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Renaissance Studies

DOI: 10.1111/j.1477-4658.2007.00480.x

Montaignes OriginalTheOn Phyiognomy compilation 2007 The Society for Renaissance Studies, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. XXX 2007 0269-1213 Author Journal Renaissance Studies REST Articles Oxford, UKBONTEA Blackwell Publishing Ltd ADRIANA

Montaignes On Physiognomy
Adriana Bontea

Despite the abundance of physiognomic treatises published and republished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy, France, and England the art of physiognomy never entered the classical philosophical tradition. Different from the theories of passions taken into account in various degrees by Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau or Kant when envisaging the forms and limits of rationality, the art of physiognomy interested mainly physicians and painters.1 Given the wide spread of books on the subject during the Renaissance and the little credit they received from early modern philosophers, it seems that the art of physiognomy proved to be incompatible with subsequent philosophical inquires. The reason may be that it crosses boundaries between the outer and inner worlds and identies a junction point inassimilable to the physical and mental parts, which philosophy attempted to unite. By providing access to the intermediary zone of the purest, the most exalted sensations, as Lavater puts it, physiognomy supplies an additional eye for a perception educated by experience. According to him, its study and practice are among the most useful of human enterprises. On the one hand they increase natural perception, allowing not only the observer to see more but also to enjoy what is to be seen: Where the dark inattentive sight of the inexperienced perceives nothing, there the practical view of the physiognomist discovers inexhaustible fountains of delight, endearing, moral, and spiritual.2 On the other hand, physiognomy cuts down the number of probabilities accounting for mens actions; as they depend upon a multitude of circumstances, a distinct perception helps to reduce them by selecting only a few. On these grounds Lavater envisaged physiognomy among the sciences to come, compatible at least in part with Cartesian and Kantian epistemology. Similarly with other forms of knowledge, physiognomy is an arrangement of profuse information that the outside world sends out, assailing the sensory organs. By observing varieties and making distinctions, the physiognomist omits, amplies or reduces some data. What he keeps, is revealed in the signs he establishes, the words he
Marin Cureau de la Chambre, one of the kings physicians, publishes in 1640 les Caractres des passions and Charles Le Brun, the president of the Acadmie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, gives several public lectures on LExpression des passions (1668 and 1678) and on physiognomy. 2 Essays on Physiognomy (17751778), trans. by Thomas Holcroft (London: William Tegg, 1860), 43.

2007 The Author Journal compilation 2007 The Society for Renaissance Studies, Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Adriana Bontea

invents, and the general propositions he forms. His contribution to knowledge is revealed by the adequacy of language to the sensation he seeks to capture, sensation that is prompted in each individual when meeting the external world. There is not a man who does not more or less, the rst time he is in company with a stranger, observe, estimate, compare and judge him, according to appearances, although he might have never heard of the work or thing called physiognomy.3 Lavaters famous essays were an attempt to give to an old practice a new dignity. To achieve this he had rst to discard its dishonourable past. Well aware of the obscurity characterizing the earlier treatises on the subject, he barely mentions them, for they are the source of confounding a sublime science with the folly of divination and the puerility of chiromancy. To peruse them would be enough, and the reading of Giambattisa della Portas De humana physiognomonia (1586) could count for having read them all. No matter how plainly Lavater dissociated himself from his predecessors, his writings did not achieve the intended purpose. While his observations and the illustrative plates that accompanied them continued to be studied by apprentices and painters, the disrepute of physiognomy deepened in the nineteenth century, when the general knowledge of mans countenance offered a basis for scientic racism, alongside physical anthropology and phrenology. And thus the oblivion, which engulfed physiognomy because of philosophers lack of interest in its premises and methods, was furthered, against Lavters intentions, by what was supposed to rehabilitate it, namely by its scientic procedure. How are we to understand such distrust in a form of knowledge so often reformulated over the two centuries before Enlightenment that both philosophy and eighteenth-century physiognomic studies refrained from legitimizing? One of Montaignes last essays offers a key for assessing the scope of physiognomic inquiry beyond the suspicion with which it was already met in sixteenth century. The particular attention the chapter Of Physiognomy received from scholars in the last three decades has been mainly triggered by Montaignes intriguing writing practice. Considering the convoluted layout of the essay and the prominence of the gure of Socrates, several interpretations emphasized the strategy and the degree of self-disclosure to which the fragments conjointly concur. Depending on the chosen framework, their integration has been consecutively understood as afrmation of paradox, emblematic self-portrait, or rhetorical makeover resisting the representation of the self.4 Despite
Of the Truth of Physiognomy (1783), ibid., 17. Joshua Scodel, The Afrmation of Paradox: A Reading of Montaignes De la physionomie (III: 12), Yale French Studies, 64 (1983), 209237; Hope. H. Glidden, The Face in the Text: Montaignes Emblem Self-Portrait (Essais III: 12), Renaissance Quarterly, 46/1 (1993), 7197; Lawrence D. Kritzman, The Socratic Makeover: Montaignes De la physionomie and the Ethics of the Impossible, LEsprit Crateur, 46/1 (2006), 7585. Different from previous studies, the present approach is an inquiry into the principles of the art of physiognomy as a branch of natural sciences during the Renaissance, and of its treatment by Montaigne.
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Montaignes On Physiognomy

differences of approach, all these readings share the common tendency of considering physiognomy as a trope. Its function can be summarized under three headings: to mark the continuity between nature and art, to state the desire as well as the limits of transparent representation of the self, and to assign to us the role of decipherers in the process of reading. In all these instances, the guiding principles of sixteenth-century physiognomy books appear to be deeply challenged by Montaignes essay. However true this may be, it is worth considering the essay within the context of these treatises, which subsume the description of human characters under the general classication of natural sciences. Because physiognomy disappeared from the catalogue of our sciences after leading the way towards biological typologies of human races, modern readers tend to refer to it only briey. Yet it deserves full consideration in order to comprehend Montaignes overall project and to assess its place in history. The essay On Physiognomy can be considered as a key text for understanding the guiding principle of Montaignes writings bringing together various matters: ancient and recent books, customs from home and from afar, past and present events, individual experiences. It is with respect to the content alone that the topics can be regarded as heterogeneous for, as far as form is concerned, there is an analogy between them, which the example of physiognomy makes it possible to dene. The analogy consists in the absorption in the writing form itself of material, which has been already circulated by previous books and which can be used again for a different purpose. The address to the reader states the aim of Essays as an attempt to leave to kinsmen and friends a genuine record of mes conditions et humeurs without study or artice. [. . .] car cest moy que je peins. Mes dfauts sy liront au vif, et ma forme nafve, autant que la revrence publique me la permis. Que si jeusse est encore entre ces nations quon dict vivre encore sous la douce libert des premiers loix de la nature, je tassure que je me fusse tres-volontiers peint tout entier, et tout nud. [. . .] for it is my own self that Im painting. Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows: for had I found myself among those people who are said still live under the sweet liberty of Natures primal laws, I assure you that I would most willingly have portrayed myself whole, and wholly naked.5

Au Lecteur, Vol. I, 3. All French quotes are from P. Villeys edition of the Essais, (Paris: Presses Uinversitaires de France, 1988). The English translation is taken from The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated and edited by M. A. Screech (London: Penguin Press, 1991).

