En 1941, alors qu’en Europe la guerre et les nationalismes font des ravages, Stefan Zweig, exilé au Brésil, trouve en Montaigne un « ami indispensable », dont les préceptes de tempérance et de modération lui paraissent plus que jamais nécessaires. Selon Zweig, « pour que nous puissions appréhender l’art et la sagesse de vivre de Montaigne […] il fallait que survienne une situation similaire à celle qu’il avait connue. »
De son propre aveu, Zweig n’était pas à même d’apprécier pleinement le génie de Montaigne lorsqu’il le découvrit à vingt ans. C’est en les relisant à travers le prisme de l’expérience qu’il mesure véritablement tous les enjeux des Essais. Laissant parler son admiration pour l’auteur, il en dresse une biographie émue et passionnante, dans laquelle il livre, en creux, son propre portrait à la veille de sa mort.
Préface d’Olivier Philipponnat.
Traduit de l’allemand par Corinna Gepner.
About the Author
Né à Vienne en 1881, fils d’un industriel, Stefan Zweig a pu étudier en toute liberté l’histoire, les belles-lettres et la philosophie. Grand humaniste, ami de Romain Rolland, d’Émile Verhaeren et de Sigmund Freud, il a exercé son talent dans tous les genres (traductions, poèmes, romans, pièces de théâtre) mais a surtout excellé dans l’art de la nouvelle (La Confusion des sentiments, Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’une femme), l’essai et la biographie (Marie-Antoinette, Fouché, Magellan…). Désespéré par la montée du nazisme, il fuit l’Autriche en 1934, se réfugie en Angleterre puis aux États-Unis. En 1942, il se suicide avec sa femme à Petrópolis, au Brésil.
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By Stefan Zweig, Will Stone
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1976 Atrium Press Ltd
All rights reserved.
There is a select group of writers who are accessible to anyone, at whatever age or stage of life — Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy — and then there are those whose significance is not properly revealed until a particular moment. Montaigne is one of these. In order to recognize his true worth, you should not be too young, too deprived of experience and life's deceptions, and it is precisely a generation like ours, cast by fate into the cataract of the world's turmoil, to whom the freedom and consistency of his thought conveys the most precious aid. Only he whose soul is in turmoil, forced to live in an epoch where war, violence and ideological tyranny threaten the life of every individual, and the most precious substance in that life, the freedom of the soul, can know how much courage, sincerity and resolve are required to remain faithful to his inner self in these times of the herd's rampancy. Only he knows that no task on earth is more burdensome and difficult than to maintain one's intellectual and moral independence and preserve it unsullied through a mass cataclysm. Only once he has endured the necessary doubt and despair within himself can the individual play an exemplary role in standing firm amidst the world's pandemonium.
Only a seasoned man who has tested himself can appreciate the true worth of Montaigne, and I count myself one of them. When at the age of twenty I picked up a copy of the Essais, that incomparable book he left us, I must confess I had little idea what to do with it. Of course, I had enough literary discernment to realize that here was unveiled a compelling personality, a man with a peculiarly wide-ranging and lucid gaze, an endearing figure and, what's more, an artist who knew how to engrave his own signature on each phrase and each expression. But my pleasure remained solely literary, like that of a collector before a beautiful antique; it lacked the interior spark of passion, the electric arc which spans two kindred souls. In their subject matter the Essais seemed to me rather wayward and on the whole to deny any possibility of meeting my own soul. Of what relevance to me, a young man of the new twentieth century, were the effusive divagations of this Seigneur de Montaigne on 'La Cérémonie de l'entrevue des rois' or his 'Considérations sur Cicéron'? This Frenchman, already yellowed by time and lost in the riddles of his Latin quotations, seemed so scholarly and anachronistic. And even his wisdom, so gentle and tempered, remained foreign to me. It had arrived prematurely. What would I have done then with the judicious counsel of Montaigne, who warned against sacrificing oneself to ambition and committing oneself too ardently to the exterior world? What meaning could his gentle and insistent call for temperance, for tolerance, have on a hot-headed youth who did not want to be dispirited, who did not care for his calming message, who, without even being aware, only aspired to be inflamed by the vital effusion of youthful enthusiasm? It is the business of youth to recoil from the counsel of gentleness, of scepticism. Doubt becomes an obstacle, for a youth has need of faith and ideals to give free rein to the impetuosity borne within. And even the most radical, the most absurd illusions, as long as they inflame, would in his eyes have more importance than the most profound wisdom, which saps the strength of his will.
