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The subject of America: history and alterity in Montaigne's "Des Coches."

I. Ancient Tales, Modern Fragments: Narrative and the Essay

Near the center of "Des Coches," the sixth chapter of the third book of the

Essays, Montaigne pauses to consider the limits of human knowledge. Human

reason, he says, is "foible en tous sens. Elle embrasse peu et voit peu,

courte et en estandue de temps et en estandue de matiere" ["weak in every

direction. It embraces little and sees little, short in both extent of time

and extent of matter"].(1) As an example of how little humans know Montaigne

considers history. He cites Horace and Lucretius to the effect that the Trojan

War, generally thought to be a unique event, was itself only one in a series

of many such actions. Historians have simply forgotten the others.(2)

Montaigne comments that we are ignorant of a hundred times more than we know

about the exemplary deeds of the past and the great civilizations of the

world.(3) He suggests that human knowledge of the past is arbitrary, that

events get remembered and celebrated largely by chance. Indeed, many of the

greatest achievements of the contemporary world may simply be repetitions of

accomplishments long forgotten.

The Essays are full of such pronouncements about the inadequacy of

historical knowledge. In this case, however, the examples that Montaigne

adduces are particularly significant:

Nous nous escriions du miracle de l'invention de nostre artillerie, de

nostre impression; d'autres hommes, un autre bout du monde a la

Chine, en jouyssoit mille ans auparavant" (886)

[We exclaim at the miracle of the invention of our artillery, of our

printing; other men in another corner of the world, in China, enjoyed

these a thousand years earlier" (693)].

The pairing of the printing press and artillery recalls a cliche of Renaissance

culture. It was common in the sixteenth century to point to three marvelous

inventions that seemed unique to modernity and thus marked a break with the

past. These inventions were the printing press, gunpowder, and the nautical

compass. As one might expect, Montaigne calls to mind this commonplace only to

scorn those who would praise modernity. The sceptic grumbles that the novelty

of these miracles is no novelty at all, but merely the proof of human weakness.

What is striking, however, is that Montaigne only mentions two of the three

famous inventions that are conventionally grouped. He makes no note of the

compass. Yet the compass is clearly present, since a few sentences later

Montaigne cites a passage from Lucretius's De Rerum Natura that sings the

praises of new developments in navigation. This shadowy allusion to the

compass occurs at the very moment that the text turns to consider the New

World. The compass thus poses a problem for Montaigne. Since it truly is a new

invention, it is the evidence that questions his own questioning of the

greatness of his age.(4)

Montaigne's reticence here may, however, involve more than the sceptic's

hesitation in the face of contrary evidence. For any mention of the compass

inevitably evokes as well an event fostered by the new developments in

navigation that characterize the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This event

is the encounter with the New World. It is fitting that the veiled mention of

the compass should occur in a discussion of the limits of human knowledge. For

it was the New World encounter that demonstrated with shocking power the

limitations of European understanding. The paradox of the compass is thus that

the voyages it makes possible reveal to Europeans their cultural limitations,

even as the transformation it effects in navigation shows them their

technological power. For Montaigne, who wishes to decry the moral chaos of his

age, the power of technology remains, if not completely incomprehensible, at

least a source of uncertainty.

A comparison between Montaigne's hesitation and the attitudes of his

contemporaries may help to define the context of his concerns. On the first

page of their famous study Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno

cite Francis Bacon's treatise "In Praise of Human Knowledge." Bacon evokes the

same cliche that Montaigne does, pointing out that his age features three

things scarcely known to the ancients: "Printing, a gross invention;

artillery, a thing that lay not far out of the way; the needle, a thing partly

known before: what a change have these three things made in the world in these

times." For Bacon these discoveries are signs of progress, marks of a rupture

with the past. With these tools, unknown to the ancients, the moderns can

conquer and control nature. For Horkheimer and Adorno, however, they figure

not merely the conquest of nature but the development of instrumental reason,

of a rationality which unremittingly demystifies the world of magic and myth

to institute an order of domination: "the radio as a sublimated printing

press, the dive bomber as a more effective form of artillery, radio control as

a more reliable compass."(5) The founders of Critical Theory see in these

inventions a central paradox of modernity, the claim of Enlightenment

to free people at the moment it enslaves them. Montaigne's text, I will

suggest in the pages below, registers this paradox as well, though in

different terms. For whereas Dialectic of Enlightenment assumes as the

background to its argument the privileged role of the rise of the natural

sciences in the domination of nature, Montaigne, who lacks any concept of

Enlightenment, explores the paradoxes sparked by New World exploration

principally in moral terms and within the context of a crisis in

historiographical thought.

The humanist culture that Montaigne inherits conventionally defines

innovation in diachronic terms, by reflecting on the relationship between the

ancients and the moderns. In the case of the nautical compass, however,

technology reveals another type of novelty, the "newness" that is the alterity

of the New World. This eruption of a spatially defined alterity into the

powerfully diachronic sensibility of Renaissance humanism necessarily produces

a crisis in the way European culture defines and locates itself.(6) "Des

Coches," which I shall examine in some detail, is marked in particularly

compelling ways by this meeting of historical novelty and geographical novelty.

The most complex and least studied of Montaigne's reflexions on the New World,

"Des Coches" is the only one of the essays to juxtapose a prolonged

consideration of antiquity with a meditation on America--reproducing in its

very structure Montaigne's comment, cited a moment ago, that understanding is

measured by "extent of time" (history, antiquity) and "extent of matter"

(geography, America). Moreover, and most important, "Des Coches" brings the

question of the otherness of the New World into proximity with issues

involving self-representation and writing. It thus permits us to consider the

relationship between, on the one hand, the way New World knowledge disrupts

historical understanding, and, on the other hand, the development of the

essay, of the vastly influential prose form that Montaigne bequeathed to


The question of how New World exploration transforms the discourse of

history is important, not only for Montaigne, but for many of the historians

who were his contemporaries. Of special importance as background to

Montaigne's reflections are such thinkers as Jean Rodin and Henri La

Popeliniere, historiographers and philosophers who evince a critical attitude

toward historical sources that seems in many ways not unlike Montaigne's, even

as they propose new models of understanding of which he would have been

sceptical. In the wake of new developments in legal studies and philology and

following the rise of interest in antiquarianism, late sixteenth-century

French historiography was attempting to displace the tradition of rhetorical

historiography inherited from Italian humanism--a tradition frequently

centered on heroic images and the "mythical" connection between nascent

national states and classical precedents. Bodin's Method for the Easy

Comprehension of History dates from 1566 and proposes to offer a method for

distinguishing historical truth from historical error. Bodin's text, like La

Popeliniere's Idea of Perfect History (1599) offered a new, demythologized or

"proto-Enlightenment" approach to the past.(7) Yet even as Montaigne's

scepticism toward historical knowledge seems to parallel the newly critical

attitude of such contemporaries as Bodin and La Popeliniere, his own

ideological allegiances are to a traditional aristocratic morality, which draws

much of its energy from the heroic humanist historiography that is being

displaced. Montaigne's text is thus caught between a revisionary attitude

towards antiquity and a nostalgia for what appears to be a vanishing classical


The tension between the novelty of America and the traditional excellence

embodied in classical culture is reflected in the very structure of "Des

Coches." The essay falls easily into two parts, with the attack on historical

understanding and human reason that I cited at the outset as the moment of

transition or hinge pin between them. In the early pages, following an opening

meditation on his taste in modes of transportation (to which I shall return in

a moment), Montaigne considers the various forms of ancient magnificence and

pomp. He reflects on the ways in which the classical triumph and the

gladiatorial game were used by ancient princes to demonstrate their liberality

and define their relationship to their subjects. In the second half he

considers the New World. The two sections are related on several levels. The

themes of pomp and domination, treated in the first half, prefigure later

discussions of New World splendor and conquest--even as the ceremony of the

triumph suggests the imperial custom of marching captured enemies before the

victorious populace. The consideration of royal ceremony also serves to

introduce the question of how different viewers approach the same event. For

the problem with demonstrations of wealth, suggests Montaigne, is that,

instead of pleasing subjects, they may seem wasteful: "Il semble aus subjects,

spectateurs de ces triomphes, qu'on leur faict montre de leurs propres

richesses et qu'on les festoye a leurs despens" (880) ["It seems to the

subjects, spectators of these triumphs, that they are given a display of their

own riches, and entertained at their own expense" (688)]. This concern with

multiple perspectives, here defined in social terms, will become a central

issue in the representation of the New World.

