January 09, 2007

More of Kristeva on the Renaissance

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne’s Universal Self
The beginning of this section reiterates that while on the one hand the Renaissance was characterised by individualism and nationalism, there was also an element of cosmopolitanism to its make up as well. Kristeva is adamant that Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) typifies this binding together of heterogeneous characteristics, for while Montaigne had influence in the Bordeaux Parliament, in the courts of Henry II and Francis II, he was also a friend to Henry of Navarre and managed to endure through events such as the Saint Bartholomew Day Massacre. (There is a great film about this chain of events called La Reine Margot). Kristeva sees ‘a new sort of man’ in Montaigne’s essays moving ‘within a universal gamut’ (119).

“Constant Cheerfulness”
Kristeva is amused by the ‘weak and puny’ nature of the self that Montaigne presents and she praises his ‘serene enjoyment’ of life (119). Kristev admits that Montaigne tends towards self-judgement, but she si clear that he also expresses ‘fondness for his weaknesses’ (119). What Montaigne presents then is, ‘a vision of self beyond good or evil’ (119). Kristeva is also impressed by Montaigne’s awareness that, ‘ it is on the other that the self relies for sustenance and trust’ and she presents a number of images of splitting from his Essays (120). Montaigne is ‘mindful of the particularity of each things’, while his notion of selfhood ‘carries out a real escalation of the notion of difference’ (120). Kristeva concludes: ‘An affirmation of concord banning oddness and marginality proves possible if, and only if, such an apology of universal difference is asserted’ (120).

Of Cannibals and Coaches
To begin, Kristeva sums up Montaigne’s creed: ‘What followed, probably in the most natural way, was respect for the seeming strangeness of other, at once included in the universal naturalness of this enlarged, diversified, and tolerant region of self’ (120). Yet Kristeva describes how on meeting Brazilian native in France, Montaigne was concerned than the human mind could not take in such a great universality. Montaigne idealises these natives as pure, good and happy (like Rousseau would later) and he declines the use of the word, ‘barbarian’, to describe them, even though some are cannibals. Montaigne, then, meets difference with pleasure and curiosity.

Kristeva describes Montaigne as sometimes being a dilettante, a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. Yet at other times he was ‘a dispenser of justice’ who ‘condemned the forced conversions of Portuguese Jews’ the prejudice against Native Americans and massacres in Peru and Mexico (120). Kristeva wonders, ‘would the puny self be the first antiracist?’ (121).

Here Kristeva shows her skepticism, as she ponders whether in accepting the difference of others, Montaigne is in fact simply levelling particularities and ‘swallowing everything surprising and unknowable’ (122). However, she is sure that , ‘a natural human universality is in the process of taking shape, which impugns supremacy without erasing distinctions’ (122).

A new cosmopolitanism is being born, no longer founded on the unity of creatures belonging to God, as Dante conceived, but in the universality of a self that is fragile, casual, and nevertheless virtuous and certain. Montaigne’s self, which never ceases to travel in the self is already an invitation to explore the world and others with the same uncompromising kindness (123)

Voyages, Cosmographies, Missions
It was in this period that people desired to read more about the world: about the Orient and the Americas. Even the War of Religions did not obstruct this desire. Kristeva mentions:
Les Voyages de Signuer de Villamont (1595),
Cosmographie et singularites de France antarctique (1557) by André Thevét,
Le Voyage au Bresil (1578) by Jean de Léry,
Lettres of Francis-Xavier,
• and the Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (1609) by Marc Lescarbot.
Such texts directed people towards ‘a new image of the world’ as they read about new societies supposedly characterized by atheism, the savage and nakedness (124). Nationalism found benefits in this new world view such as values of naturalness. Francois Charpentier’s 1664 report recommended that France spread its language and culture amongst these new barbarian peoples. This was the seeds of colonialism, yet the first explorers often visited far off lands in the hopes of effecting cultural expansion.

Guillaume Postel

A Cosmopolitan Gaul
Kristeva uses the example here of Guillaume Postel (1510-1581), whom she describes as ‘a polyglot with an international reputation’ and ‘a forerunner of comparative philology’ (125). He was also a ‘visionary missionary’ who endorsed Arabic and Muslim culture as superior to his own, yet was adamant that all religions should enter the orbit of Christianity. He was thrown out of the Jesuit movement, disliked the papacy and was not over-fond of Protestants either. He fell in and out of grace with the monarchy and spent the last 18 years of his life in jail. Kristeva views him as a cosmopolitan and explains that his radical view of religion was the cause of his being declared insane by the Inquisition. He was also a kind of feminist, influenced by the ideas of Dame Jehanne. Postel represents a paroxystic stage of cosmopolitanism.

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