Mark Lilla über Montaigne

Für die New York Review of Books No. 5 verfasste Mark Lilla einen exzellenten Essay über Montaigne. Anlass ist die auch hier kürzlich besprochene Einführung der Sarah Bakewell. Einleitend beklagt Lilla wie schlecht heutzutage über Klassiker geschrieben wird, was man Wort für Wort unterstreichen kann:

The art of the introduction is dying. It used to be that when you opened, say, a Penguin or Oxford classic you’d find a short, engaging tour d’horizon, quirky in the English style and focused on essentials. It predisposed you to give the author an even break. Today you bang your knee instead against belabored essays by scholars who think “foreground” and “background” are verbs. They lecture you on the narrow historical context they’ve banished the book to and its ordained place in the author’s development; then it’s on to mind-numbing debates about which manuscript or folio or annotated edition or critical commentary (their own) is to be preferred.

What they never tell you is why you should read the book. Doesn’t it occur to publishers that while this scholarly detritus may have a place in footnotes and appendices, it does not constitute an introduction, whose function is, well, to introduce? When any of us presents someone or something to another person, the first thing we try to convey is why he, she, or it might matter. You must try this, you must meet her. But apparently publishers have concluded that appeals to taste or pleasure or (why not) truth are bad for the college market, so we are left with these grim checkpoints guarding the border between the us and the author, protecting him from any embrace. I forbid my students to read them.

In der Mitte des Textes kommt Lilla dann sehr instruktiv auf einen Punkt zu sprechen, den Bakewell in ihrem Buch vernachlässigt, nämlich die nahe liegende religionskritische Lesart der Essays:

For instance, Bakewell seriously misleads her readers when she says that “the Essays has nothing to say about most Christian ideas,” as if silence about certain things isn’t sometimes the loudest way to speak. And what are we to make of the remark that Montaigne shows no interest in Jesus Christ, that “he writes about the noble deaths of Socrates and Cato, but does not think to mention the crucifixion alongside them”?

Let me submit that the Essays, which Montaigne began the year of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and finished while his Catholic and Protestant neighbors in Bordeaux were still slitting each other’s throats, are about little else but Christian ideas, and that it’s unlikely that the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord and Savior slipped his mind. Countless tales he tells mock Christian ideals, though they are prudently set in ancient or foreign settings.

Instead of expressing his disgust with Christian martyrdom—and, implicitly, the crucifixion—he tells us about the Sicilian father who killed his daughters to keep them from marauding Turks, the Portuguese Jews who threw their children into a well rather than let them be converted, the Roman wives who killed themselves when their husbands fell out of favor, and the men of Astapa, Spain, who burned to death everyone in their besieged city, then threw themselves onto the pyre. And instead of attacking directly the cruelty of monastic self-discipline, he dismisses as futile similar efforts by unnamed “Stoics,” of whom there were only an educated handful at his time. Montaigne’s contemporary readers would have had no trouble discerning the real target of these stories, and certainly the Catholic Church didn’t. It placed the Essays on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1676 and didn’t remove them until 1854.

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