Adriana Bontea

Right from the beginning, Montaigne presents his project in terms common to knowledge made available by the study of human nature derived from physiognomy. Detached as they are here from the more or less comprehensive treatises on the subject, concepts such as character and humours seem to lack the proper sense they received when used to account for the natural disposition of men based on physical features. Yet they still posses some of this familiar sixteenth-century meaning in so far as they help to articulate the constraints of an endeavour essentially different from the new Baroque poetics of writing and painting. These terms represent condensed expressions of necessary relations, which give to the essays their frame of reference. Neither simple nor univocal, the physiognomic reference establishes a kind of invariance of experience, characterizing the pattern according to which Montaignes chapters organize their content as a continuous reection upon this very content. The art of physiognomy provides Montaigne not so much with a set of classications as one may nd it in the several treaties of the time, where the notion of character is derived from the shape of the forehead, eyebrows, nose, and mouth, sometimes the ears and other body parts.6 It is not the identication of character (vain or unfaithful) derived from the appearance of features that calls his interest; even less the ability to prognosticate the future, according to obscure connexions between the constellation of stars and the balance of humours;7 rather it is the principle of giving to sensible qualities an interpretation which remains within the reach of sensibility. Cest une faible garantie que la mine; toutefois elle a quelque consideration. (Looks are a weak guarantee, yet they have some inuence [III, xii, 1200]). Gentle features contain a promise nature has imprinted on foreheads, which actions can conrm or betray. The consideration of outer appearance supplies Montaigne with an auxiliary criterion for judging aspects of human actions, which legitimate and recognized decision-making practices overlook. The formulation and application of human laws, for instance, ignores the full extent of vile deeds. As they stand, laws prescribe punishment according to the wrong done to someone; yet, ventures Montaigne, had he have to whip an offender, he would show more severity towards those whose kind faces are contradicted by malice. For they offend nature and pervert its work. If he gives credit to the art of distinguishing between happy and unhappy faces, between affable and dull ones, and thinks it worth discerning between severe and harsh looks, malicious and sad, scornful and melancholic, it is because there is value in differentiating
Bartholemi Coclitis Phsyiognomi & chiromanti compendium (Bologna, 1504) and Jean de Indagine, Chiromancie et Physiognomie par le regard des membres (Strasbourg, 1522) give a catalogue of features expressive of character, by mapping features to temperament in a comprehensive tabulation. Reprinted several time over the century, they xed the interpretation of human character to features of the face, colour of skin and lips, and lines of the hand, by succinct description supported by engravings of heads and palms. 7 On Prognostications, I, xi, 44 and III, xii, 1201.

Montaignes On Physiognomy

between overlapping qualities. These examples, favoured by physiognomic treatises, offer to Montaigne, the now retired judge, a terminology for describing experience in line with the very perception supporting the constitution of experience as it is authorized by nature. Such a view into human dispositions saves the richness of natural phenomena, which judicial decrees obliterate. Furthermore, the examples challenge the opposition between virtues and vices established by ethics. A century later, La Rochefoucaulds maxims and moral reections would limit the works of nature in human actions to selflove (amour propre), the drive responsible for the highest and lowest deeds. Blurring their distinction, for both originate in the uniformity of human nature, the moralist will deny any reliance on appearance and thus will impoverish the stock of natural expressions. The elegance, brevity, and subtlety of his aphorisms echo the lost faith in a nature that may serve us.8 Montaignes essay shares with the physiognomy books of his time the trust in appearance as well as the conviction that natural forms and shapes inform the knowledge of the physical world, to which man and his arts also belong. Yet it evades the dogmatic explanation of character, which sixteenth-century treatises took for straightforward evidence when asserting direct links between bodily features and human character. The example of Socrates face, of whom the Greek pysiognomist Zophyre said that it reveals a vile and distempered nature, as much as La Boeties ugliness, which was contradicted by a very beautiful soul, undermine the reliability of any positive decision deriving moral virtues from appearance. However appearance is to be trusted. How far then? And under what circumstances? In the opening lines of the chapter On Physiognomy, Montaigne reconsiders Catos actions and speeches, by comparing them to Socrates common way of representing human nature ny esleve, ny riche; il ne la represente que saine, mais certes dune bien allegre sant (as neither high-soaring nor abundantly endowed: he portrays it simply as sane, though with a pure and lively sanity [III, xii, 1174]). No doubt Catos high merits recounted by Plutarchs Lives, captivate our memory, yet Socrates discourses and deeds, as recorded by his disciples and friends, provide an insight into a more vigorous complexion every encounter of his life conrms: war, calumny, tyranny, death, marriage. Complexion is a term belonging to the vocabulary of physiognomy; it refers to the combination of the four humours present within the human body, which themselves are a mixture of four sensible qualities: heat, cold, humidity and dryness. Each of them corresponds to one of the four simple elements the Greeks have identied as parts of every existing body: re, air,
Il semble que la nature, qui a si sagement dispos les organes de notre corps pour nous rendre heureux, nous ait aussi donn lorgueil pour nous pargner la douleur de connatre nos imperfections [36], Maximes, edited by Jacques Truchet (Paris: Garnier, 1967), 14. (It would seem that nature, which has so wisely ordered the organs of our body for our happiness, has also given us pride to spare us the mortication of knowing our imperfections).

