fear of silence or the desperate modern need to connect and communicate.”

On one hand this is very much the case.  In Virginia, we’ve had the running debate about thoughtful, independent blogging vs. splash-and-trash that has seemingly dominated the political blogosphere since “macaca” in 2006.  For many, that is the moment when the Virginia blogosphere gave up the ghost and became the appendages of campaigns and organizations.

Still, after the political supernova that was the macaca incident, there are still bring stars.  New bloggers come on the scene every day, but a few individuals who echo the spirit of Montaigne blog for themselves — the only difference being that their ideas, thoughts, and life experiences shared are done so through modern technology.

Montaigne printed his essays during his lifetime, and in doing so most certainly cultivated an audience.  Not quite certain this reflection on Montaigne vs. bloggers really holds under scrutiny, but rather points towards the excellence of the amateur essayist.

Just because the medium has changed, this doesn’t denigrate the artist.

At the very least, Montaigne’s example offers a valuable counterpoint to a media-driven, mediated modern culture that blurs the distinctions between public and private spaces, and public and private selves, and in which constant communication seems sometimes to mean no more than unceasing noise. Montaigne was happy in a way that no blogger ever could be. There is, in the end, something to be said for the little room behind the shop.

I would offer the counter-counterpoint as follows: when you write for yourself, it’s easier to please the audience.  Blogging being merely one medium of doing this, Montaigne’s collection of thoughts reads just as any conversation with another should read.

Apart from this, the book that inspired these things, Sarah Blackwell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer is a fantastic introduction to the works of Michel de Montaigne, of which I have only recently picked up and regret not having read his essays sooner.

This entry was posted in Books, Culture, Ethical Blogging, Virginia Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Montaigne the Proto-Blogger?

  1. Dan Conley says:

    Hi Shaun, I agree with your argument, actually and think that the American Scholar piece was extraordinarily stuffy and dismissive of intellectual discourse on the web. It seems to have been written by someone who has never sought out worthwhile things to read on the Internet and merely gripes about the idiocy of Facebook postings.

    By the way, I’m currently engaged in the project on my website … http://www.danconley.com … where I will write 107 essays about Montaigne’s 107 essays in 107 days. Feel free to stop by … I’ll create a link to your site on mine.

  2. Shaun Kenney says:

    Dan –

    Great website! Unfortunately my site doesn’t quite allow for blogrolls and such, but I’ll be sure to share your site with others. Best of luck!!!

    Regards,

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