Whether or not it is possible to 'explain' how we produce writing - and I do not believe that it is or ever will be - it is both possible and, I believe fruitful, to describe how people feel about their writing of writing. In the light of this belief, I'd like to recall the writings of the sixteenth century essayist Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne. I do so because he was in my opinion the greatest phenomenologist of the act of writing of all time, and I believe there is much that those of us interested in the phenomenology of writing may learn from his insights. He also invented the essay, a form to which we are still wedded if we teach students in the arts, humanities or social sciences (at whatever level) - and often as writers ourselves.
I believe we have much to learn even from his exploratory and openly subjective style of writing, which stands in such stark contast to the dominant tradition of supposedly objective writing which stems from the essays of Lockean empiricists, and which still dominates and constrains academic writing today. I hope that the illustrative extracts which I will use from the 1685 translation by Charles Cotton of Montaigne's Essays - which I am told is truer to the style of the original than the florid and better-known Elizabethan version by John Florio - may encourage others to seek it out for their refreshment. Like Montaigne, I will periodically try to use brief quotations from an earlier epoch - in this case, his - as a way of making contact with issues of more direct relevance to us here.
Montaigne had something to say about writing which sought to expunge the author's presence (in the manner of 'scientific' writing). He noted that: 'Custom has made all speaking of a man's self vicious, and does positively interdict it, in hatred to the vanity, that seems inseparably joyned with the testimony men give of themselves' ('Use makes perfectness' II, 6; Cotton, 1685: 319). In other words, making the author a visible subject need not be a sign of vanity. As he wrote elsewhere 'I am not... indiscreetly inamour'd of my self' ('Of the art of conferring', III, 8: 748-9). This reminds me that a scientist I interviewed about his own writing commented to me that to refer to oneself in a scientific paper would be read as 'somebody blowing their own trumpet'. Montaigne's pithy observation is, I think, a rebuttal: 'I do not think that the custom of condemning wine, because some people will be drunk, is it self to be condemned' ('Use makes perfectness' II, 6; Cotton, 1685: 319). Those currently involved in endeavouring to challenge and reform what Clifford Geertz called the 'author-evacuated' conventions of most formal academic writing will find much to inspire them in Montaigne.
In the UK, I think in particular of the encouraging work of colleagues such as Roz Ivanic in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Lancaster, which involves helping people to break out of the mould of academic writing and to break into academic discourse. In some areas of the social sciences the conventions of formal academic writing have been tested in recent years by a few published attempts at rather more experimental forms of writing greatly influenced by literary experimentalism. Although these often make somewhat uneasy reading the attempt would have won the support of Montaigne at least. And perhaps those of us who teach students in the social sciences should be more open to more experimental writing by students than academic tradition inclines us to be. Remember that Montaigne invented the essay form itself, although the Lockean form took philosophical writing on a different route.
Montaigne went so far as to insist, in what many might still regard as a literary fashion, that his method of writing was as important as 'the matter' he wrote about ('Of books', II, 10: 343). ''Tis my humour as much to regard the form as the substance, and the advocates, as much as the cause; as Alcibiades order'd we should: and... in reading authors... their method is what I look after, not their subject; how, not what they write' ('Of the art of conferring' III, 8: 736). He felt that this was particularly important when studying oneself: 'I must march my pen as I do my feet' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 788-9). So too, perhaps, with us. Writing is a political activity, and it is a matter of choice for us whether we choose to challenge the prevailing writing conventions rather than to accept or bemoan them. We too can march with our pens, and on editorial boards we can vote with them.