Adriana Bontea

water and earth. Complexion or temperament designates the agreement or disagreement between these qualities permeating the body and inuencing its health. The art of physiognomy sought to introduce correlations between these qualities and aspects of the body. The shape and arrangement of body parts was held for the visible counterpart of these occult qualities. Features of the face or limbs represent natures own means of expression, a repository revealing the invisible mixture of humours while disclosing it.9 Physiognomic treaties of the Renaissance do not always clarify these associations, but most of them include engravings of human faces as evidence for the relationship between melancholic or choleric humours and shapes of forehead, eyes or lips. The role of illustrations was to provide a visual guide registering the outline of features considered as signicant characteristics of temperaments. The growing number of images delineating human traits as much as the uctuation in visual representations from book to book, contributed to the disentanglement of physiognomic interpretations from the four initial humours. The emphasis put on the variation of features overshadowed the simplicity of the Greek doctrine of temperaments, which became a background often difcult to recognize. Thus the increasing role of images, taking over the explanations provided by texts that often repeat previous descriptions, favoured the perceived distinctions and variations of the human traits over the constant four composing elements. The obliteration of the constancies of nature may well be responsible, among other reasons, for the subsequent philosophical indifference towards physiognomic treatises. And the attachment to the visual accuracy rendering the expression of character by the relative aspects of the body parts justies their authority on the art of painting and of medicine, as well as their handy use in everyday life. These books, which evolved into handbooks for physicians, painters, laymen and kings, develop a double tendency of the time. On the one hand, they continue the Hippocratic notes establishing the progress of illnesses and eventually the remedy according to the natural disposition of the patient.10 On the other, they follow the thirteenth century divinatory practices and astrological interpretations, which relate the body (face, spots, and lines of the hand) to the stars, and invest them with the power to foresee the
La physionomie consiste envers deux choses: savoir composition et complexion du corps humain qui dclarent et montrent manifestement les choses qui sont en lhomme par dedans par des signes extrieures; comme par la couleur, la stature, par les murs des membres et gurations B. Colcles, Le Compendion (Paris, 1560), 2. 10 The concept of prognosis was developed by Hippocrates, whereby a physician can predict the course and outcome of a disease based upon previous observation of similar cases. The progress of an illness was inferred from the shape of the nose, vivacity of eyes, temperature of the ears and ngertips, colour of the face, roughness of the forehead. Compared to the usual constitution, they were supposed to assess the imbalance of humours and foresee imminent death or recovery. These notes form the rst collection of data giving to body parts the power of a sign denoting a qualitative composition and alteration, which later art of physiognomy will develop into reading of character. Hippocrates, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1923), Vol. II, Ch. 1.

Montaignes On Physiognomy

future. Montaigne disregards the second kind of interpretations out of hand, yet he retains the rst. The consideration of natural dispositions, however, goes beyond the interpretative art of physiognomy limited by the doctrine of temperaments. The borrowed terminology gives him the opportunity to articulate a relationship between nature and humanity, outside the Christian doctrine according to which everything natural in man is a sign of the Fall and a regression from his rst paradisiacal state. The antique examples of Socrates discourses or of Catos speeches are, for Montaigne, on a par with the natural qualities exposed by physical constitution: they are indicative of a sound or strong complexion. The recurring term throughout the essays postulates that particular forms of rhetoric, style or idiom, refer to equally singular, but concealed natural properties. Its use envisages the relation between the two as itself sensible. Pleasure and utility derived from readings go hand in hand. Careful interpretation of certain passages from the Bible had granted legitimacy to astrology and physiognomy as far as their use is limited to practical knowledge. Jean Bodin traced the sphere of their validity: they record knowledge of phenomena supported by ordinary experience that associates certain qualities with others outside any causal relationship.12 Because the nature of the association is unknown, they are called occult sciences. Therefore these relationships are not necessary, but only probable. For Montaigne, the worth of these associations has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the associated terms. However, given the fact that they form the basis of current practices and knowledge, including medicine, they deserve attention as far as they recognize the continuity between various natural formations. Astrology, physiognomy and medicine place the living body in the overall picture of a universe where active forces interact one with another. Even if the guiding principle of these associations remains obscure, the chain of established correspondences has its own value, for it renders the richness of a world where all matters: plants, animals, metals, seasons, complexions, age, planetary conjunctions, and body parts.13 Despite the reservations he has about the theories of causation that natural sciences of the time propose, Montaigne constantly refers to the connections they institute. For, on the one hand they

The main shift in the interpretation of complexio from medieval treatises to Renaissance studies, concerns the integration of astrology and divinatory practices based on similitude between the human body, animal features and planetary movements. They will form the base of the doctrine of signatures bringing under a common denominator second properties, such as shapes, colours, dryness or heat, and qualities of temperament, courage or fear. The human body in all its parts is a surfacing of active physical forces linking all beings in a chain of innite correspondences. Particular ways to classify the natural appearance of bodies in the Renaissance treatises of physiognomy written by Savonarola, Cardan and Giambattista della Porta are described by Jean-Jacques Courtine and Claudine Haroche, Histoire du visage (Paris: Payot, 1994), 5081. 12 De la Dmonomanie des sorciers (Paris: Jacques de Puys, 1581), I, V, 3640. Montaigne responds indirectly to this book where Bodin argues for highest punishments for sorcerers in the chapters On the Lame (III, xi). 13 On the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers, II, xxxvii, 8834.


Adriana Bontea

remind him of an order where everything has its place; on the other hand they stipulate links between realms of experiences evading Christian teaching which privileges mans position within the overall act of creation. Nostre bastiment et public et priv, est plein dimperfection : mais il ny a rien dinutile en nature, non pas linutilit mesmes, rien ne sest inger en cet univers, qui ny tienne place opportune. Nostre estre est siment de qualitez maladives : lambition, la jalousie, lenvie, la vengeance, la superstition, le desespoir, logent en nous, dune si naturelle possession, que limage sen recognoist aussi aux bestes. Both in public and in private we are built full of imperfections. But there is nothing useless in Nature not even uselessness. Nothing has got into the universe of ours which does not occupy its appropriate place. Our being is cemented together by qualities which are diseased. Ambition, jealousy, envy, vengeance, superstition and despair lodge in us with such a natural right of possession that we recognize the likeness of them even in animals too. [III, i, 892]. The experience of his own body in pain as much as the contemporary historical scene, when reformation led to deformation and public order was instated by disorder, prompt the consideration of a larger picture of the universe more respectful of the contingencies of life. The numerous associations he invokes help Montaignes own attempt to connect random events occurring in distant realms of experience. Illness and war, reading and administrating justice equally contribute to the faithfulness of the picture he promises to his readers. Having to live at a time of violence and sedition, the public ofce he assumes on several occasions, confronts him with a historical landscape one needs to become t to live in. Hence his relentless seeking of a state of equilibrium allowing the contemplation of the historical setting beyond pathos and grief. One way to envisage a happy state beyond unhappy events is the search in the catalogue of previous knowledge and writing forms, for a temperance which is not exhibited but grown, not exposed but embedded in the stuff of life. The language of philosophy, more than its teaching, renders the benets of a balanced constitution. Identied and described initially by physiognomy, where it designates a healthy mixture of humours, the borrowed term receives in Montaignes writings a larger explanatory power. Besides its relevance for describing his own illness and its critical stages, the expression becomes t for underpinning the political crisis of the time as much as contemporary Baroque rhetoric. Backed by various stylistic forms, experience is not envisaged solely as a given, such as one may have lived it; it also entails what one may hope for. To this extent the essays are more than the image of an empirical life recorded by the one who lived it;

