The Idea of Self-Portrait Writing, or A Portrait of the Writer as Reader

In Montaigne’s autobiography, we find an essay titled “Why I Paint My Own Portrait”: 

“One day I was at Bar-le-Duc when King Francis II was presented a portrait that King Rene of Sicily had made of himself. Why, in a like manner, isn’t it lawful for every one of us to paint himself with his pen, as Rene drew himself with a crayon?” 

We all have a particular picture of ourselves – seldom, perhaps, the same picture that others have of us. And this is true of people we know and see and talk to face-to-face. Though we see eye-to-eye, we nevertheless find ourselves mired in misunderstanding. Unstated assumptions carpet beneath our oratorical feet like banana peels. Our rhetorical situations may be hopelessly complicated when our tools for communicating with one another are limited to reading and writing.  

Montaigne again; this reader advisory from “What I Find In My Essays”:

“The titles of my essays do not always embrace their content. Often they denote it merely by a sign. It is the careless reader who loses track of the subject, not I. There will be always hid in a corner some word which, however hard to find, will not fail to bring him back.”

Montaigne tells us why and how he writes, and why and how he reads. This from “The Days When I Read”:

“For my part, I like only easy and amusing books which tickle my fancy, or such as give me counsel and comfort. If I use them for study, it is to learn how to know myself, and to teach myself the proper way to live and die.”

Montaigne found reading useful, and his reading fueled his writing. If bad writing is usually the evidence of bad thinking, we find little to no bad thinking in Montaigne. He appears to have learned writing from writing, however, not from reading. And he would argue that one learns writing from the regular practice of it, and in no other way. His writing is not simply his thinking put to paper:

“Drawing this portrait after my own model, I have often been forced to drape and rearrange myself in order that the pose may offer a truer likeness, with the result that I have created for myself a fresher and brighter complexion than I began with. My book has made me as much as I have made my book. It is of the same stuff as the author, a limb of my body, devoted to its own being and not to the concerns of its reader, as are other books.”

Montaigne is constantly making claims and questioning them, evaluating evidence, his own or that of others, looking for what has been left out, and why, verifying the presence of an opposing view and analyzing it for its strengths and weaknesses, weighing the possibilities of suggested solutions. If thesis states, theme explores; Montaigne explores themes, but his great theme is himself:

“Meditation is ample exercise for the man who knows how to explore and use himself. No occupation is at once idler and more fruitful – according to the character of our mind – than entertaining one’s own thoughts. Great men make it their life work. Moreover, Nature has favored us in it: for there is nothing we can keep at so long and easily. It is the business of the gods, says Aristotle; and it creates both their happiness and ours.”

If a good writer is a good reader, if good reading precedes good writing, just as existence might precede essence, Montaigne explains why: “With its variety of matter, reading above all awakens my reasoning power. It puts my judgment to work, not my memory. And I would rather forge my mind than furnish it.”

Lowenthal, Marvin. Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne. Vintage Book, V34.  First published in 1935 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

2 thoughts on “The Idea of Self-Portrait Writing, or A Portrait of the Writer as Reader

  1. Marvellous affirmation of what instinctively I believe, that books find the writer to write them and furnish the lives to provide the vocabulary. One has little choice but to forge the tongue to sharpen the message.

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