A main concern of "Des Coches" is the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru.

The most heavily weighted passages in the essay involve the fall of Cuzco

and the destruction of Tenochtitlan. Whereas Montaigne's first discussion of

the New World, in the early essay "Des Cannibales," seeks to describe the

customs of the Brazilians, "Des Coches" is concerned with events, that is,

with history. The depiction in "Des Cannibales" of Brazil as "tres-plaisante

et bien temperee" (205) ["very pleasant and temperate" (153)], blessed with

an endless supply of fish, fowl and fruits, gives way in "Des Coches" to

a praise of Montezuma's garden, "ou tous les arbres, les fruicts et toutes

les; herbes, selon l'ordre et grandeur qu'ils ont en un jardin estoyent

excellemment formez en or" (887) ["in which all the trees, the fruits, and all

the herbs were excellently fashioned in gold and so arranged as they

might be in an ordinary garden" (693)]. As we move from one essay to the

other, the metaphor of the golden age is literalized, reified into a real

golden garden--a garden which, moreover, is described in the past tense, as

the product of a dead civilization.(8)

This sense of the New World as an historical, rather than a natural, object,

informs Montaigne's shifting description of America, which seems to enact

the very collapse it describes. He begins by declaring, "Nostre monde vient d'en

trouver un autre ... non moins grand, plain et membru que luy, toutes fois

si nouveau et si enfant qu'on luy apprend encor son a, b, c" (886) ["Our world

has just discovered another world ... no less great, full, and well-limbed than

itself, yet so new and so infantile that it is still being taught its A B C"

(693)]. A moment later, however, this present infancy is already a past event:

"Cestoit un monde enfant" (887) ["It was an infant world" (693)]. And at the

end of the essay he will reveal that, in fact, this young world is very old,

living at the end of history.(9)

"Des Cannibales" ends somewhat comically, as we see the essayist trying to

communicate with a Brazilian captive who has been brought to France and

paraded before the king during a kind of modern copy of a classical triumph. By

the time of "Des Coches," however, Montaigne has read of Spanish atrocities in

the New World, and he is quick to express his disapproval. His condemnation of

the Spanish, moreover, implies not only a moral judgment, but links their vices

to the whole question of novelty. For as he laments the outrages visited upon

native populations Montaigne remarks that they are unexampled. Never before, he

says, have human beings so destroyed each other: "Tant de villes resees, tant de

nations exterminees ... pour la negotiation des perles et du poivre!

mechaniques victoires. Jamais l'ambition, jamais les inimitiez publiques ne

pousserent les hommes les uns contre les autres a si hotribles hostilitez et

calamitez si miserables" (889) ["So many cities razed, so many nations

exterminated ... for the traffic in pearls and pepper! Base and mechanical

victories! Never did ambition, never did public enmities drive men against one

another to such horrible hostilities and such miserable calamities" (695)].

Thus the moral consequences of the encounter with the New World mark a break

with the past no less important than that signaled by the nautical compass and

the "discovery" of America itself. Yet no sooner has this novelty been

acknowledged than it is counterbalanced by the description of the virtue of the

Aztecs and the Incas. Their virtue rivals the virtue of the ancients; it

reestablishes a link with the past:

Quant a la hardiesse et courage, quant a la fermete, constance,

resolution contre les douleurs et la faim et mort, je ne craindrois pas

d'opposer les exemples que je trouverois parmy eux aux plus fameux

exemples anciens que nous ayons aus memoires de nostre monde par

deca (887)

[As for boldness and courage, as for firmness, constancy,

resoluteness against pains and hunger and death, I would not fear to

oppose the examples I could find among them to the most famous

ancient examples that we have in the memories of our world on this

side of the ocean (694)].

The paradox of the New World is that the site of geographical novelty is

the site of moral traditionalism. Yet here again, this praise of virtue is

tinged with a sense of lateness and loss. For these peoples only reveal their

classical heroism through their vain struggle against the Spaniards. In order

for New World natives to practice classical virtue, their civilization, like

Troy, must be destroyed.(10)

Like the anxiety surrounding Montaigne's evocation of the compass, the

paradoxical location of ancient virtue in new lands underscores the

difficulty of processing new historical knowledge through old ethical and moral

categories. The Hellenistic historian Polybius had given voice to a cliche of

imperialist historiography when he claimed that under Rome "history becomes an

organic whole; the affairs of Italy and of Africa are connected with those of

Asia and of Greece, and all events bear a relationship and contribute to a

single end."(11) This dream of a unified history, however, is precisely what

the American encounter places in question. One can see traces of the strain it

puts on historiographical narrative with a glance at one of the major

historians of the first half of Montaigne's century, Francesco Guicciardini,

whose great Storia d'Italia Montaigne knew well. In Book 6 of his history

Guicciardini digresses from a discussion of tensions between the Venetians and

the Turks to acknowledge the importance of Portuguese and Spanish exploration.

He begins by mentioning that Venetian fortunes were harmed when their monopoly

on the spice trade was challenged by the Portuguese voyages to India. The

Portuguese opening of Indian trade routes is described by Guicciardini as a

noteworthy event deserving praise. "But even more marvelous," he continues,

"were the voyages of the Spaniards beginning in the year 1490 at the initiative

of Christopher Columbus, a Genoese."(12) And he goes on to say that the great

navigators, especially Columbus, "are worthy to be celebrated with eternal

praise for their skill, their industry, their resoluteness, their vigilance, and

their labors, by means of which our century came to know about such great and

unforeseen things."(13)

Guicciardini's language recalls conventions of classical historiography,

which aims to fix the meaning of past events through a rhetoric of

commemoration. Yet he tempers his praise with the comment that "their

achievements would have been even more worthy of celebration if they had been

induced to undertake such perils and trials, not by an immoderate lust for gold

and riches, but by a desire, either to gain this knowledge for themselves or

for others, or else to propagate the Christian faith. "(14) The unified

perspective that Polybius projects for the historian shows signs of strain

here. The moral and epistemological ambivalence accompanying European responses

to the alterity of the New World threatens to interrupt the direction of

Guicciardini's story. The connection between the main thread of his narrative

and the side trip to the New World is justified by the fact that Columbus's

voyage "has some connection with Italian affairs."(15) More important, the

questionable motives of the explorers are glossed over by Guicciardini's use of

the conditional tense to temper his obvious admiration for the new arts of

navigation. The awkwardness of the conditional tense, which slips in a cautious

moral commentary without ever passing judgment on New World events, suggests

the ambiguity that infects the interpretation of the Columbian voyage.

Guicciardini admires the conquistadores, but he would prefer that they be

missionaries or men of science.

If anxiety about the meaning of the New World voyages mars the surface of a

narrative like Guicciardini's, in which the topic is a mere aside, one

should not be surprised to see it raise similar problems in attempts to imagine

a comprehensive philosophy of history. Montaigne's historiographer

contemporaries frequently wonder, as they seek to elaborate a model of human

(rather than merely national) history, whether that history is to be understood

as a process of decline or of ascent. Bodin ponders this question in his Method

and concludes, on the evidence of the topos I evoked earlier (printing, the

compass, gunpowder) that neither in morality nor in technical knowledge do the

ancients surpass the moderns; history is not a process of decline.(16)

A similar concern with the narrative connection between antiquity and

modernity infuses Montaigne's discussion in "Des Coches." Yet whereas

Guicciardini introduces multiple perspectives on the same event through an

aside in the conditional mode, Montaigne proceeds by juxtaposing contrasting

fragments of a classical subtext. As he opens his discussion he twice cites

Lucretius's De Rerum Natura. The first citation comes from book two of that

poem, where Lucretius discusses the movement of nature: "Janique adeo affecta

est aetas, affectaque tellus" (886) ["The age is broken down, and broken down

is the earth" (693)]. The second is from Lucretius's book five: "Verum, ut

opinor, habet novitatem summa, recensque/Natura est mundi, neque pridem exordia

coepit:/ Quare etiam quaedam nunc artes expoliuntur/ Nunc etiam augescunt, nunc

addita navigils sunt/ Multa" (886) ["The world, I think, is very young and new,

and it is not long since its beginning. Even now some arts are being perfected,

some are developing; even today many improvements have been made in the arts of

navigation"(693)(17) The two citations from Lucretius seem to offer

conflicting versions of the progress of the world. In one, history is the

history of decay. In the other history is a positive movement from primitive

technology to more sophisticated inventions.