Montaigne took joy in digression: you can see why I take to him, perhaps. He wrote (and you can hear his voice):
His playful use of digression, running counter to the allegedly masculine obsession with clusure, shows that text need not be as strictly linear as alternative traditions in the essay form have led us to expect. 'Who needs hypertext?' he might have said. He went further, suggesting that there may be a distinctively 'masculine' style of writing, notwithstanding his casual disregard for the closure often identified by contemporary theorists with the dominant masculine traditions of academic writing: 'The way of speaking that I love, is natural and plain, as well in writing as speaking, and a sinewy and significant way of expressing a man's self, short and pithy, and not so elegant and artificial as prompt and vehement... Rather hard than harsh, free from affectation; irregular, incontiguous, and bold, where every piece makes up an entire body: not like a pedant, preacher, or a pleader, but rather a souldier-like style' ('Of the education of children' I, 25: 141-2). Elsewhere, he adds that his style is 'comick, and familiar' ('A consideration upon Cicero', I, 3: 206). He declared: 'I speak in paper, as I do to the first I meet' ('Of profit and honesty' III, 1: 657). He was dissatisfied with the language of his time which was 'all form'd of affirmative propositions' ('Apology for Raimond de Sebonde' II, 12: 443).
Montaigne also calls attention to writing as a bodily way of thinking, an inspiration to all of us who seek to bring the body back as a key focus of academic concern in the social sciences. Those attuned to recent developments in the field will know that after centuries of the unchallenged reign of mind-body dualism in western cultures - associated ironically by some theorists with the dominance of the printed word - the body is on its way back, and I don't feel quite as strange in my fascination for writing as bodily knowing, which I attempted to express at last year's conference. Montaigne declared that 'Study and contemplation do in some sort withdraw from us, and deprive us of our souls, and employ it separately from the body, which is a kind of learning to die, and a resemblance of death' ('That to study philosophy, is to learn to die', I: 19: 63). He saw his mind as having contracted a 'strict fraternity' with the body ('On some verses of Virgil', III, 5: 700). His Essays were an embodiment of himself 'where at one view the veins, muscles and tendons are apparent' ('Use makes perfectness' II, 6; Cotton, 1685: : 320). Writing about his thought was 'but to give it a body' ('Of giving the lie' II, 18: 561). He quotes from a classical author with respect to himself: 'My intrails I lay open to men's view' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 781). What he wrote were, as he put it in a memorable phrase, 'essays of flesh and bone' ('On some verses of Virgil', III, 5: 700).
He sees his topics too in bodily terms: 'Of a hundred members and faces that every thing has, I take one, one while to look it over only, another while to ripple up the skin, and sometimes to pinch it to the bones: I give a stab, not so wide, but as deep as I can' ('Of Democritus and Heroclitus' I, 50: 261). He refers to weak arguments as 'incorporeal'. And he sought to make his own text 'one solid body, that may peradventure continue some years, or some days after I am gone' ('Of the resemblance of children to their fathers' II, 37: 654).
Montaigne insists that 'The body has a great share in our being, has an eminent place there... Those who go about to disunite, and separate our two principal parts from one another are to blame: we must on the contrary reunite and rejoyn them' ('Of presumption' II, 17: 539). The modern American essayist Wendell Berry fears that 'in using computers writers are flirting with a radical separation of mind and body, the elimination of the work of the body from the work of the mind' (Berry, 1990: 194). What an echo down the centuries. My interpretation of the fundamental root of such persectives is that the word processor deflects in space the act of inscription on paper in and (through its greatest virtue) suspends it in time, thus upsetting a mode which most of us have grown up with, and some of us may need.
In one of his most famous utterances, Montaigne declared that 'I have no more made my book than my book has made me' ('Of giving the lie' II, 18: 561). Here he clearly anticipates Roland Barthes's observation that we do not write, so much as we are written. Montaigne alludes to several ways in which he is acted on as a writer. Montaigne anticipates the 'post-modernist' observation that writing is unavoidably a tissue of quotations. He acknowledges that he would 'listen to books a little more attentively than ordinary, since I watch if I can purloin any thing that may adorn or support my own... studying to scratch and pinch now one author and then another... not with any design to steal opinions from them, but to assist, second and to fortifie those I already have embrac'd' ('Of giving the lie' II, 18: 562). One of his obsessions was the extent to which he was drawing on others or contributing ideas of his own. On reflection, we may see that many of our commonplaces in writing research we owe, often unwittingly, to Montaigne himself.
