Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 3
Stevenson’s markings and comments
Entering a ‘Rare Books’ room is a privilege: the Library’s first-class compartment, away from the crowds, there you are, entrusted with precious volumes, acquiring a new-found elegance as you turn over manuscript leaves; maybe someone will take me for a real scholar…
The four volumes of Stevenson’s Montaigne had so many markings that I was unsure how to combine this elegant slowness with noting down all the information in the short time available. In the end, I decided just to note the special markings: not the single vertical marks in the margin but only the double lines, then the underlinings and finally the added comments. Even so, listing them all will not have much meaning, so here I’ll group them into rough categories according to what makes them interesting. Rather than give the French text I have given Cotton’s translation of the passages, using blue for Montaigne’s text (or translation of it) and red for Stevenson’s added comments.
1. Endpaper annotations
Here, on the recto page of the inside front cover of volume 4 is Stevenson’s concise characterization of Montaigne. Above it is ‘p 44’ which seems to refer to the following marked passage on p. 44 in the essay ‘Of Cripples’ (III. 11):
I have never seen greater monster or miracle in the world than myself: one grows familiar with all strange things by time and custom, but the more I frequent and the better I know myself, the more does my own deformity astonish me, the less I understand myself.
The only other flyleaf annotation is at the back of vol. 2, a list of 11 names all but one crossed through. They are written very faintly, but they are possibly all place-names as the only one I was able to decipher was ‘Abbotsford’. This is a mystery which someone else will have to solve.
2. Marginal comments: a personal dialogue with the text
Most of the marginal comments are in vols. 3 and 4, in Montaigne’s Book III, which, as we have already seen, was the part Stevenson seems to have read most intensely.
Some of the comments show Stevenson’s disagreement:
Vol. 2, p. 205 (Apology for Raymond Sebond): here Montaigne says (probably following here Sebond’s Fideistic arguments, which he is subtly undermining), concerning ancient predictions from the flight of birds ‘That rule and order of the moving of the wing, whence they derived the consequences of future things, must of necessity be guided by some excellent means to so noble an operation: for to attribute this great effect to any natural disposition, without the intelligence, consent, and meditation of him by whom it is produced, is an opinion evidently false.‘ This clearly doesn’t square with the normal skepticism of Montaigne and Stevenson and the latter adds ! an exclamation mark in the margin.
Vol. 2, p. 598 (Of Presumption): against the passage ‘It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it: it is very easy to beget in a people a contempt of ancient observances; never any man undertook it but he did it‘, RLS (probably thinking of how resistant established orders were to change) has added ‘false‘.
Vol. 3,p. 207 (Of Profit and Honesty): the footnote translation of “Dum tela micant etc.’ is introduced by the editor in these words ‘De Jules César, qui, en guerre ouverte contre sa patrie, dont il veut opprimer la liberté, s’écrie dans Lucain, […]’—RLS comments on this fiercely Republican interpretation of the editor with: ‘O! O!‘.
On several occasions Stevenson complained about translations that were accurate but dull, and here in Vols. 3 and 4 we have a good number of his own translation glosses on about twenty separate pages. Some of these show his preference for telling translations: for the French translated by Cotton as ‘Rough bodies make themselves felt’, he has ‘knotty surfaces are sensible‘ (Vol. 3, p. 33), where Cotton has ‘crowd‘ he has ‘ruck‘ (vol. 4, p. 35). Where Montaigne talks of childhood games ‘aux noisettes et à la toupie‘ (vol 3, p. 269), Stevenson is clearly pleased to see the long survival of games with which he was familiar and writes ‘huckle bones and tops!‘
2.3 Other comments
Vol. 2, p. 197 (Raymond Sebond, II, 12): Montaigne says that nightingales while learning to sing ‘contention [i.e. they compete] with emulation‘. Here RLS has added in the margin ‘I have observed this in blackbirds‘.
Vol. 3, p. 186 (Of Profit and Honesty): In the passage translated by Cotton as ‘for even in the midst of compassion we feel within, I know not what tart-sweet titillation of ill-natured pleasure in seeing others suffer‘, Stevenson glosses ‘au milieu de la compassion‘ as ‘in the very midst of pitying‘; ‘aigredouce poincte de volupté maligne‘ as ‘prick of malignant pleasure‘ and then adds an additional note at the foot of the page: ‘ay, & cruelty also, that so unnatural defect‘.
3. Markings: echoes of Stevenson’s ideas
Not all the markings (underlinings and vertical lines in the margin) remind one of Stevenson’s writings: he marks the passages that perhaps strike every reader of Montaigne: the passage where Montaigne talks of his cat playing with him (‘When I play with my cat who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me?‘, Vol. 2, p. 177-8); Montaigne’s frankness about sex and the differences between men and women (in ‘Upon some verses of Virgil’ in Book III) receives a predictable number of markings (a double line for ‘the pleasure of telling [about sex] (a pleasure little inferior to that of doing)‘ is accompanied by ! an exclamation mark in the margin, Vol. 3, p. 304); his openness about other bodily functions (‘Both kings and philosophers go to stool, and ladies too‘, Vol. 4, p. 133—a single line and an ‘x‘ in the margin); and his ability to focus on the moment and ‘just be’ (‘When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep. Nay, when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are some part of the time taken up with external occurrences, I some part of the time call them back again to my walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of that solitude, and to myself‘, Vol. 4, p. 174, ‘Of Experience’).