It is significant that Montaigne cites Lucretius at the moment he turns to

consider New World discovery. As Hans Blumenberg has pointed out,

Lucretius's poetic rehashing of Epicurian atomism takes on a particular

significance in the late Renaissance. Lucretius's poem subverts notions of

historical linearity in ways that lend support to a sceptical attitude toward

historical and cosmic teleology.(18) Indeed, Montaigne's initial reference in

the essay to the movement of history seems to recall the famous Lucretian

notion of the clinamen, of the chance encounters between atoms that make

possible the very existence of things: "Nous n'allons point, nous rodons

plustost, et tournoions ca et al. Nous nous promenons sur nos pas" (885) ["We

do not go in a straight line; we rather turn this way and that. We retrace our

steps" (692)]. For Montaigne, it is not atoms but events and people that meet

each other by chance. The collision of peoples brings about events; the

collision of events offers the raw material for the narratives that we call


The context of Montaigne's juxtaposition of fragments from Lucretius

converts the Roman poet's cosmological reflection into a commentary on history.

By using Lucretius to suggest an impasse of narrative understanding Montaigne

lends authority to his own sceptical suspension of judgment. Indeed, he

follows his citations with the remark that, just as Lucretius is wrong to

assume that the world is young, so may he and his contemporaries be wrong to

assume that it is old. By citing conflicting images from the De Rerum Natura

Montaigne makes Lucretius into a kind of Pyrrhonist, a sceptic who shares his

own uncertainty about the movement of history. This suspension of judgment is

both reversed and reaffirmed a moment later--again in terms that suggest a

disruption of narrative:

Si nous concluons bien de nostre fin, et ce poete de la jeunesse de son

siecle, cet autre monde ne faira qu'entrer en lumiere quand le nostre en

sortira. L'univers tombera en paralisie; l'un membre sera perclus, l'autre

en vigueur (887)

[If we are right to infer the end of our world, and that poet is night

about the youth of his own age, this other world would be coming into

the light when ours is leaving it. The universe will fall into paralysis;

one member will be crippled, the other in full vigor (693)].

Whereas a moment ago both Montaigne and Lucretius were probably wrong, they

now both may be right. Yet here Montaigne goes Lucretius one better. For

the idea that the death of one thing brings about the birth of another is a

central tenet of Lucretius's cosmology--one that was frequently echoed by

Montaigne's contemporaries in their reflections on history. Yet by adding the

notion of paralysis Montaigne turns an image of change into an image of


The Lucretian references gloss the suppressed presence of the nautical

compass, suggesting that it marks a point of resistance, the site at which

the novelty of the New World disrupts the discourse of historiography. If

historiography is a practice that turns past events into signs, the

nautical compass and the great encounter it facilitates here disclose the

limitations of traditional political historiography. Unable to accommodate New

World alterity, historiography splits into ethnography, on the one hand, and

the history of technology, on the other.

Of course, the encounter with the other frequently leads to a crisis of

historical understanding like the one suggested in Montaigne's citations of

Lucretius. Certainly, Montaigne knows that such revisions of historical

knowledge are nothing new. In an addition made to the last version of the text

he evokes Plato's Timaeus and Solon's Journey to the Priests of Sais. Not

surprisingly, Plato's presentation of the tale deepens the complexity of

Montaigne's concern with the relationship of events, historical authority and

narrative truth. In Plato's text Critias tells Socrates how Solon journeyed to

Egypt to learn of the most "ancient famous action of the Athenians." This

action, heretofore unknown to the descendants of those who committed it, turns

out to be the Athenians' defense of the Mediterranean against invasion from the

people of Atlantis. Yet as he is told this story Solon is mocked by the Egyptian

priests, who claim that the Greeks are ignorant of their past: "you Hellenes

are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you."(21)

Even the wise Greeks seem not to know their own history. Though it thought

itself old, the Greek world, too, was an "Infant world."

The Atlantean invasion of Europe both reverses the European invasion of the

New World and prefigures the Trojan War. Socrates remarks slyly (paralleling

Montaigne's concerns with historical truth) that the story might even be

true, and not just legend. His scepticism recalls the scepticism of Montaigne's

historiographer contemporaries, who sought to question their precursors'

interest in the legendary ancient origins of national states. Yet if figures

such as Bodin and La Popeliniere aimed to replace national history by a larger

vision of world history, their projects nonetheless depended upon a notion of

history as narrative. Thus, for example, Bodin sought a point of origin for the

development of a "Universal Chronology" which could serve as the historian's

equivalent of Ariadne's thread.(22) However, by citing Plato, Montaigne goes

further and subverts the very notion of a national origin. History becomes a

kind of infinite regress. The Greeks seem old to the moderns, but they are

children to the Egyptians, who go on to point out their foolishness in

believing that there has been only one great flood. World historical encounters

are many. All history is relative. The arbitrariness of the connections between

events recalls again the chance encounters between Lucretian atoms as they

brush each other to make up the universe. The narrative of translatio imperii

is scattered; Troy may just be an isolated incident. Everything and nothing is


II. Montaigne and His Doubles: Identity and the Essay

The conflicts raised by Montaigne's citation of classical texts suggest the

uncertainty plaguing any attempt to interpret the present, to fix the

meaning of events that do not, as Polybius said, "contribute to a single

end." And yet, as Polybius's own language suggests, interpretation itself

implies an ending, a point from which sequences and deeds can be read.(24)

Montaigne's admiration of Mexican virtue implies its pastness. Thus we

should not be surprised to find, in the last pages of the essay, a reflection

on endings, and on that most final of endings, apocalypse:

Ceux du Royaume de Mexico estoient aucunement plus civilisez et

plus artistes que Westolent les autres nations de IA. Aussi jugeoient-ils

ainsi que nous, que l'univers fut proche de sa fin, et en prindrent

pour signe la desolation que nous y apportames (892)

[The people of the kingdom of Mexico were somewhat more civilized

and skilled in the arts than the others. Thus they judged, as we do,

that the universe was near its end, and they took as a sign of this the

desolation that we brought upon them (698)].

The ending described here suddenly recuperates the disparate moments of

history, marshalling them into a coherent story. The fragmentation of

events in time gives way to an apocalyptic moment of unification, to a

resolution of the tension between event and narrative.(25) Moreover,

the alterity of the Aztecs vanishes; they understand history as we do."

The Americans' perspective merges with the Europeans' perspective as all

"judge" the cosmos together. Both groups exercise the faculty of judgment--the

faculty that Montaigne himself aims to promote and train through the writing

of the Essays. This is perfect history indeed.

However, this unifying gesture is incomplete. For even as it seems to unify

diverse cultural perspectives in a gloomy narrative ending, it opens a

perspective from which the impossibility of assimilating Aztecs and Europeans

within the same story becomes evident. It marks a spot at which

fragmentation in time gives way to fragmentation in space. Like the

Europeans, the Aztecs live in history, read signs, and see that the end

is at hand. Yet the Aztecs' experience of this ending is obviously unlike

Montaigne's. For Montaigne the end is metaphorical, it

structures a melancholy model of history that sees time as a long slow fall into

disorder, into a moral weakness that Bodin playfully compares at one point

to the debilitated body of an aging historian.(26) For the Aztecs, however,

the arrival of the Spaniards is not only the sign of a fall. It is that fall,

in a collapse as catastrophic as the fall of Troy. The tension between two

distinct cultures is the tension between an imaginative understanding of the

end (Montaigne) and a literal experience of the end (the Aztecs and the Incas).

