When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life

  • Saul Frampton
  • Pantheon Books
  • 320 pp.
  • April 27, 2011

Tracing the development of Montaigne’s character and thoughts, for clues on how to live.

Reviewed by Laura Fargas

What is it about the musings of a mid-16th century member of the minor French nobility that recaptures the interest and affection of every generation? Michel de Montaigne’s Essais have withstood the test of time as very few works of literature have, constantly inspiring retranslation and re-examination. His attractions have led writers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf and André Gide to write about him.

Born in 1533, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a lawyer, a courtier and the hereditary Sieur of Montaigne, a wine-growing estate in the Dordogne region of France. He retired at age 38 to his estate, and from then to the end of his life he lived primarily among in his library of a thousand books he inherited from his best friend. He began writing essays shortly thereafter and never stopped. (He died in 1592 at age 58.)

Everything interested him: deep questions about matters like friendship and human emotion; familiar matters such as coaches and animals; light matters, including the nature of fun itself, and even the nature of his own personal suffering from kidney stones. In appropriate 21st-century style, Saul Frampton, a professor at the University of Westminster and formerly assistant editor of the London Review of Books, looks at Montaigne as providing a guide to civilized modern living, as if that kind of character-shaping is the ultimate test of merit for old masters. Indeed, last year another writer’s study of Montaigne took the same approach. That book, by Sarah Bakewell, was titled How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Frampton’s book is subtitled Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life. Despite all this titular cleverness, neither book penetrates to Montaigne’s innermost soul. Frampton’s focus is on the development of Montaigne’s character through the lens of the ideas about man and his nature that were competing for attention and belief during his lifetime.

Frampton examines Montaigne’s development as a humanist chronologically. He focuses strongly on the philosophical influences of the era in plotting Montaigne’s development, exploring the nuances of classical Stoicism and skepticism as they were received in the early Renaissance, when the absolute sway of Church doctrine had lessened. This book is no learned tract, however; in his philosophical journey through Montaigne’s essay-writing years, Frampton always stays close to the fact that Montaigne’s paramount subject remains himself — whether in asking the question that Frampton borrows for his title, or in a discussion of sex that ranges from musing over quotations from Roman classics to a complaint concerning his own sexual organs. The author also writes with a constant sense that when Montaigne writes about himself, we will read him as writing about us.

Frampton shows us that Montaigne in his youth aimed toward a classical Stoic “apatheia,” an emotional imperviousness to outside stimuli, rooted in the idea that the purpose of life is to make a good death. That stance, Frampton believes, arose from the battery of losses Montaigne experienced a few years before he began his essays. In short order he suffered the deaths of several infant children, his father, his brother and, most affecting of all, the deepest and most serious friendship of his life, with Etienne de La Boétie, another young nobleman. La Boétie left his library to Montaigne, who resolved to spend what remained of his life among those books, pursuing wisdom. His stated his world view at this time in one of his early essays: “to philosophize is to learn to die.”

But as the years went by, Frampton writes, Montaigne began to cherish life, to view it with a friendly eye and to embrace not only all men as his fellows but all creatures. His empathy for living things takes on a generous clarity as he considers spiders, cannibals, horses and his own thumb, among many, many subjects. Montaigne’s ultimate, liberal humanist approach toward life is exemplified in the open-minded and sympathetic question of the book’s title, which asks who is actually playing with whom when he plays a string game with his cat. Frampton shows that this humble question departed entirely from the established view of that era, when people regarded animals as almost simple mechanisms, devoid of intelligence or spirit.

A book about philosophy, even a popularizing effort that tells its story through a figure as attractive as Montaigne, will always have passages that are heavy going. Frampton does not quite escape this curse. His book adopts Montaigne’s agreeable habit of digressing along any odd subject that may attract his musing. He pauses, for example, for a detailed look at the idea that an individual’s character may be revealed through characteristics of the animal he most resembles, with accompanying illustrations from the period.

This book is worth the effort, however. It achieves its aim of giving the reader a deeper understanding of the passage of the medieval construct of the world, ruled by Church doctrine, into the human-centered Renaissance and toward the later Enlightenment’s rationalism and empiricism. Frampton shows us this transition in miniature in Montaigne’s character development through time. He also whets our appetite for the Essais themselves, whether for a first reading or a return to them as old friends. Frampton has occasional lapses of linguistic taste: “[s]pringing from the flanks of the Puy de Sancy …. the Dordogne curls intestinally through the broad belly of France.” He seems sometimes to want to show off his vocabulary; additionally, there are occasional Britishisms that might puzzle the American reader.

On the whole, though, the book is a rewarding exploration that illuminates the life and mind of Montaigne and the world around him. Ultimately, When I Play With My Cat sends us back to the Essais themselves with both a deepened understanding and a deepened appreciation of the work of this real-life man for all seasons.

Laura Fargas is a poet and lawyer in Washington, D.C., whose most recent book was An Animal of the Sixth Day. Awards for her poetry have included the Texas Tech First Book Award, Washington’s Larry Neal Prize (twice) and the University of California’s Chicano/Latino Literature Award.

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