However, a good number of the markings do remind us of Stevenson’s own thoughts and writings. Here follow a few that struck me.
Stevenson’s idea that in an inevitably tragic life one should act courageously clearly has affinities with the stoicism of Montaigne. We saw in a previous post that the acceptance of a kind gradual death at the end of ‘Ordered South’ has affinities in an unmarked essay in Stevenson’s Vol. 1—but it also has an affinity with a double-marked passage in Montaigne’s last essay, ‘Of Experience’, which talks of how death ‘weans thee from the world‘ and how thanks to its frequent reminders accustoms you to the idea of death and ‘thinking thyself to be upon the accustomed terms, thou and thy confidence will at one time or another be unexpectedly wafted over‘ (Vol. 4, p. 144).
The idea that life must be faced with the joy and courage of a soldier in war (L6, 153, and Abrahamson in Persona and Paradox, 2012) is also echoed in another marked passage from the same essay: ‘Death is more abject, more languishing and troublesome, in bed than in a fight: fevers and catarrhs as painful and mortal as a musket-shot. Whoever has fortified himself valiantly to bear the accidents of common life need not raise his courage to be a soldier‘ (Vol. 4, p. 152).
I think we can detect a basic modesty in Stevenson’s world-view, and he seems certainly to have been struck by that of Montaigne as we see from the following marked passages.
Vol. 2, p. 473 (Of Presumption): ‘I look upon myself as one of the common sort, saving in this, that I have no better an opinion of myself; guilty of the meanest and most popular defects, but not disowning or excusing them; and I do not value myself upon any other account than because I know my own value.’
Vol. 3, p. 193 (Of Profit and Honesty): ‘keeping my back still turned to ambition; but if not like rowers who so advance backward.’
Vol. 3, p. 392 (On the Inconvenience of Greatness) (with three vertical marks): ‘I would neither dispute with a porter, a miserable unknown, nor make crowds open in adoration as I pass.’
3.3 Instability, constant change
Stevenson frequently expresses the idea of a world in constant change (‘Times and men and circumstances change about your changing character, with a speed of which no earthly hurricane affords an image’, ‘Lay Morals’) and this will explain his double-line marking of the following passage in Montaigne:
Vol. 3, p. 209 (Of Repentance): ‘the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own. Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion‘ (this is Cotton’s translation cited here for convenience; For ‘un branle‘ which Cotton translates ‘motion‘, Stevenson suggests in the margin: ‘tottering?‘).
3.4 Laws and civil society
Roslyn Joly has recently shown the importance of Stevenson’s legal education in his world-view (‘The Novelist as Lawyer’ in Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, 2009), and we can see this interest behind a series of other markings:
Vol 3, p. 212 (Of Repentance): ‘I hold for vices (but every one according to its proportion), not only those which reason and nature condemn, but those also which the opinion of men, though false and erroneous, have made such, if authorised by law and custom.’ (And here RLS unusually translated the whole sentence: : ‘I hold then this for vices (but each according to its measure) not only which reason and nature have condemned, but which the opinion of men has most erroneously forbidden in their laws and usages.’)
Vol 3, p. 332 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘Thou dost not stick to infringe her universal and undoubted laws; but stickest to thy own special and fantastic rules, and by how much more particular, uncertain, and contradictory they are, by so much thou employest thy whole endeavour in them: the laws of thy parish occupy and bind thee: those of God and the world concern thee not.’ (This idea of the importance of ‘les regles de ta parroisse‘ may be linked to a discussion in ‘On Morality’ (an unfinished essay of 1888) of how ‘Crime is a legal, a merely municipal expression’.)
Naturally Stevenson is attentive to what Montaigne says about literary style:
Vol 2, p. 119 (Of Books): ‘and the ladies are less put to it in dance; where there are various coupees, changes, and quick motions of body, than in some other of a more sedate kind, where they are only to move a natural pace, and to represent their ordinary grace and presence‘ (i.e. a plain style requires more ability than one full of ‘changes, and quick motions’—though we might think the latter characterizes some of Stevenson’s own earliest writings).
The following two marked passages close together remind me of Stevenson’s own intense work of thought in his his essays and how he says in ‘Walt Whitman’ ‘style is the essence of thought’:
Vol 3,p. 321 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘When I see these brave forms of expression, so lively, so profound, I do not say that ’tis well said, but well thought. ‘Tis the sprightliness of the imagination that swells and elevates the words.’
Vol 3, p. 322 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘The handling and utterance of fine wits is that which sets off language; not so much by innovating it, as by putting it to more vigorous and various services, and by straining, bending, and adapting it to them. They do not create words, but they enrich their own, and give them weight and signification by the uses they put them to, and teach them unwonted motions, but withal ingeniously and discreetly.’