Montaignes On Physiognomy

they are also the image of a life worth living despite adverse events, be they wars or aging. Commentary upon favourite ancient authors, as much as description of current events, enriches the notion of character disclosed by physiognomic treatises with more endearing expressions. By offering a mould able to contain realms of experience coming from separate aspects of life, the physiognomic reference in Montaignes essays is similar to semantic or aesthetic invariance, characterizing a set of transformations they help to shape. They occur as much in records of solitary reading as in testimonies of parliamentary ofce or seigniorial deeds, of friendship, travel and aging. Thus character is a valuable term for describing the work of nature in men, not because it refers to a raw product of nature as physiognomy tends to consider it, but a carefully shaped product generated by human doings, be they books, political events, or private actions. It helps Montaigne to label expressions in language as well as historical or individual actions. It also justies the patchy form of the essays close to the practice of record keeping, piling up reading notes and occurring events. Such a catalogue, no matter how heterogeneous and arbitrary it may seem to us, serves well Montaignes purpose to live behind a lively image of himself. Such various matters are taken into account because they provide a memory for relatives and friends. But they also account for a way to categorize experience that the essays share with the natural sciences of the time, including physiognomy. And thus they augment the data upon which the existing catalogue was based and subsume expressions that previous observations ignored under its headings. In this respect, memoranda on books serve the same purpose as the record keeping of contemporary events. Both contribute to the enrichment of the catalogue, by including historical facts and personal experiences. Of all usages provided by books, Montaigne favours the ones that supply him with good images he can borrow and use in his own writing. The quotations, paraphrases, and references offer him a collection of ready-made phrases he solicits precisely when his French prose falls short. In the chapter On Books he justies this practice as a constructive way to measure his natural abilities correctly by weighing them on the same balance where Virgil, Lucretius, Catullus and Horace stand. Compared to their inventions, his stock is fairly poor: Car moy, qui, faute de mmoire, demeure court les tirer, par cognoissance de nation, say trs bien sentir, mesurer ma prote que, mon terroir nest aucunement capable daucunes eurs trop riches que jy trouve semes, et que tous les fruits de mon creu ne les sauroient payer. Myself, who am constantly unable to sort out my borrowings by my knowledge of where they came from, am quite able to measure my reach and to know that my own soil is in no wise capable of bringing forth some of


Adriana Bontea the richer owers I nd rooted there and that all the produce of my own growing could never match. [II, x, 458]

Rather than recording a failing, Montaigne gives here an exact account of the linguistic vernacular means at hand, able to express his natural faculties as opposed to the acquired ones. The modern poetical forms of the Spanish and Italian poets who wrote in their language are above all to be avoided. When compared to the Latin old poets, the new poetry of Boscn, Garcilaso, and Ariosto indulges in fantastic Petrarchic elevations, which make the ornament of all succeeding verse. Affectation and abundance of form are for Montaigne the signs of an exaggeration synonymous with an overstatement which, different from the ancients, is the main characteristic of modern writers, who montent cheval puisquils ne sont assez forts sur leurs jambes (get up on their horses because they cannot stand on their own legs. [II, x, 462]). Sketching a brief parallel between the neid and Orlando Furioso in the manner of Plutarch, Montaigne identies the poetic style with birds ight: one trusts his wings and soars the heights always following his aim; the other, uttering and jumping from tale to tale in short ights, perches at every turn lest his vigour should fail him. The association of qualities of style and bird ights suggests that meaning does not coincide with intention or matter of books. Their sense goes beyond the identication and treatment of a topic. It hovers above them, releasing an ampler knowledge, which, like different species of birds ying patterns the Romans believed are indicative of a good or bad omen, discloses nature as a basis for all human undertakings. Divinatory arts founded on auspices, before claiming to foresee the future, assert rstly that natural phenomena ground and inform all mans activities. Consideration of bird ights provided at the same time facts for natural history and for scrutinizing events to come. Interested exclusively by the rst, Montaigne attempts to asses writers and stylistic forms as legitimate headings of natural history. Plutarch, Seneca or Socrates may well furnish such entries on the same account Pliny ts in his table of contents chapters on man, his birth, his organization and the invention of the arts, alongside sections on the natural history of terrestrial animals, sh and birds.14 In a brief remark on the title of his chapters, Montaigne notes that the names of Scylla, Cicero, Torquatus are proper names designating both historical gures and forms of eloquence.15 In his introductory notice to On Books, Pierre Villey, who produced the rst modern complete edition of the Essays 19223, strongly emphasizes that the chapter is but a chat (causerie) on the readings of the author and on his particular way of catching himself in their net. One learns of his taste and
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Natural History, Book VII, VIII, IX and X. On Vanity, III, ix, 1125.

