Montaigne's use of sarcasm when the cannibals visit Europe

In his essay, "Of Cannibals," Montaigne examines the depressing realities of life in Europe and contrasts those with the testimonies of inhabitants of the New World. To create an effective contrast, he looks at the lives of the barbarians — as Europeans would classify them — and then he criticizes European behavior in a pointed and often sarcastic manner. When Montaigne employs this technique, the Europeans are depicted as increasingly ridiculous and more barbaric than the uneducated savages they are being contrasted with. It is the life of the Europeans that is in fact absurd, not that of the cannibals.

Three of these people, not foreseeing how dear their knowledge of the corruptions of this part of the world will one day cost their happiness and repose, and that the effect of this commerce will be their ruin, as I presuppose it is in a very fair way (miserable men to suffer themselves to be deluded with desire of novelty and to have left the serenity of their own heaven to come so far to gaze at ours!), were at Rouen at the time that the late King Charles IX. was there. The king himself talked to them a good while, and they were made to see our fashions, our pomp, and the form of a great city. After which, some one asked their opinion, and would know of them, what of all the things they had seen, they found most to be admired? To which they made answer, three things, of which I have forgotten the third, and am troubled at it, but two I yet remember. They said, that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many tall men, wearing beards, strong, and well armed, who were about the king ('tis like they meant the Swiss of the guard), should submit to obey a child, and that they did not rather choose out one amongst themselves to command. Secondly (they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another), that they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean and half- starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.

In this passage, Montaigne takes his criticism to a more pronounced level than it is earlier in the piece. Montaigne consistently employs a sarcastic tone that is more deprecating when commenting on European lifestyles than that of the savages. He mocks the savages for traveling around the world to observe a culture out of "novelty," subtlety avoiding the reality that Europeans were much more likely to travel for "novelty" than would a few savages from the New World. The passage is another example of the striking tone Montaigne takes on a difficult and important critique of European practices.

Questions

1. Why does Montaigne include the mention of the barbarians' meeting with Charles IX? Why is this anecdote in the essay and do you believe it to be true?

2. Is Montaigne impressed that the savages are not more vocal with their grievances — if they have any — about life in Europe? Or do you get the feeling he could find more than three complaints if he so desired?

3. It is difficult to fully examine Montaigne's sarcasm and criticism throughout this piece because there is so much hidden meaning. How thoroughly could you support a sarcastic reading of this passage?

4. What do we make of the third aspect the savages were astounded by, the one aspect that Montaigne can not recall? For someone as intelligent and precise as Montaigne, it is hard to fathom he would forget so vivid a moment if it actually occurred. Is this Mntaigne toying with the reader again, or something else?

References

Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

24 September 2007

24 September 2007