Why did Montaigne write in this way? He had an unusual educa- tion, learning to read and write in Latin before he did so in his native French. He had read a lifetime’s worth of classical literature when he was still very young. But this learning did not always console him. “I would like to suggest,” he wrote, “that our minds are swamped by too much study and by too much matter” (151). With minds stuffed with knowledge, Montaigne argued, students did not learn to think for themselves. “We know how to say, ‘This is what Cicero said’; ‘This is morality for Plato’; ‘These are the ipissima verba of Aristotle.’ But what have we got to say? What judgments do we make? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as well as we do” (154). Montaigne also
Paul Lynch 292 complained that the teachers of his day “keep us for four or five years learning to understand words and stitch them into sentences; as many more, to mold them into a great body, extending into four or five parts” (189). Sound familiar? As a student, Montaigne had learned the formal structures of classical rhetoricians, who also had their version of the five paragraph essay, and Montaigne came to hate it. Tired of having his head crammed with other people’s words, and tired of the strict formalism he had been taught, Montaigne sought a way to write that was informal, skeptical, and unsure. Montaigne wasn’t the only person who wrote what we might call “essays.” He may have coined the term in the sixteenth century, but even centuries before, people were writing short nonfiction pieces about their experiences and thoughts. In thirteenth-century Japan, for example, Kenko wrote Essays in Idleness. The original Japanese title reads, “With Nothing Better to Do” (29). “What a strange, dement- ed feeling it gives me,” he wrote, “when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head” (30). Kenko wrote about a wide range of topics, including sexual desire, longing for the past, board games, and parades. One of his shorter pieces makes the strange claim that one “should never put the new ant- lers of a deer to your nose and smell them. They have little insects that crawl into the nose and devour the brain” (36). I don’t know whether this is true, but it shows that even before the term “essay” existed, some writers chose to “essay” about whatever floated into their minds. In fact, essayists often write about small and minor things like mashed potatoes and ketchup, sidewalk chalk, going for walks, turtles, and even chasing after a hat that’s blowing away in the wind. Other es- sayists take on more serious problems like alcoholism, migraine head- aches, hunger, and other forms of suffering. Perhaps the only similarity that these essays share is that they recount the authors’ own attempts to understand their experiences. In these essays, the writers don’t start with their conclusion; they think through what’s happening on the page. And while these essays have an organization, they are not orga-
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