And furthermore, this freedom, of which Montaigne was the uncontested herald: did one really need to defend it with such obstinacy, now, in 1900? Surely, for so long now, all that had been taken for granted — had been humanity's rightful possession, freed from all tyranny and servitude, sealed by law and custom? It seemed obvious that the right to have our own lives, our own thoughts, to express them freely through the spoken and written word, belonged to us as much as the breath that left our mouths or the beating of our hearts. The world unfurled before us with its numberless countries; we were neither prisoners of the state, nor yoked to the service of war, nor arbitrarily submitted to tyrannical ideologies. It seemed to our generation that Montaigne was simply rattling chains we thought long since broken, and we could never imagine that in fact Fate had reforged them for us, far stronger and crueller than ever before. So then, we honoured, we respected his struggle for spiritual freedom like a historic battle, which seemed to us now superfluous and futile. For one of life's mysterious laws shows that we only notice the authentic and essential values when it's too late: youth, once it has fled, health at the moment it abandons us, freedom of the soul, that most precious essence, at the very moment when it is taken from us, or has already been taken.
It is crucial then that we strive to understand the art of living, the wise way of living according to Montaigne, and to realize that this struggle leads to the discovery of "soi-même", the most crucial struggle of the spirit, exemplified by his own life. We too need to stand the test, to endure one of the most horrifying collapses of humanity, which follows directly one of its most magnificent periods of advancement. We too are to be torn from our hopes, from our experiences, our expectations and our enthusiasms, chased out from them as if under the whip, until we have only our naked selves left to defend, that unique being which is irreplaceable. It was only when destiny made us brothers that Montaigne granted me his aid, his consolation, his irreplaceable friendship; how indeed does his fate seem so very similar to our own! When Michel de Montaigne made his entry into the world, a great hope was beginning to die, the same hope that we experienced at the opening of our century: that of a more humanistic world. In the space of a single generation, the Renaissance had lavished on humanity a gift that enabled its artists, painters, thinkers, its seers and poets to reach a level of perfection none had anticipated. A century — no, centuries were opening up where creative power, step by step, wave on wave, was carrying dark and chaotic existence towards the threshold of the divine. All at once the world had become vaster, richer. With Greek and Latin, the scholars rediscovered antiquity and gave back to mankind the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle. Under the guidance of Erasmus, humanism promised a unified and cosmopolitan culture; the Reformation seemed, alongside the new scope of knowledge, to have founded a new religious freedom. Distances, borders between peoples were beginning to dissolve, for printing, which had just been invented, gave to each word, to each thought, the means to soar, to spread; that which had once been the reserve of a single people seemed now open to all; a spirit of unity was emerging beyond the bloody quarrels of kings, princes and armies. And another miracle: just like the spiritual world the terrestrial world was expanding in dimensions no one could have conceived. Across an ocean thought impassable emerged new shores, new countries, a great uncharted continent, promising a safe haven for future generations. The arteries of commerce experienced ever livelier pulsations, a wave of riches extended across old Europe leaving luxury in its wake, and in its turn the luxury left buildings, paintings, statues — a highly decorated, spiritualized world. And always when there is more space, the soul opens up. So it was at the beginning of our own century, when, once more, space increased in grandiose fashion thanks to the conquest of the ether by flight, thanks to physics, chemistry, technology. As science drew from nature her secrets one after another and revealed those secrets in the service of man, an inexpressible hope animated a humanity so often disappointed, and from a million souls arose Ulrich von Hutten's jubilant cry: "What joy it is to live!"
