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Montaigne et la melancolie: la sagesse des Essais.

Shortly after the 1983 publication of Montaigne and Melancholy, Commentaire published a highly laudatory critique by Marc Fumaroli entitled "Montaigne gentilhomme chretien." This critique (slightly modified) is now the preface to Montaigne et la melancolie, and in it Fumaroli rightfully stresses the natural affinity between Screech and his subject matter: the religious and spiritual credo that lies at the heart of the Essais. For Fumaroli, Screech's work sets the record straight: it contextualizes the Essais in such a way that we see that far from being either an agnostic with libertine proclivities, or a Catholic for purely political reasons, Montaigne was a strong supporter of the orthodoxies of the post-Tridentine Catholic Church and his work needs to be read in that light.

I have no doubt that readers of this translation will gain as strong a grasp of Screech's main tenets as readers of the original. The translators have followed the original's format scrupulously: author's preface; nineteen chapters, each neatly subdivided into short sections with their own titles; an appendix listing where in each chapter to find references to specific essays; another appendix offering the Latin Theodore Gaza version and the Septalius version of Aristotle's Problemata 30.1; a bibliography; and an index. Screech's direct way of expressing his viewpoint makes the task of translation that much easier. He announces his working premise on the first page of the preface: Montaigne's interest in various forms of ecstatic experience is linked to his having a melancholic disposition which made one more susceptible to such states where the soul was believed to be able to separate itself from the body. The "sagesse" to which the title alludes manifests itself in Montaigne's rejection of the Platonic ideal in favor of one more in keeping with the teachings of Aristotle and of the Catholic Church, where body and soul are seen as inextricably linked in defining what it is that constitutes the conditio humana. To support this reading, Screech provides us with what he views as the cultural, philosophical and religious commonplaces of Montaigne's time. As in the original, in this French translation there is no mistaking the major features of a portrait that paints Montaigne as someone who reserved his questioning to everything except "les avis inspires de l'eglise" (37). His attitudes towards suicide, flux, folly, are seen as faithful mirrors of the Catholic skepticism that was "dans l'air du temps" (69).

Even though this translation follows to the letter the original, what remains more debatable is how well the translators have succeeded in capturing some essential stylistic features of Screech's writing. A large part of what is so engaging about Screech's work is his remarkable way of elucidating subjects that in the hands of someone less skilled would tend to baffle, bore, or overwhelm. His personal evaluations, often revealed in his choice of adjectives, are an integral part of what he has to tell us about any subject matter. Unfortunately the translators frequently excise this element. To cite but two examples, they change Screech's description of Sanchez's "Quod nihil scitur" from "an exciting little book" (50) into "un petit livre" (69). Whereas Screech talks about antiquity's tendency to equate man with God as "that stupid error" (62) the translation offers us "ce travers" (83). Sometimes entire sentences vanish. To wit, in his exposition of his views concerning Montaigne's sincerity, Screech does not mince his words concerning how he reads the Essais: "if[Montaigne] consciously lied we might as well not bother to read him" (104). Since no translators' preface exists, one can only speculate why such a sentence is completely omitted (ch. 14, 134).

Perhaps the hardest task of translation is to render into a comparable register a particularly idiomatic or colloquial word or turn of phrase. Screech's text is filled with such challenges. Translators always struggle at these points; oftentimes here they have resorted to a solution that flattens out the text a bit too much. Where Screech talks about how Montaigne "lumps together" certain of Plato's remarks with Mahomet's, the translators offer us "associe" (172). "Botched" forms becomes "formes imparfaites" (141).

I would also have liked to see fewer typographical errors; more than a dozen in such a relatively short book seems much, with Moshe Baraz's last name beginning with an "M" in an alphabetical bibliography (223) being the most surprising.

Now some forty years since it was originally conceived, Screech's book makes accessible a cultural, theological and philosophical body of knowledge that keeps it rightfully in the ranks of important studies on Montaigne. In 1983 it offered a different slant on melancholy than Jean Starobinski's compelling Montaigne en mouvement of 1982. Montaigne et la meancolie offers a non-English reading public a very unique reading of the Essais. Scholars today are still struggling with some of the same issues and texts as Screech, and coming up with different facets (see, for example, Olivier Pot's recent work on Aristotle's Problemata 30.1 and melancholy in the Essais). That is perhaps the best testimonial not only to the polysemic nature of Montaigne's text, but also to what a Renaissance scholar such as Screech can offer us - a personal point of view so clearly laid out and so thought-provoking that it inspires us to take up where it leaves off.

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Author:Polachek, Dora E.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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