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judgment of several writers, and nothing else. And, continues Villey, here all is personal, shedding light on Montaigne, and not on the books. In this respect, he warns, this is not scholarly literary criticism in the sense the discipline was conceived in the editors time by the historians of ideas. Rather its relevance comes from being the critique of a man of taste, of a gentleman.16 Does this nal distinction try to prevent the reader from comparing Montaignes practice to the objectivity Lanson began to grant to literary history and himself?17 And in more general terms, is literary criticism, understood as a tool for shaping the history of thought, to be conceived only in the light of the categories Lanson himself had dened at the beginning of the last century? Or would it be possible to secure a positive view on books and their use by adding to the list of informed knowledge (circle, publics, mentalities), much older types of correlation, which, despite having lost their meaning to us, belong legitimately to the history of literary practices? If Lansons categories describing literature as an event occurring on several thresholds where readers and writers, sources and borrowings, the biography of the author and the life of works meet, are not universal but historical, then one can expect that different associations formed in other ways can claim objectivity, even though they do not pave the road towards the sociology of literature or the history of reading. It is quite possible, therefore, that Montaignes chapter on books holds more than just an illustration of his taste. It may be that the function he ascribes to reading is simply not the same as the editors and his contemporary scholars. When Villey opposes Montaignes enterprise to modern scholarly criticism, he actually points to the fact that what was understood in his time by literary criticism and its methods is inseparable from the constitution of literary institutions, be they universities, scholarly editions or academic publishers. Indeed, Montaignes endeavour remains outside this particular history. However, his project falls into another history where it is possible to conceive of common categories for describing eloquence and aspects of nature. It may be that his essays contain the features of a humanism which the next three centuries forgot twice: once when they detached the sciences and their rationality from the totality of experience and favoured among all its possibilities the constitution of proof and again when they severed human sciences from natural sciences. The growing interest in Montaignes book throughout the last century corresponds to the acknowledgment of writing as the original production of meaning which one can identify more precisely after Baudelaire, Proust and Valry. Their works, no matter how different in terms of genres and themes, allowed for a new integration between the most concrete aspects of material life, including the mute life of the physical body,
Essais, Vol. II, 407. Lansons programme for literary research was laid out between 1903 and 1910 in several conferences and articles published together in Essais de critique, de mthode et dhistoire (Paris: Hachette, 1965). His study on Les Essais de Montaigne dates from 1935.
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and the life of language they shaped. Within this discontinuous history, Montaignes is not a precursor, neither are his essays an origin, rather a moment shedding light on both the questions of his time and ours.18 The preference he shows for Latin poets contains not only a statement on the modern vernacular Spanish or Italian style that his French prose seeks to avoid. It also points to a steadier attempt to shape a form and its idiom, which are in agreement with both the experience of books and a lived experience layered by contingent life. The rst takes in Montaignes essays the form of an undeniable pleasure urging him to respond to the Latin letters of Seneca or to Catos French sayings, as rendered by Amyots translation of Plutarch. Yet the response is always a diversion from the original topic towards a lived experience that the matter of the book allows him to formulate. The lack of memory he invokes every so often indicates not so much a deciency of the mind as a natural inclination to receive and host his favourite pages in the same way one welcomes guests in his own house. Forgetting or, as he puts it, failing retention, hinders him from considering books as objects only to endow them with the presence of lively beings. The quotations, references or paraphrases are the bodies that give them the features of a lived experience. If his choice of books goes to Latin poetry, it is because its turns and images are highly evocative of the very things they endow with expression. Such is his pleasure; and the practice of quoting is to bring colour to realms of experience ignored by antiquity. In this respect, Montaignes commentaries also succeed in constructing a pattern of connections, analogous to physiognomy. As arts of expression, both capture human beings in their natural nakedness. Like the anonymous heads illustrating the books on physiognomy, where lines and curves delineate the temperament, discursive forms reveal the physics of the human constitution on which metaphysics, that is the overall positioning of mans existence in respect to nature and religion, rests. At a time when the art of painting reserved the representation of nude bodies exclusively to pagan gods, Montaigne envisages physiognomy as a paradigm for his own project to paint himself, and thus to adjust the means to the matter. In this respect philosophy and poetry are equally instructive readings. He expects from both que la science, qui traicte de la connoissance de moy mesmes, et qui minstruise bien mourir et bien vivre (only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well [II, x, 459]). This preference is far from being a metaphor. Rather it discloses the recognition that, different from animals and plants, which receive from nature the necessary organs to survive, human beings need to shape their own. A verse from Propertius introduces here the image of the rider who reins in his
A similar historical positioning of Montaignes Essays from the perspective of the meeting place between Renaissance and modern concerns is theorized by Richard L. Regosin with respect to the concept of justice in Rusing with the Law: Montaigne and the Ethics of Uncertainty, Lesprit crateur 46/1 (2006), 5163.

Montaignes On Physiognomy


horse and makes it keep a poised pace: Hac meus ad metas sudet oportet equus. In this sense the endeavour to present himself according to the shape nature gave him, is closer to the natural sciences than to the art of painting. As a science of the concrete, physiognomy, offers a leading thread for identifying qualities as an active force surfacing in organs and limbs as much as in language and deeds. The minute notes on health and eating habits, on taste for food, drink, love and books, are an attempt to ascribe to perception its organs. Such notes supplement the natural organs with additional ones t to render the experience of pleasure or pain to which none of the ve senses correspond. If the book is worth writing, if it takes so many detours, it is because so many views are to be eliminated before the self can identify its own standing point. When he writes that he is able to furnish essays in esh and blood19, Montaigne refuses any ready-made position that has not been grounded in experience. Several studies have emphasized the techniques of self-portraiture and have established analogies between the essays and the art of painting.20 However, the address to the reader, opening the rst edition of the essays in 1580 when compared to Montaignes portraits representing him richly dressed and adorned with necklace and medallion, the difference is striking. Sometimes he is portrayed as a gentleman with his coat of arms, and sometimes as the author of the Essays with all the encoding attributes of vanits paintings. Borders of owers, serpents, geometric instruments, empty shells and open books, common to Baroque imagery, testify to the remoteness of nature, no longer accessible as a whole to the contemporary perception of nature. It is only through fragments, removed from their original settings, that natural forms are recuperated as allegories of time. In this context, Montaignes project is an attempt to recover the vividness of nature and his writing practice a way to restore the condence in its creations. The endeavour to present himself naked is nothing but the foreboding that its forms still supply tting patterns for describing the whole range mans experience. One way to achieve nakedness as opposed to masking, artice and deceit is to keep the rhetoric of writing in tune with the perception of the self. The art of citation from ancient authors he so often resorts to, reveals a blank in his language as much as it points to an unnamed region of his faculties he
On Some Lines of Virgil, III, v, 951. The French expression is des essays en chair et en os, p. 844. Trois portraits de Montaigne: essai sur la reprsentation la Renaissance (Paris: Nizet, 1990) by Marc. E. Blanchard identies under the emblems of friendship, cannibals, and Sabina Popeeas veil, the art of portraiture tting for rendering the moving image of Montaignes description of the self; The Matter of My Book: Montaignes Essais as the Book of the Self by Richard L. Regosin (Berkley: California University Press, 1977) opened in Chapter 8, On the Face of Things, a new perspective on literary self-portrait by relating it to Renaissance techniques of portrait-painting, especially to Clouets continuous search for the physical, substantive quality of his canvases in order to achieve a speaking likeness; and the Essays in self-portraiture: a comparison of technique in the self-portraits of Montaigne and Rembrandt (New York: Peter Lang, 1996) by Andrew Small, focuses on the quest for delity and on the essential nature of the model, and what the likeness of painting must grant beyond surface and appearance.
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is gaining access to. We may call it spontaneity. Extracts and references do not always comply with the rhetoric of amplication.21 Sometimes they full a reverse function by avoiding dressing a judgement or a topic in an ostentatious linguistic turn. When Montaigne invites the reader to observe not the amount of his borrowings but the art of choosing and adapting them to his own invention, he indicates a retrenchment of his prose. He thus retreats behind the most tting gures, and let them speak what he means. Je ne compte pas mes emprunts, je les poise. (I do not count my borrowings, I weigh them. [II, x, 458]) One reason for such a practice is openly stated. In order to protect his pages from hasty judgments thrown upon recent vernacular writings produced by living authors, willingly to argue that with the vulgar tongue, conception and purpose of new works are vulgar too, Montaigne takes refuge under those whose credit is not at stake. And this confounds the temerity of censors who might believe they attack him when actually they strike Plutarch or criticize Seneca. Weighing books and compiling quotations transform a wide Renaissance practice of anthologizing, ranging from collections of poetical turns ( orilges) to lists of arguments and rhetoric inventions (inventio), from adages to biblical apophthegms,22 into features Montaigne assumes as his own. Such an appropriation is possible because good images from books and the expressions they provide have a life of their own, streching beyond the original context in which they rst appeared. Montaignes weighing of citations and comments is recognition of their expressive power outside the immediate framework supporting them. Considering the cruelty of his time, Platos views that no violence should be done against the peace of the country, even to cure it, come to mind. When he writes jestois Platonicien de ce cost l, avant que je seusse quil y eust de Platon au monde (I was a Platonist in that way, before I ever knew there had been a Plato in this world. [II, xii, 1180]), he envisages a common ground all human beings share, and which make them
Amplication and development as current practices of Renaissance text production have been studied by Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979) and Andr Tournon, Montaigne, la glose et lessai, (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1983). Both provided a framework for understanding the essays as an original response to the ancient concept of imitation (copia) and to the medieval commentary (glose). Yet, from the perspective of contemporary vernacular writings, the essays oppose the circumvallated poetical turns, to be later associated with Baroque forms. On their background Montaignes writings are an understatement. In Montaignes Deceits: The Art of Persuasion in the Essays (London: University of London Press, 1974), Margaret McGowan mentions it among the most eloquent ways to place the reader at the right distance and capture his attention and interest (1719). Yet there is another aspect of reduction, which all art products relay upon. Choosing only a few from among all properties of an object, the painter gives up the volume, the sculptor the smell or colour, in order to present the object according to his art, means and tools, which in turn bring forth new qualities, be they light or depth. Pushing the analogy further, Montaignes essays undertake the same task when he rephrases, amends or transforms old sayings to extract from them what is his own. 22 Among the most famous collections are Erasmus Adages, continually composed and recomposed, published and republished over thirty years (15021532), changing in focus and attitude, with new passages added, sections extended, and editorial alterations throughout. Montaignes writing practice is at times similar to Erasmus. And the inscriptions on the beams of his library reveal the same attitude of plumbing old texts and giving them a fresh use.