Though Montaigne's rhetoric seems to aim to unify human history in a single

story, it only does so by blurring the distinction between literal and

figural. His own thematic concern with how events are interpreted from

diverse perspectives, in fact, works to underscore the difference

between American and European experience.

A similar paradox informs Montaigne's own placement in the essay, defining

his status as judge and as witness (if only second hand, through reading) of the

confrontation between Spanish conquerors and New World natives. For one

thing, Montaigne's interpretation of the end is itself "after" the

interpretation given by the Aztecs. It looks back on their prediction of

doom as true, making it an episode in the tale of Spanish conquest. But an

even more important difference in perspective is opened in the famous final

paragraph where, as if to stress the literalness of the fall of New World

glory, a kind of emblem of collapse can be seen. "Retombons a nos coches" (894)

["Let us fall back to our coaches" (698)], says Montaigne, recalling the

title of the essay. And he points out how the last

Inca king was borne aloft on the shoulders of his men:

Ce dernier Roy du Peru, le jour qu'il fut pris, estoit ainsi porte sur des

brancars d'or, et assis dans une cheze d'or, au milieu de sa

bataille. Autant qu'on tuoit de ces porteurs pour le faire choir A bas

(car on le vouloit prendre vif), autant d'autres, et al' envy, prenoient la

place des morts, de facon qu'on ne le peut onques abattre, quelque

meurtre qu'on fit de ces gens la jusques a ce qu'un homme de cheval

l'alla saisir au corps, et l'avalla par terre (894)

[That last king of Peru, the day that he was taken, was carried thus on

shafts of gold, seated in a chair of gold, in the midst of his army. As

many of these carriers as they killed to make him fall--for they wanted

to take him alive--so many others vied to take the place of the dead

ones, so that they could never bring him down, however great a

slaughter they made of those people, until a horseman seized him

around the body and pulled him to the ground (698--9)].

The figure of the falling Atahualpa functions both temporally and spatially.

Temporally, it signals the end of indigenous empires in the New World.

Spatially, it figures the relationship of conqueror and conquered. Yet this

emblematic moment echoes another passage, at the very opening of the

essay, in which Montaigne describes his own preference in modes of

transportation: "Or je ne puis souffrir long temps ... ny coche, ny

littiere, ny bateau; et hay tout autre voiture que de

cheval, et en la ville et aux champs" (878) ["I cannot long endure ...

either coach, or litter, or boat, and I hate any other transportation

than horseback, both in town and in the country" (687)]. Thus the essay

is framed by two images of horsemen. The parallel between them sets up

a momentary identification between the essayist as chevalier and the

Spaniard mounted on one of the chevaux that so terrified the

people of the New World. Indeed, on one level there is a kind of essential

link between Montaigne and this Spanish horseman. The essayist's very body

refuses to travel except by horse. Yet no sooner is that link

established than it is broken. For that same body also prevents

the essayist from ever reaching the New World. He takes pains to

point out that travel on boats makes him ill: "Par cette legere

secousse que les avirons donnent, desrobant le vaisseau soubs nous, le me

Sens brouiller, je ne scay comment, la teste et `estomach, comme le ne puis

souffrir soubs moy un siege tremblant" (878) ["By that slight jolt given

by the oars, stealing the vessel from under us, I somehow feel my head

and stomach troubled, as I cannot bear a shaky seat under me" (687)].

Thus the facticity of the body both associates Montaigne with

the ravishers of the New World and saves him from being one

of their company. Because he is a horseman, Montaigne is identified

with the man who pulls down the Inca emperor; he is part of the "we"

that includes the Spanish colonialists. Yet the fact that he cannot

travel by sea separates him apart, roots him in Gascony, and makes

possible his imaginative identification and sympathy with

the very victims of the Spanish invaders. The figure of the horseman both

identifies Montaigne with a group and affirms his difference from that

group. It thus underscores the tension between group identity and

individuality that plagues discussions of subjectivity after the


The double image of the horseman suggests a complex location for the

essayist/subject in Montaigne's essay. The contrasts he draws between the

Spanish invaders and the Mexican and Incan natives sets up an opposition

between the European subject and the American "other" that looks familiar to

students of cross-cultural encounters. At the same time, however,

Montaigne's self-representation as a horseman suggests that the

"other" who here haunts this Gascon nobleman, whose mother was a Jew

of Spanish origin, is the Spaniard who destroys the Americas in the

name of profit. Neither the Spaniard nor the American, but linked

culturally to the one and sympathetically to the other,

Montaigne is caught between two conflicting positions. His depiction of the

encounter between European and Mexican in the final pages of the essay is

marked by an attempt to locate himself and his reader, both geographically

and morally. The staging of the encounter seeks to define in language a

location from which to harmonize Montaigne's conscience, which

recoils at European atrocity, with his consciousness of himself as a


Central to Montaigne's location of himself and his reader will be the

question of language, both the language of dialogue and the language

of the essay. Montaigne's earlier reflection on the New World, "Des

Cannibales," ends with an arresting image. After having ruminated at

some length on the problems that plague European attempts to understand

the peoples of the New World, Montaigne suddenly reveals that he has

himself spoken with them: "Trois d'entre eux ... furent a Rouen, du

temps que le feu Roy Charles neufiesme y estoit ... Je parlay A l'un d'eux

fort long temps" (212) ["three of these men were at Rouen, at

the time of the late Charles IX ... I had a very long talk with one of

them" (158)]. Yet unfortunately this "long talk" turns out to be long,

not because it involves any type of true dialogue, but because both

sides have to labor to make themselves understood. Montaigne reports

that the interpreter mediating between him and his American

`interlocutor hindered the exchange of ideas by his stupidity --"par

sa bestise" (212). The dialogue seems to have been tittle more

than a source of frustration.(29)

This comical scene of failed communication finds its analogue in "Des

Coches," when Montaigne paraphrases a passage from Lopez de Gomara's

Historia general de las Indias. He describes a group of Spaniards landing

on the coast of Mexico. The invaders ask the inhabitants for food

and gold and tell them that they must become subjects of the

Catholic King of Spain. The Mexicans offer the strangers the provisions

they request, but state that they have neither use for gold nor desire

to change their king or their religion. After having

paraphrased the discourse of the natives, Montaigne declares admiringly,

"Voila un exemple de la balbucie de cette enfance" (890) ["There we have

an example of the babbling of this infancy" (696)]. And he goes on to

note approvingly that, in this case, the Spaniards, though finding none

of the treasure they sought, chose not to ravage the spot on which they

had landed. The elegant "babbling" of the natives seems here to be an

example of effective persuasive rhetoric. However this moment of

success, of natives driving off European invaders with nothing but their

language, is fragile. Rather, Montaigne's very mention of the "infancy" of the

New World echoes his earlier statement that America "was an infant world," and

suggests his sharp awareness that the noble rhetoric of the Mexicans, with its

expression of proud independence, was, in the broader context, completely

unsuccessful in persuading the Spanish to mind their own business and return to

Europe. Indeed, one might even say that his shiver of admiration at the speech

is the very consequence of his knowledge of the Aztecs' sad destiny. For once

their civilization has been destroyed, they cease to be a threat to Europe. They

can then become an object of mourning and thus of aesthetic pleasure.