Secondly, Montaigne emphasized that environmental influences were more important than his deliberate intentions, declaring that: 'Accident has more title to any thing that comes from me, than I; occasion, company, and even the very rising and falling of my own voice, extract more from my fancy, than I can find when I examine and employ it by myself' ('Of quick or slow speech', I, 10: 45). For this reason he expressed his preference for speaking rather than writing. He felt that he was always open to changing as a person under the influence of 'any book, or friend' which might convince him ('Of the education of children' I, 25: 118).
Thirdly, Montaigne emhasized the substantial autonomy of his own book. The book is not simply an expression of his thoughts, but is 'consubstantial with the author' and 'a member of my life' ('Of giving the lie' II, 18: 561). Clearly writing the book helped him to understand himself. But he was aware that he was to some extent shaped by his own writing, suggesting that he sometimes modelled himself after the image he was creating in his book. He acknowledged being both shaper and shaped. He also anticipated Jacques Derrida's observation in acknowledging that 'The work, by its own force and fortune, may second the workman, and sometimes out-strip him, beyond his invention and knowledge' ('Of the art of conferring' III, 8: 746). The book was not only autonomous, but beyond the author's complete understanding. Some of those working in artificial intelligence might leap at this fleeting glimpse of Montaigne as an early worker in their field. Programming, after all, builds on the formalisms of written composition and making writing run.
Montaigne saw his task as to 'watch my self as narrowly as I can' ('Apology for Raimond de Sebonde' II, 12: 478). Many things that I would not confess to any one in particular, I deliver to the publick; and send my best friends to a bookseller's shop, there to inform themselves concerning my most secret thoughts' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 780-1). I recently discovered a similar perspective expressed by the English author A C Benson, who felt that in letters and books he was 'more myself... than in personal relations, which always seem less real to me - because, like all shy people, I tend to adapt myself too much to my company' (from Benson's letters to 'M.E.A.', in Murphy 1979: 529). Although I would not have thought of this as shyness in Montaigne at least, I could imagine him adapting himself freely and dynamically to the company he kept.
Montaigne declared that 'A man must be... conscientious, to give a true report' ('Use makes perfectness', II, 6: 320). This will no doubt endear him to those who analyze think-aloud protocols. He was aware of the difficulties of his project: He wrote that 'There is no description so difficult, not doubtless of so great utility, as that of a man's self' ('Use makes perfectness', II, 6: 319). He expresses such difficulties poetically: 'If peradventure you fix your thought to apprehend your being, it would be but like grasping water, for the more you clutch your hand to squeeze and hold what is in it's own naure flowing, so much more you lose of what you would grasp and hold' ('Apology for Raimond de Sebonde' II, 12: 510). Elsewhere he added: 'I cannot fix my object, 'tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness. I take it as it is at the instant I consider of it. I do not paint its being, I paint its passage... from day to day, from minute to minute... I may presently change, not only by fortune, but also by intention... whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations; so it is that I may peradventure contradict... It is always learning and making trial' ('Of repentance' III, 2: 669) - a motto for us all, perhaps. Note also the astonishing awareness of his own changing 'self'.
Montaigne was also conscious of the social dimension of writing. He was aware of thinking as a dialogue with others and with himself. He sometimes felt himself to be in 'dispute with my own thoughts' ('That the profit of one man is the inconvenience of another' I, 20: 82). With a strong preference for speech over writing, he is in this sense clearly a social writer. He wrote that 'There can be no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a spritely thought comes into my mind, that it does not grieve me to have produc'd alone, and that I have no one to communicate it unto' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 785). He saw his book as a way of introducing himself to others:
The reference to the three days it would have taken the dedicated and leisured reader of Montaigne's own time to read the Essays is not only something of a shock to the less leisured, perhaps less committed reader of today, but also points to an enduring source of literary power: what may take a reader three days took the writer far longer, so that a literary text can be experienced by readers as a personal release of great textual energy.