Montaignes On Physiognomy


communicate one with another over times and between philosophical schools. Here the brief invocation of Platos is not so much of an example drawn upon, since he already followed it before he knew he was doing so, as of a truth he perceives and communicates to Platos texts. Car je fay dire aux autres, non ma teste, mais ma suite (For I make others say for me, not before but after me. [II, x])23 summarizes his practice of reading and writing well. If cultural productions are transmissible, if certain truths travel from one age to another, it is because their meaning is symptomatic of certain natural features, which differing from the eye or the ear, do not have recognizable organs. The numerous passages commenting on written texts are a way to identify these organs and to establish the opaque connexion between properties of style, but also historical events or laws, and human nature. The nudity of man is retrieved from his cultural achievements. It is natures imprint in man that allows us to talk about force or beauty of discourse. The high esteem Montaigne has for Amyot is due to the simplicity and purity of his language and to his ability to successfully smooth and unravel Plutarchs intricacies in French.24 Proper style delivers an insight into the natural complexion of men, which, in turn, is responsible for rhetorical qualities as much as for the wars they wage and the laws they invent. In this light, Montaignes essays are a perpetual inquiry (inquisition) into a culture that holds the key for understanding its forms. And his project to paint himself is but an attempt to construct an objectivity bringing together the perception of self, located in his body and mind, and that of the reader. Their meeting point is conceived under the heading of nature. Its bold presence felt in any human action is, however, mute and secret. It takes human consciousness to underpin it and to expose oneself as nature intended. Judgement of books and minute records of dispositions shed light on each other. As for the changing matter of the chapters, they multiply the interrogations and question the worth of making books, when they are already so many at hand. If there is to be a book, such an enterprise, while considering from ones own situation the divergent answers ancient philosophy, customs, religion have given to mans position in the world, inevitably will eliminate false solutions such as Ciceros view of philosophy as preparation for death or Christian concord through civil discord. However, in order to remove these answers, they have to be judged in medias res where doctrines and teachings adhere to life. Montaigne identies this medium in the self, considered as a stage or scaffold, on which actions, thoughts, decisions, feelings of pain and imagination, refer to the general heading of complexion. It is commonplace when describing Monaignes whole body of essays to emphasize the lack of any systematic order. The quotations to be drawn from
This addition to the 1595 edition is left out in the Screech translation, but preserved in Cottons version, (16851686), revised by W.C. Hazlitt (London: Reeves and Turner, 1877), Vol. 2, p. 86. 24 Work can Wait till Tomorrow, II, iv, 408 and II, x, 463464; simplicity renders navet.


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the authors own confession to support this view are undeniably numerous, especially when related to the doubt he expresses when confronting any form of generalization that science and its teaching rely upon. Most often, he accuses science of prompting a gap between common experience and its procedures. Let us leave aside the question of whether this is justied or not when referring to Aristotles description of movement. The description of movement receives its complete meaning in the light of both the Aristotelian treatises on interpretation and on categories.25 What Montaigne actually opposes is the splitting between the ancient perception of natural phenomena, which was particular to the Greeks, and the persistence of a teaching through modes and gures of reasoning thought to be able to reect also the experience of the Renaissance man.26 Les sciences traictent les choses trop nement, dune mode trop articielle, et differente la commune et naturelle [. . .]. Je ne recognois pas chez Aristote, la plus part de mes mouvemens ordinaires : on les a couverts et revestus dune autre robbe, pour lusage de leschole. Dieu leur doint bien faire ! Si jestois du mestier, je naturaliserois lart, autant comme ils artialisent la nature. Erudite works treat their subjects too discreetly, in too articial a style, far removed from the common natural, one. [. . .] I cannot recognize most of my ordinary motions in Aristotle: they have been covered over and clad in a different gown for use by schoolmen. Please God they know what they are doing! If I were in the trade, just as they make nature articial, I would make art natural. [III, v, 988] Despite this misinterpretation of Aristotelian epistemology, which, after all, has a long history, Montaigne outlines a project he undertakes, which meets the same endeavour the Greek arts and sciences have formulated, no matter how unfamiliar this formulation seems now to be. Science is not criticized here from the Sceptics point of view, which has been so often attributed to Montaigne, but for its ostentatious apparatus, interrupting the obvious communication between the object of enquiry and the way it represents the object. The reserve is close to the remarks on vernacular poetry and its tendency to adopt a tone betraying common experience. To the rhetoric of excess and the hyperbolic style of poems corresponds contrivance in the realm of a philosophy t for teaching, but inadequate for living. In this
The phenomenology implied in Aristotles categorization and its relation to the treatises on physics and on poetics, have been thoroughly studied by Claude Imbert in Phnomnologies et langues formulaires (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992), 191210. 26 Antoine Compagnon relates Montaignes scepticism to a critique of nominalism. Si les universaux sont dnoncs, il doit donc tre clair quils le sont comme ressemblances dtaches des supports sensibles et hypostasies par le langage. Nous, Michel de Montaigne (Paris: Seuil, 1980), 30.