But always when the wave climbs too high and too quickly, it falls the more violently, like a cataract. And just as, in our time, the miracles of technology have morphed into the most horrific elements of destruction, so elements of the Renaissance and humanism which at first seemed to offer salvation proved a lethal poison. The Reformation, which dreamt of bringing to Europe a new Christian spirit, provoked unrestrained barbarism in the wars of religion; the printing press did not diffuse culture but furor theologicus; instead of humanism it was intolerance that spread. Across the whole of Europe, a murderous civil war devastated each country, while in the new world the bestial excesses of the conquistadors led to unparalleled cruelty. The century of Raphael and Michelangelo, of Dürer and Erasmus, permitted the atrocities of Attila, Genghis Khan or Tamerlane.
How, in spite of its infallible clear-sightedness, in spite of the pity set deep in its soul, was humanity obliged to suffer this terrifying descent into bestiality, through one of those sporadic outbursts of insanity which sometimes seize it, just like that which we endure today? In this question lies the real tragedy of Montaigne. At no moment in his life did he see reign in his country, or the world at large, peace, reason or tolerance, all those higher spiritual forces to which he had devoted his inner calling. When he opens his eyes to look out on the world and then lowers his gaze, he turns aside, like us stricken with horror at this mob frenzy of fury and hate which debilitates and profanes his homeland and humanity. He is still virtually a child, no more than fifteen years old, when, before his eyes, the riots against the gabelle are ferociously repressed in Bordeaux, exhibiting an inhumanity which will leave him for the rest of his days the sworn enemy of all cruelty. The child witnesses how men in their hundreds are tortured to death, hanged, impaled, quartered, decapitated, burnt; he watches the crows, for days on end, wheeling around the gibbets, feeding on the burnt, half-putrefied flesh of the victims. He hears the cries of the martyred and cannot escape that odour of burnt flesh wafting through the streets. Hardly has he left childhood behind when war breaks out, which, due to the fanaticism of the opposing forces, devastates France almost as completely as today socialist and nationalist violence brings devastation to all four corners of the world. The Chambre Ardente sends the Protestants to the stake, the St Bartholomew's Day massacre consumes 8,000 men in a single night. The Huguenots reply like for like: they assault the churches, destroy the statuary. Even the dead are not left in peace by the fanatical roaming bands: the tombs of Richard the Lionheart and William the Conqueror stand desecrated and pillaged. Troops of soldiers run from village to village, sometimes Catholics, sometimes Huguenots, but always Frenchman against Frenchman, citizen against citizen, each trying to outdo the other in ever more extreme acts of savage bestiality. Whole garrisons are exterminated, down to the last man, the rivers are corrupted with the corpses thronging them, thousands of villages are reported razed and pillaged, and soon the murder even dispenses with any religious pretext. Armed bands attack castles and travellers at will, not bothering to distinguish between Protestant and Catholic. A ride on horseback through the neighbouring wood is no less dangerous than a journey to the West Indies or to the lands of the cannibals. No one knows any more if his house and possessions are still his, or if come the morrow he will be alive or dead, prisoner or free man, and at the end of his life, in 1588, an aged Montaigne writes:
In this bedlam in which we have found ourselves for the last thirty years, every Frenchman, whether privately or in wider terms, may find himself at any given moment at a point where he suffers a complete reversal of his fortunes.
Nothing is assured any more on this earth: this fundamental feeling is inescapably reflected through the spiritual intuition of Montaigne. One must seek another certitude beyond the world, beyond the homeland; one must refuse to join the chorus of the demoniacal and create one's own homeland, one's own world, outside the present time.