When writing about speech, Montaigne was aware that: 'Speaking is half his that speaks, and half his that hears; the last of which ought to prepare himself to receive it, according to its motion and rebound. Like tennis players, he that receives the ball, shifts and prepares, according as he sees him move who strikes the stroke, and according to the stroke it self' ('Of experience' III, 13: 869). Note the half-and-half emphasis: there are two active partners in the game; despite his use of the term, there is no passive receiver. Reader-reception theorists would be proud of him insofar as he applied this to his writing too. He clearly did not believe with those anachronistic textual objectivists who still survive that meaning resided entirely in the text, noting that 'a judicious reader does often find out in other men's writings, other kind of perfections, and finds in them a better sence and more quaint expression than the author himself either intended or perceiv'd' ('Various events from the same counsel' I, 23: 100). I think he might have had much sympathy with Stanley Fish's theories of the actively interpretive literary reader. One would expect no less from one who declared that 'the most universal quality, is diversity' ('Of the resemblance of children to their fathers' II, 37: 656). Take note those who harbour a unitary model of the writing process.
Montaigne clearly bore the reader's style of reading in mind when he reflected that: 'The frequent breaks, and short paragraphs in chapters that I made my method at the beginning of my book, I have since thought, broke and dissolv'd the attention before it was rais'd, as making it disdain to settle it self to so little; and upon that account have made the rest longer, such as require propositions, and assig'd leisure' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 793).
Another digression - I'll try to keep it brief - regarding my own concerns may be in order here - I take heart from the belief that Montaigne would commend such a digression. Those who know me - or my textual self at least - will know of my obsessive interest in those writers who, like me I confess, express a concern with Discovery in writing - an obsession shared in the USA by Donald Murray. I picture writers' experiences of their identity in this regard in relation to what I refer to as a continuum ranging from Discovery to Planning, with extreme Planners usually dismissing the notion of Discovery as representative of their experience of the act of writing. I'd emphasize here that Discovery is not necessarily directly related to specific writing practices, though it is often associated with what I call the Oil Painting strategy, which involves minimal pre-planning and major revision.
I have already referred to Montaigne's emphasis on writing as embodiment and to his awareness of being shaped by his writing as well as of shaping it, traits that seem to me to be frequently associated with writers who value writing as a way of discovery. For me Discovery typically involves extensive revision, and hence many such writers favour the Oil Painting strategy of jotting down ideas in no particular order and then gradually working them up into something more organized. However, one encounters a few writers who see themselves as Discoverers but who at the same time claim to do little revision. Indeed, there are many famous examples of literary writers who see much of what they write as dictated to them from some other within or beyond them - so in that sense they feel that they 'discover' what they write. Such writers often employ what I call the Watercolour strategy, whereby they write large chunks of writing with very little revision at all. In my framework, despite the minimal revision, Montaigne appears to be a Discoverer who sees himself employing the Watercolour strategy rather than the Oil Painting strategy.
In speaking, Montaigne wrote that 'My design is, to manifest in speaking a perfect negligence both of face and accent, and casual and unpremeditated motions, as rising from present occasions, chusing rather to say nothing on purpose' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 765). Note that Montaigne chooses to say that he plans to be unplanned - there's a sentence for you to deconstruct. One is reminded here of this notion in association with Romantic writers. And here I will digress a la Montaigne...
The English poet Shelley, of course, declared that 'a man cannot say "I will write poetry"' (cited in Wallas, 1926: 129). This stance is still widespread amongst many modern literary writers, who express a distrust of planning. The playwright Edward Albee declared: 'I don't begin with an idea for a plan - a thesis.' If he did so, Albee said, 'I wouldn't be able to allow the characters the freedom of expression to make them three-dimensional... I'd write a treatise' (Plimpton, 1967: 342). Watch out, all you thesis and treatise writers. Though I'd insist that even in academia one may discover one's thesis too.