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context, contemporary physiognomic treatises meet the requirement of modelling their theoretical apparatus on lived experience, as their very existence is the result of gathering information accessible to everyone. Moreover, their claim to be useful in everyday encounters depends on the assumption that the knowledge they provide is in accordance with common perception. Montaigne refers to this art, for it represents the last link between the trust in nature codied by ancient sciences and late Renaissance experience. The essay On Physiognomy brings together a eulogy of Socrates, reminiscences of ancient books, reections on their utility for a sixteenth-century witness of the religious wars, famines and plague, accounts of aging, and two short narratives relating two dangerous events that end happily. The rst tells of the invasion of his castle by a neighbour and his soldiers; the second recounts the event of a voyage when, crossing a forest, he is taken captive and dispossessed of all his belongings. How does the title of the chapter account for such various matters? Writing on his headings, Montaigne warns the reader that the titles of chapters do not always embrace the whole matter; they often denote it by some token, which he will add later, such as Andria or The Eunuch.27 The examples taken from Terences plays, where the titles conceal under a common name the proper name to be revealed only in the end, suggest that Montaignes practice of writing constructs relationships which remain hidden yet perceivable through a recognizable sign. This sign appears as an index bringing together intermittent experiences and identies a sensible connection between events occurring in distant spheres of ones life. Historical events, philosophy and personal adventures call upon each other in the essays and their writing is both a reection on the gap between these experiences and an attempt to bridge it. Thus the title On Physiognomy points to perceived similarities between heterogeneous realms of experience while proposing a way to secure its whole range. Such an endeavour, its purpose and its signicance, are an alternative mode of categorizing experience if compared to Aristotelian or Stoic categories. On Physiognomy offers a privileged insight into the performative aspects of writing as a pursuit for signicant relationships to be drawn outside the causeeffect connection legitimized by Stoic physics and metaphysics that continued and rened Platos dialogues and Aristotles treatises. Both philosophical investigations were conducted under the authority of physics, which also supplied the speech forms describing experience in terms of perception. Plutarchs lines on Pericles eloquence bear witness to the way rhetoric and persuasive style are governed by physics when he mentions that his sayings were thundering and lightning when he harangued the people, and that he wielded a dreadful thunderbolt in his tongue.28 An avid reader of the Lives, Montaigne takes upon himself the praise of natural style to be derived
27 28

III, ix, 1125. Plutarchs Lives, trans. by John Dryden, (London: J. M. Dent, 1927), Vol. 1, 233.


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from the adherence of experience to its expression. If the matter of the book turns out to be the self, it is not by statement of purpose, but by the very practice of writing. When Montaigne writes Je mestudie plus quautre subject. Cest ma metaphysique, cest ma physique (I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics. (III, xiii, 1217]), he means that the subject he is treating is shaped by its very treatment. Neither physics nor metaphysics can offer full explanations of man; rather they are ciphers of the human tonality in the overall harmony of the world.29 The art of physiognomy is one way, among more reputable forms of inquiry, to acknowledge the nature of man as a question without answer, a chase without catch. This endless inquisition pursued over centuries, to be yet started over again, is, for Montaigne, the sign of mans healthy constitution and of the natural vitality pressing him to tend further; sil ne savance, et ne se presse, et ne saccule, et ne se choque et tournevire, il nest vif qu demy (it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows. [ibid, 1211]). Divergent schools of philosophy, customs, religious doctrines, historical events, are the exact measures of the life animating all human actions. If they are called upon, it is because they can be held for sensible signs to be associated sometimes with sound and sometimes with ill symptoms, as much as the minute register of ones own mood, health, or aging. The physiognomic description extends from bodily human features, to historical time and philosophical teaching, in an attempt to secure the life of phenomena as lived experience. Well aware of the heterogeneous aspects touched upon by his essay, Montaigne admits the enigmatic correspondences the spheres of experiences share with one another. Their ambiguity rests on the very way language opens up towards something which is beyond it, already there, yet shaped in the act of utterance. Like Apollos prophetic speech, the art of physiognomy is but another perplexing mean sorting experiences in terms of natural afnities. Thus, Montaigne not only recasts the Delphic inscription know thyself as what do I know? in his book and on the ceiling of his library, covered by captions on the vanity of knowledge. He also secures a place for an integral truth embracing the whole sphere of the human. The essay On Physiognomy, while refusing the direct link between features of the body and moral character, allows keeping nature among legitimate matters of enquiry. On the one hand, the chapter instructs us about the level of accessibility of nature to late Renaissance man; on the other, it fractures the ancient continuity between cosmic and human order by suggesting more indirect connections. Both are mirrored in the structure of the essay: it proposes to the reader the pieces of a puzzle to be combined together. The common ground between the emblematic gure of Socrates, persuasive style, wars and danger in ones own home or on roads, is envisaged in

See on this point Merleau-Pontys Lecture de Montaigne, Signes (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 255.

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terms of feeling and perception. Rien ne chatouille, qui ne pince (Nothing thrills without hurting [III, xii, 1185]) is the formulation under which the bloody theatre of history, Socratic examples of the everyday chosen among the sayings of carters, joiners, cobblers, and masons, and Montaignes both own reection on peasants and the account of his encounters with armed men and robbers, all come together. Their association, no matter how remote, envisages different areas of experience as a radiant energy that feeds the very writing of the essays. The drama of public death, which Montaigne confesses to be content to witness, as much as Plutarchs accounts of seditions, Socrates last hours, like the peasants struck by illness, and the two short narratives communicate together in the most distant way: all of them are links in a long chain of connections between humanity and nature proving the authority of the rst over the second. Giving up on the ancient unity based on common sense, which provided the concord of antique sciences and arts, Montaigne is searching for another basis able to account for the totality of human experience of his time. Looking for such correspondences under the heading of physiognomy is the trademark of Montaignes endeavour to secure for natural phenomena the same richness they used to have in Greek and Roman antiquity. Then the universe was packed with meaning in each of its forms: birds utter, animals shapes and organs, rock formations and human features. To this extent, his humanism reaches far beyond erudition or mere adaptation of ancient tools to modern concerns. His task is to capture the experience of his time, including historical and individual experiences as natural formations, and thus to liberate human events from sorrow and repentance. The passages describing the desolate state of the country ruined by conicts present the civil war as a ravaging poisoning illness. Its confusing course and wide spread annul any rational justication, be it in terms of doctrine or law, and refer human actions to the convulsions of a body infected from head to foot. The diagnosis of history in terms of epidemic disease removes the faculties of reason from their original place. The image of a body, ravaged by ts that the head is powerless to contain, pictures the overall disorder that magistrates and chief commanders follow instead of commanding, giving up their good and generous natures that are capable of justice. Corruption of the governing body is but a variety of corruption undergone by all natural phenomena, plants, animals and human beings. It is not a matter of a primary cause, but of recognizing the process. In this respect, the essay On Physiognomy contains an illuminating reection on the objectivity of experience and on its appropriate form of expression. Both are captured by what he calls le pire visage des choses (the worst face of things). The ugly deformity of historical events is likened to a head and body of ill appearance foreboding death. Human history regresses to natural history, governed by constant corruption and generation. In the realm of human beings, it takes the form of destructive passions. Ambition, avarice, cruelty, vengeance are


