Is life a question or an answer

How should i live or The Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers

Süddeutsche Zeitung | Discussion of March 22, 2013In the mirror of the self
Sarah Bakewell's subtle
Approaching Montaigne
The French skeptic Michel de Montaigne is not made the direct forerunner of the egocentric urge to communicate among bloggers and networkers in this book. The idea of ​​looking at the world in the mirror of oneself first had to be invented, and the Englishwoman Sarah Bakewell, author of several books between biography and novel, sees the beginning of this change of perspective in Montaigne's essays. Instead of simply retelling the life of the famous idler, writer, politician, winery owner, lover and European traveler from beginning to end, Bakewell opted for the original chapter structure of twenty answers to the same question over and over: How should I live?
Not: How should one live? The moral subjunctive form, the author cleverly sends in advance, was rather alien to the essayist. He was interested in the immediate questions of life like: How do I escape the fear of death? How do I avoid the pitfalls of fellow human beings without becoming unsociable? How do I find the right balance in everything? How do I cope with the inadequacies of my knowledge and actions? The author leads us through Montaigne's life and work without a chronological thread, rattles the key ring of her answers, casually unlocks some half-forgotten ancillary rooms and some attics.
Indolence, slowness and forgetfulness are the best remedies against fanaticism of all kinds, we are reminded - not as a recipe of a contemporary of the wars of religion, but as the wisdom of a man who had to get along with his natural inclinations. The fact that in the four years as Mayor of Bordeaux he did not stand out with major innovations, but with careful inconspicuousness, brings the author to the maxim: Do your job well, but not too well. So instead of ambition for oneself or for those around him, a sense of the obvious, which in the summer of 1585 could also include, as a mayor, not having to go to the plague area of ​​the city as a mayor - an attitude that was only really achieved by the moral absoluteness of the 19th century accused.
Sarah Bakewell proves her twenty attempts to answer convincingly both from Montaigne's writings and from well-founded accounts of contemporary history and later reception. It is not necessary to follow it in all views. Montaigne's conception of habit, for example, is less derogatory than she thinks, and whether his forgetfulness, which he himself often lamented, anticipated the involuntarily spontaneous memory of Marcel Proust remains to be seen. Nevertheless, her book is a delightful encounter or re-encounter with the great stoic of the Renaissance. And the translation by Rita Seuss combines the precision with the elegance that the noble subject demands.
JOSEPH HANIMANN
Sarah Bakewell: How should I live? - or The Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers. Translated from the English by Rita Seuss. Verlag C. H. Beck, Munich 2012. 416 pages, 24.95 euros.
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