I recently encountered an interesting and unusual variation on this theme offered by Mark Twain. Like Romantics, he felt that he should not try to impose his will on his methods or text. Now, many writers would tend to say that this stance represented their avoidance of 'mechanical' planning: Norman Mailer, for instance, wrote of one of his planned novels being 'written mechanically' in contrast to one over which he had 'absolutely no consious control' (Plimpton, 1967: 261; 258). But Mark Twain felt (unless he was teasing us) that since he experienced his writing as determined by forces beyond his control, this meant that he (and, he added, even Shakespeare) was a 'machine' (see Wallas, 1926: 197). I was intrrigued to realise that one may interpret 'being mechanical' either in terms of planning too much or not planning at all! I cannot resist referring to the novelist E L Doctorow's observations on this theme, with its memorable simile in answer to sceptical Planners. He writes:
Indeed, it was Doctorow who wrote that writing is 'a matter of being in language, of living in the sentences', and, as he added with Montaignian resonance, 'Your mind is the language of the book' (Plimpton, 1988: 309). Discovery in this sense may be experienced as being written by language, though one should perhaps add that it is only the skilled writer for whom this may lead to anything other than slavery to stylistic and structural cliches, since choices of some kind, however unconscious, subtle and embedded in experience, must be involved.
Returning to Montaigne... he perversely insisted that in his philosophical writings 'I leave the choice of my arguments to fortune, and take that that the first presents me; they are all alike to me, I never design to go through any of them; for I never see all of any thing' ('Of Democritus and Heroclitus' I, 50: 261). Such honesty is so disarming.
As a reader one sometimes encounters what seem to be contradictions in Montaigne's stances. For instance, whilst I feel that he seems more at home as a Discoverer, he seems to feel at times as if he ought to be more of a Planner. In one essay, for instance, he wrote:
Even in that passage I think you can sense seeds of doubt. The contrast is found when he says elsewhere that:
Like a small bark upon the swelling main, When winds does ruffle up the liquid plain: [CATULLUS]
Very often (as I am apt to do) having for sports sake undertaken to maintain an opinion contrary to my own, my mind bending and applying it self that way, does so rarely engage me in the quarrel, that I no more discern the reason of my former belief, and forsake it. I am as it were misled by the side to which I encline, be it what it will, and carried away by my own weight. ('Apology for Raimond de Sebonde' II, 12: 479).
Here we see him very much open to influences.
He also showed an awareness of what the modern philosopher Michael Polanyi called 'tacit knowledge': 'A man that thinks of something else, will not fail to take over and over again the same number and measure of steps, even to an inch, in the place where he walks: but if he makes it his business to measure and count them, he will find that what he did by nature and accident, he cannot so exactly do by design' ('Of presumption' II, 17: 549).
And in an unforgettable image, he presents what we would now call academic writers as she-bears. He declared: 'Arts and sciences are not cast in a mould, but are form'd and perfected by degrees, by often handling and polishing, as bears leisurely lick their cubs into shape; what my force cannot discover, I do not yet desist to sound and to try: but handling and kneading this new matter over, and over again, by turning and heating it, I lay open to him, that shall succeed me, a kind of facility to injoy it more at his ease, and make it more maniable and supple for him' ('Apology for Raimond de Sebonde' II, 12: 474). This is the only reference I have found so far by a writer to writing as a matter of moulding rather than sculpting or carving their meaning - a strikingly less mediated notion.
Would he have been happier with a word processor, I wonder. Like many word processor users, Montaigne lamented that: 'My hands are so clumsie, that I cannot so much as write so as to read it my self, so that I had rather do what I have scribbled over again, than to take upon me the trouble to correct it, and do not read much better than I write' ('Of presumption' II, 17: 542). This experience has a familiar ring for me at least. Montaigne tells us: 'I always write my letters post, and so precipitously, that though I write an intolerable ill hand, I rather choose to do it my self, than to imploy another; for I can find none able to follow me, and never transcribe any; but have accustomed the great ones that know me to endure my blots, and dashes, and upon paper without fold, or margent' ('A consideration upon Cicero' I, 39: 207).
Printing was a relatively modern invention at the time. The first edition of the Essays appeared in 1580 (the first printed book in French having appeared in 1477). One can feel Montaigne trying to counteract certain features of the printed word which encourage polish and closure. Here in Barthes' terms Montaigne's style is clearly writerly rather than readerly. Anticipating the doctrines of many Romantic writers, Montaigne believed in writing rapidly, without premeditation: 'Those [of his letters] that cost me the most pains, are the worst of mine; when I once begin to draw it in by head and shoulders, 'tis a sign that I am not there. I fall too without premeditation, or design, the first word begets the second, and so to the end of the chapter' ('A consideration upon Cicero' I, 39: 207).