And Stevenson’s own preference for concision can be seen as motivating the following underlining concerning Cicero’s style:
Vol 2, p. 121-2 (Of Books): ‘whatever there is of life and marrow is smothered and lost in the long preparation‘.
4. Markings: some closer affinities with Stevenson’s works
These categories of markings are only intended to make the matter a little more understandable; clearly this and the previous category are closely connected. Here are some echoes (interesting echoes, not provable influences) of works I am familiar with:
‘Crabbed Age and Youth’—Vol 3, p. 223-4 (Of Repentance): ‘When I reflect upon the deportment of my youth, with that of my old age, I find that I have commonly behaved myself with equal order in both according to what I understand‘; and Vol 4, p. 186, an underlined passage: ‘Old age stands a little in need of a more gentle treatment. Let us recommend that to God, the protector of health and wisdom, but let it be gay and sociable.’
‘Ordered South’: I have already remarked on a passage that reminded me of this in 3.1
‘An Apology for Idlers’—an underlining in Vol 4, p. 172 (of Experience): ‘We are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing to-day.” What? have you not lived?‘;
‘Something In It’ (where the missionary feels bound to his vow of abstinence)—Vol 3, p. 201: ‘what fear has once made me willing to do, I am obliged to do it when I am no longer in fear; and though that fear only prevailed with my tongue without forcing my will, yet am I bound to keep my word‘, Stevenson has in the margin written, ‘to prove sound the links of my honour‘.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—an underlining in Vol 3, p. 274 (Upon some Verses of Virgil): ‘A man must see and study his vice to correct it; they who conceal it from others, commonly conceal it from themselves‘.
‘Lay Morals’ (the first paragraph of Ch. III where he talks of the frailty of man ‘His whole body, for all its savage energies, its leaping and its wing’d desires, may yet be tamed and conquered by a draught of air or a sprinkling of cold dew’ etc.)—Vol 2, p. 214 (Raymond Sebond): ‘this furious monster, with so many heads and arms, is yet man–feeble, calamitous, and miserable man! […] a contrary blast, the croaking of a flight of ravens, the stumble of a horse, the casual passage of an eagle, a dream, a voice, a sign, a morning mist, are any one of them sufficient to beat down and overturn him. Dart but a sunbeam in his face, he is melted and vanished. Blow but a little dust in his eyes, as our poet says of the bees, and all our ensigns and legions, with the great Pompey himself at the head of them, are routed and crushed to pieces.’
The poem ‘Home, no more home to me, whither shall I wander?’ and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (‘a stranger in my own house’)—Vol 3, p. 248 (Of Three Commerces): ‘That man, in my opinion, is very miserable, who has not at home where to be by himself, where to entertain himself alone, or to conceal himself from others.’ We don’t know why Stevenson marked this passage, but it is possible that he felt that he did not possess such a space—Montaigne, however, is not complaining at all but talking about his own rule of living, which he had previously formulated in more positive terms: ‘we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat’ (‘Of Solitude’, I.38).
5. This edition used for quotations from Montaigne
Where there is a marking of a passage that is quoted in a letter or one of his works, then there is a good chance that this was the edition used. There are, however, only two or three possible cases, since Stevenson only quotes twice (I think) from Montaigne in French:
Vol 2, p. 13 (Of Drunkenness), an underlined passage: ‘and there are some vices that have something, if a man may say so, of generous in them‘ (‘il y a des vices, qui ont je ne sçay quoy de genereux‘), quoted in ‘The Character of Dogs’ (1883), “The canine, like the human gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne’s ‘je ne sais quoi de généreux'”. Here Montaigne’s spelling has been modernized, but that could have been done by Stevenson or the magazine editor.
Vol. 4 (‘Of Physiognomy’): Stevenson quotes a passage from the first half of this essay in his latter of October 1873 to Fanny Sitwell (L1, 339):
As Montaigne says, talking of something quite different: ‘Pour se laisser tomber à plomb, et de si haut, il faut que ce soit entre les bras d’une affection solide, vigoureuse et fortunée’ It argues a whole faith in the sympathy at the other end of the wire; and an awful want to say these things.
I did not note this down as a passage doubly-marked. It is possibly singly marked, but this will have to wait for another reader to open the volume.
The third case has already been discussed on Part two of this posting, under ‘Book III’: in ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ (1877) Stevenson writes that while Calvin and Knox are reforming the church, Montaigne is ‘predicting that they will find as much to quarrel about in the Bible as they had found already in the Church’—a possible allusion to ‘Of Experience’ (III.13): ‘they but fool themselves, who think to lessen and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible‘, against which Stevenson has written in the margin ‘Calvin?‘
Montaigne and Stevenson
Stevenson seems to have found in Montaigne a fellow-spirit, someone who distrusted dogma yet had a moral view of life, a modest and a tolerant person, a skeptic, someone who saw all things in constant change yet kept a calm, detached and ironic view of things. Both writers were constantly interested in exploring how to live life well.