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the features under which history exposes the lost creature whose communication with the creator and with the rest of his work is gone astray. Forgetting Gods promise of redemption, the created men dwells solely in the realm of history where devotion and reformation appear as mere deviation from the original order of creation. In this context, history takes the form of a tragic plot whereby the desire for salvation turns against itself, leading to damnation. On the scene of contemporary history the Christian drama preserves the cruelty of ancient tragedies: desmembrant sa mere et en donnant ronger les pieces ses anciens ennemis, remplissant des haines parricides les courages fraternels (dismembering of his motherland, tossing parts of her to be gnawed by her ancient foes, lling brotherly hearts with parricidal hatreds. [III, xii, 1181]) However, this is only one part of the picture. The same nature undergoing corruption in some of its parts offers also a different insight. The two anecdotes Montaigne recounts have a happy ending, like Terences plays. The armed men and their chief retreat from his castle peacefully, and the robbers who captured him give him back his possessions and let him go. Both instances tell of surprising events, which Montaigne weaves into the fabric of the chapter. The fortunate outcome evades rational explanation, if rationality means establishing causal connections and distancing the description from sensible apperception. Yet there is justication if one trusts the appearances not as rigid determinations proposed by the treatises of physiognomy, but as an immanent life of the body, which is penetrated to all its parts by the soul. The last lines of the chapter disclose the sensible qualities the body holds as an expressivity which invades the fragments of matter with spiritual marks: Si mon visage ne respondoit pour moy, si on ne lisoit en mes yeux, et en ma voix, la simplicit de mon intention, je neusse pas dur sans querelle, et sans offence, si long temps (If my countenance did not vouch for me, if people did not read in my eyes and in my voice the innocence of my intentions, I would never have endured so long without feud or offence. [III, xii, 1205]) Meaning is not only certainty, as Descartes will envisage it, by splitting the mind and body, and giving to the rst all the authority he refuses to the second. There is also an ambiguous meaning, a lateral sense of events, which Montaigne seeks to bring forth by keeping the junction between body and soul always a matter of inquiry. The enigma of the body he presents here is that of an expression one is not aware of, yet one communicates boldly. Thus Montaigne reshapes the art of physiognomy into an art of reading character on the face of events, of what happens. These contingencies do not teach us about tight determinisms, but about a freedom at work, feeding the very happenings coming Montaignes way. Physiognomy ceases to be the passive reception of natures work by a body that receives character in the same way one gets the colour of ones eyes. Throughout the essay, it becomes an active power that has its share in what happens. This is why physiognomy cannot prognosticate future events. It only can offer a

Montaignes On Physiognomy


paradigm for a body whose organs are open to different functions, which actions determine in one way or another. Socrates ugly face so severely interpreted by the physiognomist Zophyre, is one natural feature, but not the only one to account for his complexion. His discourses, if they contradict some appearances, reveal others, for language too is an organ, able to touch even if difcult to localize. It renders body and soul interconnected, as Prousts long sentences refer to his breath and his anxiety he may lose it before involuntary memory stops pouring the perfume of the past. For Montaigne, physiognomy holds the sensible indices of an interpretation where signs are not xed by treatises, but await to be equally drawn from deeds and words, from history and personal encounters. Fitting them together in a single chapter is a way to admit that any ordering is superior to chaos, for establishing connections on the basis of sensible qualities instructs on the heuristic value of any associative process. It grounded much of Renaissance knowledge. One of the most famous books of natural science of the sixteenth century published under the title of Magia Naturalis was a mixture of useful recipes, observations, experiments and quotations from classical writers, who are often cited to support or challenge the property of plants or minerals. Writing about his experiments, Giambattista della Porta lists together the oils obtained from the seeds of citron, orange and lemon, and the earth brought from the Isle of Malta among the most efcient antidotes against snake poison.30 Modern biochemistry and geochemistry have respectively conrmed these properties. Experiments conducted in specially equipped laboratories have made it possible to analyse their components and to nd that the limonin, a bitter, white, crystalline substance identied in orange and lemon seeds, and kaolin, act as antigens, prompting the response of the bodys immunization system. Yet for della Porta, their efcacy was based on testing them in natural conditions, and their subsequent classication was justied by an equivalence based on shape and colour. The white pointed pips of citrus fruits and the pale clay stones appeared to him, beyond their effectiveness, similar enough to the snakes teeth in order to enter together a sensible correlation and to infer, on the basis of their likeness, that one can ght against the other. In the terminology of the time, natural magic was a direct continuation of Aristotles, Theophrastus and Plinys natural history. The term magic described an observation undertaken by the naked eye, opposed to examination by means of instruments, such as polished lenses or the telescope, which Galileo was to construct at the beginning of the next century, but which della Porta had already envisaged in a sketchy form in one chapter of the Magia Naturalis.31 Allowing for such connections was, for
Magia Naturalis, Book VIII, Ch. IX (Naples, 1558). The treaty was a best-seller for several decades. Reissued ve times in Latin editions during the next ten years, it was translated into Italian (1560), French (1565) and Dutch (1566). The English translation appeared in London in 1658. 31 Ibid., Book XVII, Ch. X describes the use of a combination of convex and concave lenses for viewing objects far off or near at hand.


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della Porta, a way to conne himself within observations backed by natural perception, without help from other tools or equipment. In the same line, he composed a physiognomic treatise, gathering analogies between human and animal appearances.32 His classications, no matter how heteroclite and arbitrary they may seem to us, preserve the richness of the catalogue. Deciding that all counts, animals, plants, metal, stones, he contributes to the creation of a memory bank, that later undertakings, using different methods, may conrm or inrm. Montaignes enterprise to paint himself naked and without artice belongs to the same attempt to register all that matters: actions of the body, passions of the soul, quotations, record of historical events and personal adventures. Their materialization is a further step taken in reshaping the physiognomic illustrations of Cardan or della Porta. To their diagrams of anonymous heads and bodies, he opposes a portrait in which all elements are expressive of both nature and humanity according to virtues equally declared by corporal and moral features. Painting likeness in a portrait of natures work requires including oneself in the picture, ones concrete situation, determined by the body, the time, the culture. The taste for books, like the taste for certain foods, is the testimony of choices Montaigne makes to confront adversity, and keep healthy when plague or war strikes his house. And his art of physiognomy is both physics and metaphysics. University of Sussex


De Humana Physiognomonia (Vico Equense: G. Cacchi, 1586).