This is not what I refer to as the Bricklaying strategy, where the progress is similarly sequential, since in the case of that strategy the writer polishes each chunk before moving on to the next. Montaigne hoped that this 'unpremeditated' way of working showed him to his readers as he really was: 'As things come into my head, I heap them one upon another, which sometimes advance in whole bodies, sometimes in single files: I am content that every one should see my natural and ordinary pace as ill as it is' ('Of books' II, 10: 343). Elsewhere, he added: 'I never correct my first by any second conceptions. I peradventure may alter a word or so: but 'tis only to vary the phrase, and not to destroy my former meaning. I have a mind to represent the progress of my humour, that every one may see every piece as it came from the forge' ('Of the resemblance of children to their fathers' II, 37: 633). Note the Romantic reference to that forge.
Montaigne insisted that: 'I... never review, but very unwillingly, what has once escap'd my pen' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 764). And elsewhere noted: 'I should well enough correct an accidental error, of which I am full, as I run carelessly on: but for any ordinary and constant imperfections, it were a kind of treason to put them out... I correct the faults of inadvertance, not those of custom. Do I not talk at the same rate throughout? Do I not represent my self to the life? 'Tis enough that I have done what I design'd; all the world knows me in my book, and my book in me' ('On some verses of Virgil' III, 5: 707). There is a sense here in which to erase his words would be to erase some part of himself, a feeling which some of us are aware of in using the word processor, a medium where, as I have often said, erasures obscure the evolution of our texts.
In fact, some modern studies of Montaigne have emphasized the way in which to some extent the impression of spontaneity in his text is crafted. But this too can be overstated, and in any case it is the writer's sense of what he is doing which is of primary interest to me. [As I have indicated, in my own terms, I would characterise this conception of composition as that of what I call the Watercolourist (and, despite the minimal revision, I regard Montaigne's basic phenomenological orientation as primarily that of a Discoverer).] The unpremeditated strategy is widely advocated in the teaching of writing in the United States today (in strong contrast to the British obsession with revision), and novelists such as Steinbeck and Bradbury have argued for its value as a way of minimizing the disruption of what the former referred to as the 'flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material' (Plimpton, 1977: 185).
Montaigne was aware of some of the problems that his mode of composition could give rise to, problems that this method shares with dictating to an amanuensis or a tape-recorder. He wrote: 'I... fear, in these ravings mine, the treachery of my memory, lest by inadvertence it should make me write the same thing twice' ('Of vanity', III, 9: 764). Those who cut and paste on the word processor are often prey to such concerns. At least, I am.
Talking of successive editions of his book, Montaigne declared: 'I add, but I correct not; first, because I conceive, that a man having once parted with his labours to the world, he has no farther right to them; let him do it better if he can in some new undertaking, but not adulterate what he has already sold; of such dealers nothing should be bought till after they are dead: let them well consider what they do, before they produce them to the light. Who hastens them?' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 766). Here he seems to value dwelling on his ideas over time. 'My book is always the same,' he says, and then we smile as he adds: 'save that upon every new edition, (that the buyer may not go away quite empty) I take the liberty to add... some few insignificant things over and above' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 766).
As to printers' errors, so familiar to us all when our words have reached the irretrievable fixity of print, and where typos scream at us like a teenager's spots, Montaigne notes that 'The faults of the workmanship are no where so apparent, as in a matter which of it self has no recommendation. Blame not me, reader, for those that slip in here, by the fancy or inadvertency of others... Whoever shall know how lazie I am, and how indulgent to my own humour, will easily believe that I had rather write as many more essays, than be ty'd to revise these over again for so childish a correction' ('Of vanity' III, 9: 767).
In the Montaignian spirit of resistance to closure, I will end - but not finish - by repeating his observation that 'It is a hard thing to close up a discourse, and to cut it short, when you are once in, and have a great deal more to say' ('Of lyars' I, 9: 40).
Note: References are to the edition of Montaigne's Essays translated by Charles Cotton in 1685, my copy of which was published in London by Ward, Lock & Tyler (undated).
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