The poetic prose that La Boétie addresses in 1560 to his friend Montaigne, now twenty-seven years old, reveals the feeling, so tragically familiar to our own time, of men who have somehow remained human and can still bear witness:
What fate has in store for us in this hour! Beneath my gaze the country lies a wasteland, and I see no other course of action than exile, to abandon my house and go wherever fate decrees. For long now the fury of the gods has exhorted me to flee and reveals to me the vast and free lands across the ocean. When at the dawn of our century this new world emerged from the floods, it was as if the gods had marked it to be the refuge where men could freely cultivate their fields, under a virtuous sky, while the gruesome blade and the shameful pestilence condemned Europe to decline.
In such epochs where the highest values of life — our peace, our independence, our basic rights, all that makes our existence more pure, more beautiful, all that justifies it — are sacrificed to the demon inhabiting a dozen fanatics and ideologues, all the problems of the man who fears for his humanity come down to the same question: how to remain free? How to preserve the incorruptible lucidity of my spirit faced with all the threats and dangers of sectarian turmoil? How to keep humanity intact in the throes of bestiality? How to escape the tyrannical demands that the state and Church seek to impose on me? How to protect that unique part of my soul against enforced submission to rules and measures dictated from outside? How to safeguard the deepest region of my spirit and its matter which belongs to me alone, my body, my health, my thoughts, my feelings, from the danger of being sacrificed to the deranged prejudices of others, to serve interests which are not my own?
It is to this question and this question alone that Montaigne dedicated his life and his strength. It is for this love of liberty that he observes himself, watches over, experiences and criticizes every movement and every sensation. And this quest, which he undertakes to safeguard his soul, his liberty, at a moment of universal servility before ideologies and parties, makes him today a brother to us, more intimate than any other artist. If we love and honour him today more than any other, it is because he devoted himself more than any other to the most sublime art of living: "rester soi-même".
Other, less fraught epochs have concentrated on the literary, moral and psychological heritage of Montaigne, learnedly debating so as to establish whether he was a sceptic or a Christian, an Epicurean or a Stoic, a philosopher or an entertainer, a writer or merely a dilettante of genius. His conceptions of education and religion were pored over and dissected in a raft of theses and doctorates. But all that seems relevant now and occupies my thoughts on Montaigne today is this: how, in a time so reminiscent of our own, did he liberate himself inwardly and how, in reading him, can we fortify ourselves by his example? In him I see the ancestor, the protector and the friend of each "homme libre" on earth, the most adept master at this new yet eternal science, the preserving of oneself above all other concerns. Few men on earth have ever fought with such faithfulness and tenacity to preserve their most intimate selves, their "essences", from all impurities, from all toxins left by the rank spume of an epoch's storm waves, and fewer still have managed to rescue from the time in which they lived, and for all time, their deepest selves.
This struggle that led Montaigne to safeguard his interior freedom, a struggle that in his case was surely more conscious and more determined than that of any other human being, had nothing heroic or sententious about it. It would be an injustice to include Montaigne with that group of poets and thinkers who, armed only with the word, fought for the "liberté de l'homme". He has nothing of the forceful tirades or lofty outbursts of a Schiller or a Byron, nothing of the pugnacity of a Voltaire. He may have permitted himself a rueful smile at the idea of wanting to impose something as deeply personal as inner freedom on individuals, let alone on the masses, and he profoundly detested professional reformers, theoreticians and peddlers of ideology. He knew only too well the colossal task represented by this simple idea: to safeguard one's independence at the core of oneself. His fight limits itself to the defensive, to defend this most intimate bastion, which Goethe named the "citadel", where entry is forbidden to all other men. His tactic was to be as inconspicuous as possible, to attract the minimum of attention through outward appearance, to travel the world as if wearing a mask, to seek out only the path that would lead to himself.
Excerpted from Montaigne by Stefan Zweig, Will Stone. Copyright © 1976 Atrium Press Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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