Amazon.com Widgets
James Frey Official Website
Join the JAMES FREY mailing list
Click

How The Plague Begat The Essay

from The New York Times

Montaigne Fled the Plague, and Found Himself

As disease and war ravaged the nation, he left town and invented the essay.

By Robert Zaretsky

In the summer of 1585, the mayor of Bordeaux learned, from the comfort of his nearby chateau, that the bubonic plague had burst upon his city. Those who could were fleeing, he was told, while those who could not were “dying like flies.” What to do? His term in office, on the one hand, was nearly over and his last official duty was to attend the transition ceremony. On the other hand, perhaps his duty was with those still inside the city walls.

Both hands on the reins of his horse, the mayor rode to the city’s edge and wrote to the municipal council to ask whether his life was worth a transition ceremony. He did not seem to receive a reply and returned to his chateau. By the time the plague subsided, more than 14,000 people — about a third of the city’s population — had died horrible deaths. As for the former mayor, he returned to a far more pressing task: the writing of essays.

The mayor was Michel de Montaigne. Known today as the author of the “Essays,” the classic of self-reflection and self-knowing, Montaigne was better perhaps known in his own lifetime as a man of politics. Yet his efforts — quite literally, his essais — at politics and his essais at portraying himself are not unrelated. In both cases, Montaigne probed the limits of what he could do in the world and what he could know about himself.

Bordeaux was a hot spot for both bacteriological and theological plagues in the late 1500s. The wars of religion, a series of eight distinct conflicts between Catholics and Protestants — replete with massacres on both sides — had ravaged France between 1562 and 1598. As both mayor and diplomat, Montaigne tried several times to broker accords between the two sides. He was known (and despised) by both sides as a politique: someone who, for the sake of all, tried to find common ground in a land savaged by zealotry.

[ click to continue reading at NYT ]

Posted on July 15, 2020 by Editor

Filed under Literary News | | No Comments »