If the persuasive rhetoric practiced by the Mexicans in this scene is

generally doomed to failure, it is in a different type of language, the

language of the essay itself, that the tension between Old World and New World

must be harmonized. Though the theme of Montaigne's own language is not raised

explicitly in "Des Coches," this chapter is fascinated by the relationship

between language, text, and cultural difference. For one thing, the split

between Montaigne's identification as a horseman and his location in France

parallels, on the level of the essayist's project of self-portraiture, the

general rhetorical strategy of the essay, which plays constantly on the tension

between the literal consequences of events in America and their metaphorical

equivalents. Montaigne is literally a horseman, but imaginatively allied with

the Americans. In a more obviously self-referential context, the structure of

the text seems to mirror the themes it treats. Thus, for example, the famous

image of the falling Atahualpa comes at the end of Montaigne's essay--what in

French is called its "fall," or "chute."(30) No less striking is the fact that

it is not only the Atlantic ocean that separates the images of the two

horsemen. Since they stand at opposite ends of "Des Coches," it is literally

Montaigne's text that keeps them apart. The essay itself stands between the

image of the sedentary philosopher in Gascony and the cruel conquistador who

brought down Atahualpa. Text mimics geography. Moreover, the final image of the

fall of Atahualpa is introduced with the phrase, "Retombons A nos coches," an

exhortation that replaces both the collapse of the Inca empire and Montaigne's

own aversion to four-wheeled vehicles with a purely textual voyage, a fall into

the geography of the imagination.(31)

Issues of figurality and perspectivism inform Montaigne's analysis of the

cause of Spanish conquest. Montaigne points out that the reason why the vicious

and outnumbered Spaniards were able to conquer the virtuous and heroic Aztecs

was that they had an unfair advantage: they were deceitful.

Pour ceux qui les ont subjugez, qu'ils ostent les ruses et batelages

dequoy ils se sont servis a les piper, et le juste estonnement [de] ces

nations la ... vous leur ostez toute l'occasion de tant de victoires (887-8)

[As regards the men who conquered them, take away the ruses and

tricks that they used to deceive them and the people's natural

astonishment ... and you take from the conquerors the whole basis of

so many victories (694)].

Montaigne identifies two factors for the defeat of Mexico: Spanish ruse and

Aztec surprise. However, in his re-creation of the encounter there is no

mention of any ruse on the part of Cortez and his men. We are simply told that

the Aztecs were astonished at the appearance of Spanish horses, at the noise

of their cannon, at the sight of men in beards with strange religious customs.

In this version the morally corrupt Spanish defeat their heroic adversaries by

virtue of their very being, of their alterity itself. Or, more exactly, it is

their alterity that is a ruse. The Spanish conquer the Aztecs by simply being

themselves, by demonstrating their cannons and riding their horses and

practicing their religion and wearing their beards. When he asserts that the

Spaniards win simply by their alterity Montaigne denies them any claim to

heroism. They are deceitful like the Greeks invading Troy, but they lack

Greek sagacity or courage; they ride real horses instead of building wooden

ones. Traditional aristocratic virtue now surfaces among the Aztecs, whose

perspective Montaigne here constructs for the reader. By thus locating

classical virtue, however, Montaigne affirms the absolute difference between

New World and Old World.

Again, it seems impossible to assimilate the geographical and cultural

novelty of America without sacrificing the historical continuity between

antiquity and modernity. In this case traditional heroism can be located only

by asserting such an absolute difference between groups that mere alterity

becomes a ruse. It is no accident, moreover, that this difference emerges

around the image of the horse. The horse appears countless times in

Montaigne's text as a figure for transport and transportation, for

displacement, translation, diplomacy and a host of other border-crossing

functions. The violent reality of cross-cultural encounters becomes legible

in the fact that that same horse image, so easily deployed in a European

context, is seen to strike terror into the members of another culture.(32)

No less striking is that we now see the encounter from the perspective of

the New World natives, who are so astonished by the strangeness of the

Spanish that they are defeated by them. This reversal, moreover, marks the

point at which the figurative capacity of language assumes a mediating

function between Old World and New World. Montaigne opens his description of

an encounter between Spaniards and Aztecs by lamenting that Europe has subdued

the New World not with virtue but with vice: "nous ne l'avons practique

par nostre justice et bonte ny subjugue par nostre magnanimite" (887) ["we

have neither won it over by our justice and goodness, nor subjugated it by our

magnanimity" (693)]. This uniquely European lament is however undercut by

Montaigne's subsequent description of the relations between the Spaniards and

the Americans. It consists of a single sentence that must be cited at length:

Pour ceux qui les ont subjuguez, qu'ils ostent les ruses et batelages

dequoy ils se sont servis a les piper, et le juste estonnement

qu'aportoit a ces nations la de voir arriver si inopineement des gens

barbus, divers en langage, religion, en forme et en contenance, d'un

endroict du monde si esloigne et ou ils n'avoyent jamais imagine qu'il y

eust habitation quelconque, montez sur des grands monstres

incogneuz, contre ceux qui n'avoyent non seulement veu de cheval,

mais beste quelconque duict a porter et soustenir homme ny autre

charge; garnis d'une peau luysante et dure et d'une arme tranchante et

resplendissante ... adjoustez y les foudres et tonnerres de nos pieces

et harquebouses, capables de troubler Caesar mesme, ... contez, dis-je

aux conquerans cette disparite, vous leur ostez toute l'occasion de

tant de victoires (888)

[For as regards the men who subjugated them, let them take away the

ruses and tricks that they used to deceive them and the people's

natural astonishment at seeing the unexpected arrival of bearded men,

different in language, religion, shape and countenance, from a part of

the world so remote, where they had never imagined there was any

sort of human habitation, mounted on great unknown monsters,

opposed to men who had never seen not only a horse, but any sort of

animal trained to carry and endure a man or any other burden; men

equipped with a hard and shiny skin and a sharp and glittering weapon

... add to this the lightning and thunder of our cannon and

harquebuses capable of disturbing Caesar himself ... recount to the

conquerors this disparity, I say, and you take from them the whole

basis of so many victories (694)].(33)

This glorious sentence is marked, not only by grammatical incongruities, but

by a strange series of shifts in the positions of reader and speaker. The

distinction between "we," the Europeans and "they," the Americans is

displaced at the opening of the passage into "the men who have subjugated"

and "the people" (the echo of the introductory claim that "we have subjugated

them" underscores the shift). Montaigne and his reader are now "outside" of

the encounter. Yet a moment later Montaigne includes the perspective of the

Americans with the statement that the Spaniards arrived "d'un endroict du

monde si esloigne" (as opposed to, say, a phrase like, "si lointain," or "si

esloigne d'eux"). The European ("divers en langage") is now the stranger.

This perspectival rhetorical strategy is then made explicit in the

description of the Spaniards, whose mounts are first described by Montaigne

as "grands monstres incogneuz" (that is, as they appear to the Americans)

before being identified as horses (that is, as they are known to Europeans).

Similarly, but more pointedly, Spanish armor and arms are simply evoked as

"une peau luysante et dure et une arme trenchante et resplendissante"--their

European names are never given. And finally, the description of the noise

made by Spanish guns ("les foudres et tonnerres de nos pieces et

harquebouses, capables; de troubler Caesar mesme") suggests two distinct

viewpoints. The phrase Is a cliche, a metaphor for describing the noise made

by firearms. But only Europeans know that it is a metaphor. Indeed, the

curious effectiveness of gunpowder in Spanish conquest lay in the fact that

the Aztecs could not identify the noise it made. They took it to be

supernatural racket.(34)

Through the perspectivism of his prose style Montaigne aims to mediate the

tension between New World and Old World, between native actor and European

reader. By moving between literal description and figural evocation Montaigne

places the reader both in the position of the Spaniard and in the imagined

position of the New World native, in the place of the one who knows that

gunpowder is gunpowder and the one who thinks it is thunder. Through its play

with metaphor Montaigne's prose commutes between opposing perspectives on the

encounter, locating author and reader first "among" the (not yet) conquered

and then in the company of the conquerors.(35)

This perspectival strategy is integral to the form of the essay as a

genre. The pressure of the New World material transforms the essay's

conventional strategy of juxtaposition into a dramatic recasting of the

confrontation between cultures, even as, conversely, the cross-cultural

confrontation that forms the ostensible topic of the essay might be seen as a

giant world-historical dramatization of its rhetoric. Yet what seeks to

resolve these oppositions is prose itself. The standoff between Mexican and

Spaniard depicted in Montaigne's paraphrase of Lopez de Gomara is here

sublimated into an imaginary recreation that shows the European reader how

the familiar world of horses and guns looks to another culture.

