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Heaven in a Wildflower

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

A wildflower pressed between the pages of an old book.

Montaigne: Essays of Michel de Montaigne, vol. 1, trans. C. Cotton (London: 1685).

I’m particularly fond of Montaigne (you’ll find evidence to this in the prologue to my site). Montaigne became an author in a kind of semi-retirement [from public duties], producing only then the colossal volume, Essais, for which he’s known today. Written over several decades, this work comprises 107 short pieces on pretty much any subject you could imagine. The writing is simple and natural, which is also how Montaigne describes himself. And that’s exactly what he’s trying to do: the collection of writings is as much autobiography as philosophy. In weaving together these two forms Montaigne puts himself on trial: 'I am myself the subject of my book', he writes to the reader. In fact, we have Montaigne to thank for the word ‘essay’, from the french, essai‘trial’. If interested a good place to start might be n. 26, ‘On the education of children’, ‘On liars’ (9) or, weirder, ‘On smells’ (55), in which Montaigne’s olfactory philosophy is codified by his relationship with his moustache.

“I have intended it solely for the pleasure of my relatives and friends so that, when they have lost me—which they soon must—they may recover some features of my character and disposition, and thus keep the memory they have of me more completely and vividly alive.”

Rereading the essays still I find myself reassessing basic elements of life. The continuing relevance of Montaigne’s words nearly four-hundred-and-fifty years after he penned his first essay is tribute to his remarkable capacity to deconstruct seemingly contemporary issues to their fundamental, often universal constituents, philosophising clearly their manifest relationship to life.

The first translation into English of Montaigne’s Essais was by John Florio in 1603. Cotton’s translation was the second, published in numerous revised editions throughout the eighteenth century. This copy from 1685 is a first edition though it is not indicated as such; it’s not especially rare though difficult to source, the back cover is detached, and it’s full of erreurs (including even the page number on show in the picture). It’s a book I treasure nevertheless.

For various reasons I’d never looked upon each page (mainly because I’ve read other editions); it occurred to me, given its age, the book might contain some historic marginalia. With lockdown-induced boredom encouraging me to turn several hundred pages quickly and delicately I soon learnt there is no marginalia to be found in my copy, but I did find a wildflower pressed between pages two-thirds through.        I was excited when I saw it (I closed the book and returned it to my shelf, as if the flower would turn to dust before my eyes). It’s possible, of course, the flower is just ten years old, but it’s also possible the flower is far older. In any case, returning to the wildflower hours later I was moved by the whole experience: my restless turning of pages, of excruciating Time these passing months compared to the patience of this small, delicate, flower. Behold the humble buttercup, ranunculus acris!

Both quotations from ‘To the reader‘, trans. Cohen.


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