Given my aversion to the word "blog" it's perhaps fitting that convention requires me to use it to inaugurate and label this space of occasional commentary. For this is a space that I would expect to be mostly about words. My general plan is to use this area to post what I might call experiments in micro-criticism. That is, little bits of writing about various texts and events that occupy what's left of my mind at a given time. In specific, I'm thinking of using this for bits of writing about single words that catch my fancy (we might call it, then, a "Wordbook"), or perhaps phrases ("Phrasebook"). More generally, then, a "Workbook."

I've written a few essays here and there about single words, or even single letters. I like writing about small things, and the bits of writing I want to post here will, I hope, themselves be small.

Bound By Words

May 26, 2018

Tags: Commencement, humanities, language, ethics, lying, Montaigne, Henry James

Commencement Talk, Arts and Humanities, UC Berkeley, May 14, 2018

I would like to begin by taking care of one piece of business that needs to be dealt with so that we can move on to talk about more interesting things. We meet here today to celebrate the work of our graduates in the Humanities. It (more…)

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Wordbook: Montaigne's Marginalia and the Discovery of Difference

November 1, 2015

Tags: Montaigne, essay, cannibals, anthropology, revision

The philosopher Michel de Montaigne had a very strange way of writing. After the publication of the first edition of his Essays (1580), he took a copy of his own published text, reread it, and added more bits of writing. These marginalia reflected his state of mind at the time of rereading. Sometimes he added new ideas, or introduced digressions into his argument; sometimes he inserted scraps of poetry, single words, or clarifications of points made earlier. Then he published a new edition, with his own marginalia incorporated into the main text. In this way Montaigne became the commentator on his own text, both the reader and the read.

The impulse to reread was accompanied by the impulse to amplify the text, to add more language. Only rarely did he take anything out. As he says in the essay "Of Vanity," "I add, but I do not correct" (I cite Donald Frame's well known translation). Yet this is not strictly true. There are a number of occasions in which he did delete text. And to these we should pay careful attention. For at those moments he allows us to see himself trying to position himself, getting things adjusted just right. (more…)

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Montaigne in Sacramento

June 8, 2013

Tags: Montaigne, Jerry Brown, California Universities, Darrell Steinberg

Lovers of Montaigne's "Essays" will have been pleased to note sightings in a variety of places in recent months. First, and perhaps most surprising, Montaigne was pressed into service by California Governor Jerry Brown in his "State of the State" speech, delivered in Sacramento on January 24. Then again, on February 16, Montaigne popped up twice on the same day in the New York Times Op-Ed pages. First, Philip Lopate championed the essay as the genre of humility (while humbly not mentioning his own new book of essays, which was then hitting the stands). In the same issue, Adam Etinson quoted Montaigne to suggest that ethnocentrism is a problem, and come to the conclusion that we might solve it by humbly acknowledging that we're all in some measure ethnocentric.

To some extent this may be the influence of Sarah Bakewell's recent popularization of Montaigne, "How to Live?" Fans of Bakewell (like me) appreciate the clever ways in which her book stresses implicitly the usefulness the "Essays" for our current age of religious war and political paralysis. But the more general interest in Montaigne could be part of a larger cultural trend in which the extended essay may have begun to grab a certain number of readerly attentograms (attentogram=n. a small quantum unit of the dwindling store of available attention) away from such hegemonic cultural forms as, say, talk radio, cinematic distortions of American history, or novels with multiple unreliable narrators.

But Brown's turn to Montaigne is the most interesting. (more…)

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Selected Works

In Progress
A list of forthcoming articles and of books I'm writing.
Literary History/Political Theory
Literary Criticism/Diplomatic History
Fiction/Translation
A translation of selections from the writings of the heretic, scientist and libertine Cyrano de Bergerac.
Literature/Philosophy of History

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