Certainly, this type of perspectivism is not restricted to the discourse

of the essay.(36) But what is unique to the essay and central to Montaigne's

achievement is the tension between the mediatory strategy of the text and the

problematic location of the subject. The essay's play with the metaphorical

and literal levels of language works against the contrasting positions

suggested in the two images of the horsemen. Here again, the contrast with

"Des Cannibales" is instructive. That earlier chapter relied for its

authority about America on the introduction of a (probably) fictitious

sailor, or "man," who is described as having lived in Brazil before coming to

stay at Montaigne's castle. In "Des Coches" the device of the mediating

character disappears. It gives way, first of all, to the tension between the

essayist and his Spanish double. That tension is then "resolved"

provisionally by the dual perspective set up by the sentence I have just


The rhetoric of that sentence, moreover, extends to implicate the reader.

At the end of his description of the American vision of the Spaniards,

Montaigne turns to thematize his own process of recasting the encounter by

appealing to a "you" who is to pass judgment. The sentence takes us, in its

very unfolding, from politics back to language. It begins with a wish for the

Spaniards to imagine a different version of the terrible events under

consideration: "let [the Spaniards] take away the ruses and tricks they used

to deceive [the Aztecs]" ["qu'ils ostent les ruses et batelages dequoy ils se

sont servis a les piper" (887)]. It ends with an injunction to the reader to

speak, to utter a word that will compel moral judgment: "recount this

disparity to the conquerors, I say, and you take from them the whole basis of

so many victories" ["contez, dis-je, aux conquerans cette disparite, vous

leur ostez toute l'occasion de tant de victoires" (888)]. Through the

reader's response the essay maps out a reaction to the fall of Mexico. The

apostrophic turn to the "vous" who reads is rare in Montaigne generally and

occurs nowhere else in "Des Coches." It enjoins the reader to move from an

imaginary reconsideration of the past, through the viewpoint of the American,

toward a speech act, a "conter" which is an "oter," that will debunk the self

assurance of the Spaniards. With its imperative "contez, dis-je," the

sentence transforms the reader into an imaginary messenger, commanding her or

him to bear the urgent word of one horseman, the sedentary philosopher, to

the ear of the other, the Spanish conquistador. By ordering us imaginatively

to "tell" the Spaniards the truth about their conquests, the essay seeks to

send its language through our very bodies, constructing us as readers who are

"European" (that is, able to see the disparity between conqueror and

conquered and to point it out to the Spanish) but who have assimilated the

perspective of the American.

In the response of a reader who converts an imaginary identification with

the American into a moral condemnation of European atrocity, Montaigne's

fictional "resolution" of the tension between cultures is projected beyond

his text. In the movement between these two points, between, on the one hand,

an experience of the perspective of the conquered other and, on the other

hand, a moral judgment handed down to the conqueror, Montaigne maps out the

generic borders of the essay as form. Neither the ethnographic study, which

pretends to put "us" in "their shoes," nor the advice treatise, which aims to

offer fixed ethical rules for comportment, the essay abuts both of these

rival genres. It seeks to appropriate the strengths of these other forms, the

imaginative transformation of experience in ethnography and the high

seriousness of moral philosophy, while using them against each other.(38) The

pseudo-objectivity of the one and the moral absolutism of the other are both

undone through Montaigne's double location of himself. Moreover, and no less

important, "Des Coches" enacts the transformation of historiography into

essay, suggesting how the essay form emerges as a response to a particular

moment of crisis in historical understanding. Whereas the tension between

antiquity and modernity so consistently evoked in this essay leads to an

impasse, to a juxtaposition of conflicting versions of the movement of

history, the introduction of the New World material leads to an attempt to

subsume difference and multiple perspectives into the web of writing itself.

That web of writing, however, is marked by the tension betwen a mediatory

rhetoric, on the one hand, and the multiple poses of the subject--a tension

that might be seen as the originary split or rupture that marks the emergence

of the essay genre.(39)

The concerns of "Des Coches" are echoed in contemporary considerations of

the essay. In the opening chapter of his Notes to Literature, the great

meditation entitled "The Essay as Form," Theodor Adorno describes the

procedures of the essay as a kind of encounter with foreignness: "The way the

essay appropriates concepts can best be compared to the behavior of someone

in a foreign country who is forced to speak its language instead of piecing

it together out of its elements according to rules learned in school."(40) At

each rum, suggests Adorno, the essay proceeds like the stranger, combining

elements in new ways, viewing words and images from diverse perspectives. Yet

that mode of exploration is carried out, for Adorno, not on unfamiliar

ground, but on material that is all too familiar. Like Montaigne musing on

the ruined shards of ancient civilizations, Adorno points out how the essay

takes as its concern the historically mediated object, what he calls the

"artefact." The essay, he notes, seizes on the fragment of discourse, the

cliche, the disembodied citation, the ruin. Its force lies in the way in

which it takes that seemingly familiar

scrap of cultural debris and defamiliarizes; it by reading it against the

illusion of totality. For Michel de Certeau, by contrast, the essay

doesn't appropriate the ruin, it creates it. In a famous discussion of

"Des Cannibales," De Certeau suggests that Montaigne's discourse finds its

authority through the way in which it displaces and silences an "other"

that it can never quite hear.(41) For Adorno, the shards of the past, the

smithereens of Trojan civilization, must be reimagined through the essay,

as the possible foundation stones for a redeemed world. For De Certeau,

the mere insertion of the essayist into the text comes at the expense of a

past and an other that can never be redeemed.

The constrasting positions of these two thinkers, what might be called

the high modernism of Adorno, with its claim that the essay regards the

familiar as if it were different and (for lack of a better term) the

post-modernism of De Certeau, with its suggestion that the essay kills the

different in order to make it legible, might already be in dialogue in

"Des Coches." The shifting placement of the essayist in the text, as both

conquistador and philosopher, suggests a Certeauian awareness of the

stakes that underlie any project to write another culture. Yet the essay's

very attempt to reconstruct the perspective of the other, as a response to

its own description of the other's culture as dead, might be seen as a

melancholy Adornoesque recuperation of historical catastrophe through

fiction, through an acknowledgement of the inevitability of mediation. The

tension between the peregrine location of the subject and the mediating

aim of writing points to both the power and the instability of the new

form of the personal essay.

(1.) I cite page 885 of the Pleiade edition of Montaigne's Oeuvres completes,

edited by Thibaudet and Rat (Paris: Gallimard, 1963). All further references

will be to this edition, and page numbers will be given in the text, followed

by the English translation of Donald Frame from The Complete Essays of

Montaigne (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974). I here cite page 693 of

Frame's version.

(2.) Since I shall be speaking below about problems of citation, I note that

the quotation of Lucretius introduced by Montaigne to illustrate his point

about history is a misquotation. "Many poets sang other exploits besides the

Trojan war and the fall of Troy" ["Et supera bellum Trojanum et funera

Trojae,/ multi alias alli quoque res cecinere poetae"] (692), says

Lucretius in Montaigne's citation. In fact, Lucretius claims that the fall

of Troy was a unique historical event, the beginning of heroic history: "No

one sang other exploits before the Trojan war and the fall of Troy" ["non

alias alii quoque res cecinere poetae"]. I have consulted the Loeb Classics

edition of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, edited by W.H.D. Rouse and Martin

Ferguson Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

(3.) "Non seulement des evenemens particuliers que fortune rend souvant

exemplaires et poisans, mais de l'estat des grandes polices et nations, il

nous en eschappe cent fois plus qu'il n'en vient a nostre science" (886)

["Not only of particular events which fortune often renders exemplary and

weighty, but of the state of great governments and nations, there

escapes us a hundred times more than comes to our knowledge" (692-93)].

(4.) The value of the compass is underscored by Jean de Lery, one of the

authors upon whom Montaigne drew for information about Brazil. Lery pauses, at

the outset of his Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre du Bresil (1578), to

note the importance, for sea travel, of recent developments in navigational

technique: "Je diray seulement ce mot en passant, qu'on ne scauroit assez

priser, tant l'excellence de l'art de la navigation en

generale, qu'en particulier l'invention de l'eguille marine, avec laquelle

on se conduit, dont, neantmoins, comme aucuns escrivent, l'usage n'est que

depuis environ deux cens cinquante ans" ["Let me say at this point that it

is impossible to overestimate both the excellence of the art of navigation in

general, and in particular the invention of the mariner's compass with

which it is practiced--the use of which dates back only about two hundred

and fifty years]." I cite the edition of Paul Gaffarel (Paris: Lemerre, 1880),

volume 1, p. 47. The translation is by Janet Whatley from her English version,

The History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1990), p. 8.

(5.) Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment,

translated by John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), p. 3.

(6.) This is not to suggest, of course, that the nautical compass was

directly "responsible" for the encounter between Europe and the Americas.

Indeed, Columbus seems not to have had it. It is however linked to the new

ease of navigation that marks the age. For an elegant exploration of the

impact of New World encounters on practices of reading during the period, see

Anthony Grafton, with April Shelford and Nancy Siriasi, New Worlds, Ancient

Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (Cambridge: Belknap

Press, 1992).

(7.) For the contexts of late sixteenth-century French innovations in the

philosophy of history see George Huppert's The Idea of Perfect History

(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970), as well as relevant sections of

Claude-Gilbert Dubois's La Conception de l'histoire en France au XVIe siecle

(Paris: Nizet, 1977), Donald R. Kelley's Foundations of Modern Historical

Scholarship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), and Zachary Sayre

Schiffman's On the Threshold of Modernity: Relativism in the French Renaissance

(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), chapter 2. On the

importance of the new French historiography for the definition of French

national identity, see Corrado Vivanti, "Les Recherches de la France

d'Etienne Pasquier: L'invention des Gaulois," Les Lieux de Memoire, edited by

Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), Part II, vol. 1, 216-45. Vivanti

stresses the importance of La Popeliniere's Les Trois Mondes (1582) for the

assimilation of New World material into historiographical paradigms. For

similar developments in Italy at the same time, see Eric Cochrane, Historians

and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1981), book 5. I realize, of course, that not all of these authors

directly "influenced" the Essays. My point here is not to claim an exact

filiation between Montaigne's text and those of his historiographer

contemporaries, but rather to suggest the ways in which his attempt to

confront new knowledge parallels theirs. Since my main concern is not to

discuss Montaigne's relationship to these historical thinkers but, instead, to

discuss the New World, I shall, as I go, limit myself to passing references to

how Montaigne's contemporaries use commonplaces evoked as well in the Essays.

On the development of "method" in the late Renaissance see Philippe Desan,

Naissance de la Methode (Paris: Nizet, 1987), as well as Timothy Reiss, "The

Idea of Meaning and Practice of Method in Pierre de la Ramee, Henri Estienne,

and Others," Humanism in Crisis, edited by Philippe Desan (Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan Press, 1991): 125-151. On the rise of antiquarianism

and its implications for historiography see Arnaldo Momigliano, "Ancient

History and the Antiquarian," Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes 13

(1950): 285-315, as well as Roberto Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of

Classical Antiquity (London: Blackwell, 1969). For an overview of the problems

involved in appropriating the New World, see Michael T. Ryan, "Assimilating

New Worlds in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," Comparative Studies in

Society and History 21 (1981): 519-538.

(8.) In its emphasis on the fall of cities "Des coches" evokes a

commonplace Renaissance description of the proper study of history as, in the

words of Montaigne's contemporary Amyot, "the founding of empires, the

ruination of monarchies, the growth and decline of kingdoms" ["Les

establissemens des empires, ruines des monarchies, accroissemens ou

aneantissemens des royaumes"]. I cite the "Preface" to Amyot's vastly

influential translation of Plutarch, Les Vies des hommes illustres: Pericles

et Fabius Maximus, ed. Louis Clement (Paris: Cornely, 1906) p. xvii.

(9.) On the relationships between the two New World essays see Edwin M. Duval,

"Lessons of the New World," Montaigne: Essays in Reading, edited by Gerard

Defaux (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983; Yale French Studies 64): 95-112,

and Geralde Nakam and Andre Tournon, "La question du Nouveau Monde dans les

Essais," Bulletin de la societe des amis de Montaigne, 6th series, 20

(1984): 47-68.

(10.) The connection between Montaigne's classicism and his consideration of

the New World, while central to "Des coches," is, of course, not limited to this

essay. For an insightful reading of "Des cannibales" that links the description

of Brazil to civil unrest in France and to Montaigne's depictions of classical

Stoic virtue see David Quint, "A Reconsideration of Montaigne's `Des

cannibales,' "Modern Language Quarterly 51, 5 (1990): 459-489. On the

importance of the moral superiority of the Aztecs, see the discussion of "Des

coches" by Giuliano Gliozzi in his Adamo e il nuovo mondo (Florence: Nuova

Italia, 1976), p. 204.

(11.) Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert

(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), p. 43.

(12.) Francesco Guicciardini, The History of Italy, translated by Sidney

Alexander (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 179.

(13.) Guicciardini, History, p. 181.

(14.) Guicciardini, History, p. 182.

(15.) Guicciardini, History, p. 177.

(16.) Rodin devotes a chapter to the question of defining

the truth value of different historical narratives. The question of decline

versus ascent is broached on pp. 295ff. of Pierre Mesnard's edition, La Methode

de l'histoire (Paris, 1941). Huppert's The Idea of Perfect History offers a

good study of Rodin's concern with endings and narrative directions. See

Huppert's chapter 5.

(17.) Montaigne cites Book 2, 1150 and Book 5, 330-33.

(18.) See Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, translated by

Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1991), pp. 270ff. Both Blumenberg's

discussion of the relationship between Lucretius and the rise of Renaissance

scepticism and his concluding chapter on Giordano Bruno are extremely

suggestive for thinking about Montaigne. For the influence of Epicurian

cosmology on Montaigne's discussions of the New World see Gliozzi, Adamo e il

nuovo mondo, p. 209.

(19.) For the importance of the clinamen see Lucretius, 2, 225ff.

(20.) Lucretius's discussion of the relationship of birth and death occurs in

Book 1, 250ff. On the use of the Lucretian metaphor to describe the movement of

history see Huppert's discussion of Vignier in Idea of Perfect History, pp.


(21.) I cite Benjamin Jowett's translation of the Timaeus in The Collected

Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 1158.

(22.) See Bodin, Methode, p. 300.

(23.) For the Atlantean invasion of Europe see Plato, p. 1158. For a general

discussion of the importance of the Atlantis myth in Montaigne, see

Gliozzi, Adamo e il nuovo mondo, pp. 206-211. On the relativistic attitude

advanced by some of Montaigne's contemporaries see Huppert, Idea of Perfect

History, pp. 164ff. Huppert links this attitude to the rebirth of Pyrrhonism.

Also, see Cochrane, Historians and Historiography, chapter 13 as well as

Zachary Z. Schiffman, Threshold of Modernity, chapter 1. For a discussion of

the relationship between the subversion of narrative (in the form of biography)

and the representation of the self in Montaigne see Timothy Hampton, Writing

from History: The Rhetoric of Exemplarity in Renaissance Literature (Ithaca:

Cornell University Press, 1990), chapter 4.

(24.) The recent theoretical bibliography on the function of events and

narratives in historiography is, of course, immense. Let me simply note three

particularly helpful texts: the discussion of plot in Paul Veyne's Writing

History (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1984), chapters 3, 6, and 8; the

second section of Reinhart Koselleck's Futures Past: On the Semantics of

Historical Time, translated by Keith Tribe (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1985); and

Hayden White's well known essay. The Value of Narrativity in the Representation

of Reality," in his The content of the Form (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins

University Press, 1986) pp. 1-26. White's discussion is especially useful on

the relationship between narrative and the closural "moralizing" stance that

makes possible interpretation.

(25.) Montaigne's characterization of Aztec cosmology draws from contemporary

sources, most specifically Lopez de Gomara's Historia natural de las

Indias, but it bears noting that Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, so

present throughout the chapter, ends with a description of the plague that

will destroy the world.

(26.) Bodin, p. 299. On the role of apocalyptic rhetoric in late

sixteenth-century historiography see Huppert, Idea of Perfect

History, pp. 99ff. Tom Conley has demonstrated the extent to which

Montaigne's text recasts its sources on the fall

of Tenochtitlan and Cuzco to turn the conquest of cities into an

apocalyptic event. See his discussion in "Montaigne and the Indies:

Cartographies of the New World in the Essais, 1580-88," 1492-1992:

Re/Discovering Colonial Writing, edited by Rene Jara

and Nicholas Spadaccini (Minneapolis: Prisma. Institute, 1989), pp.

225-262. For a useful formulation of the semantics of decadence

in historiography see Randolph Starn, "Meaning Levels in the Theme of

Historical Decline," History and Theory, 14, 1 (1975): 1-31.

(27.) That is, Montaigne no longer "represents" a group (as, say, Dante

claims to represent the Christian subject) but he cannot think of

himself outside of a group.

(28.) The problematics of the location of the "self" in the Renaissance have

been elegantly and succinctly phrased by Timothy J. Reiss in a

discussion of the breakdown in political and linguistic order during

the late sixteenth century: "The sense of being, we may say, could ...

be `fixed' only by situating it between some beneficent authority on the

one hand and some alien antagonist on the other." See Reiss's The

Meaning of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 45.

I hope to show that part of the power of Montaigne's

treatment of the New World stems from the fact that he complicates the

distinction between the "beneficent authority" and the "alien antagonist."

This is not to say, however, that he does so everywhere in the Essays.

For a compelling theoretical discussion of the problematics of the "subject"

in Montaigne see Reiss, "Montaigne and the Subject of Polity,"

Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, edited by Patricia Parker and

David Quint (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986),

pp. 115-149.

(29.) Royal entries like the one evoked in "Des cannibales" frequently

featured mock Roman triumphs in which New World natives were paraded as

captives--a motif that connects "Des cannibales" to both halves of "Des

coches." For a discussion of one such entry and its implications for the

representation of royal power see Stephen Mullaney, "Strange Things, Gross

Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance." In

Representing the English Renaissance, edited by Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1988), pp. 65-92.

(30.) For an extended discussion of the image of the fall in Montaigne see

Francois Rigolot, Les Metamorphoses de Montaigne (Paris: Presses Universitaires

de France, 1988), pp. 140-149, as well as the same author's "La `pente' du

repentir: Un exemple de remotivation du significant dans les Essais de

Montaigne," in Columbia Montaigne Conference Papers, edited by Donald M. Frame

and Mary B. McKinley (Lexington: French Forum, 1981), pp. 119-134.

(31.) The play with textual and political geography throughout the essay,

suggesting the close interplay of political and literary issues, appears in yet

another detail as well. In the simile that opens book two of the De Rerum

Natura Lucretius notes that it is pleasurable to stand on the safe shore and

watch the shipwreck of someone else. Montaigne cites this passage at the very

outset of the third book of the Essays. A conventional emblem of the sceptic's

removal of himself from struggle, it suggests the distance from events that

makes possible Montaigne's own writing project. Yet even such literary cliches

find a moral coloring in Montaigne's exclamation of glee at the fact that most

of the treasure taken from America went down in a shipwreck. For a history of

this Lucretian image see Hans Blumenberg, Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer (Frankfurt:

Suhrkamp, 1979).

(32.) For an insightful discussion of the dynamics of astonishment in the

European response to the New World, see Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous

Possessions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). On the image of the

horse in Montaigne, see Hampton, Writing From History, chapter 5. The crisis

in figuration seen here when the horse image runs up against another culture

is paralleled in another sixteenth-century text, Rabelais's Pantagruel, where

images of wine and pork are rendered problematic by suddenly being associated

with the Turks, who consume neither. I have explored the implications of this

encounter in an essay entitled "`Turkish Dogs': Rabelais, Erasmus and the

Rhetoric of Alterity," Representations 41, 1993: 58-82.

(33.) I have slightly altered Frame's translation at the end of this passage.

Frame omits the notion of recounting the scene.

(34.) In one of the best stylistically-based studies of Montaigne Richard

Sayce argues that this passage, with its grammatical convolutions, might be

seen as characteristic of the style of the Essays as a whole. See his

discussion in The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration (London:

Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972), p. 310. He does not, however, go so far as

to consider the multiple perspectives it offers on the crosscultural

encounter it represents. It is also worth noting, in passing, that the

comparison of the natives to Caesar effectively subverts any deployment of

the discourse of the "noble savage" here. Montaigne's concern is not the

"innocence" of the Americans, but the fact that they were tricked by ruse.

The question of ruse in warfare, and of its moral implications, is, of

course, one with a long history in Renaissance and classical discourse on

war, from Frontinus to Machiavelli.

(35.) This question of the relationship between figuration and the

representation of the other has been explored, though from a slightly

different perspective, by Eric Cheyfitz, in The Poetics of Imperialism

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). For Montaigne, see, especially,

chapter 7. For a discussion of the relationship between otherness, metaphor

and community at a slightly earlier moment in the French Renaissance, see

Timothy Hampton, "`Turkish Dogs': Rabelais, Erasmus and the Rhetoric of


(36.) For a discussion of similar perspectival strategies in yet another

invasion story, the episode of Aeneas's arrival in Italy, see Katherine Toll,

"What's Love Got to Do With It? The Invocation of Erato, and Patriotism in

the Aeneid," Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica n.s. 33,3 (1989): 107-118.

Toll explores the way in which the question of the description of the

stranger raises a whole series of problems involving the identity and nature

of community. It is important for my argument about the crucial role of the

essay in the description of alterity that Toll's discussion of the Aeneid

focuses on how perspectival rhetoric emerges during an invocation to Erato,

that is, at a moment at which the narrative movement of the poem is broken.

There is, of course, a long critical tradition that links rhetorical

"perspectivism" to the rise of the "Baroque style" in European art during the

late Renaissance. While acknowledging both the interest and limitations of

this tradition of thought I would want to insist on the particular political

and social contexts within which given perspectival strategies work. For a

fuller discussion of this question see my introduction to Baroque

Topographies: Literature/History/Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University

Press, 1991; Yale French Studies 80).

(37.) For general discussions of the problems plaguing Montaigne's attempts

to break away from his European perspective see Michel de Certeau,

"Montaigne's `Of Cannibals': the Savage `I'", in his Heterologies, translated

by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), pp.

67-80; Gerard Defaux, "Un Cannibale en haut de chausses: Montaigne, la

difference et la logique de l'identite," MLN 97 (1982): 919-57; Tzvetan

Todorov, Nous et les autres (Paris: Seuil, 1989), pp. 51-64; and the two-part

essay by Frank Lestringant, "Le Cannibalisme des `Cannibales'", Bulletin de

la societe des Amis de Montaigne, 9-10 (1982): 27-41 and 11-12 (1982): 19-38.

Quint, in "A Reconsideration of Montaigne's `Des Cannibales,'" offers a

particularly fresh perspective on this problem by linking it to civil unrest

in France and to Montaigne's representations of classical virtue.

(38.) For a good discussion of the ways in which Renaissance texts, including

Montaigne's, enact through their rhetorical strategies problems of judgment

for their readers see Victoria Kahn, Rhetoric, Prudence and Skepticism in the

Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). On the rhetorical

problems that underlie the practice of ethnography in the West see James

Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,


(39.) This is not to say, however, that the form of the essay is somehow

"essentially" linked to the discovery of the New World. The point would be

that the displacement of historiography by essay seen here is replayed

throughout Montaigne's text with dizzying variety and complexity, as many

different discursive traditions are split and reconfigured.

(40.) Theodor W. Adorno, "The Essay as Form," in his Notes to Literature,

translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press,

1991), volume 1, p. 13.

(41.) See De Certeau, "Montaigne's `Of Cannibals'": "The Savage `I',": 70ff.
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Publication:The Romanic Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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