Evidence and Elitism in Michel de Montaigne's "Of Cannibals"

decorated initial 'M'ichel de Montaigne's characterization of the people of the New World as pure and happy, uncorrupted by government or poverty, results in a romanticized portrait of a native people, a narrative dating back to the early roots of anthropology. This ancient example of ethnography, one that is based on information filtered through an informer instead of the modern-day practice of fieldwork conducted by an anthropologist, is very concerned with justifying the qualifications that make Montaigne's informer a trustworthy and translucent subject. For Montaigne, the man's lack of education and low status — his ignorance, according to Montaigne — contribute to his reliability. Montaigne suggests that "forging an untruth" is a practice only seen in the rich and those of high status, for they are the only people with anything to gain from fabrication or exaggeration.

This man that I had was a plain ignorant fellow, and therefore the more likely to tell truth: for your better-bred sort of men are much more curious in their observation, 'tis true, and discover a great deal more; but then they gloss upon it, and to give the greater weight to what they deliver, and allure your belief, they cannot forebear a little to alter the story; they never represent things to you simply as they are, but rather as they appeared to them, or as they would have them appear to you, and to gain the reputation of men of judgment, and the better to induce your faith, are willing to help out the business with something more than is really true, of their own invention. Now in this case, we should either have a man of irreproachable veracity, or so simple that he has not wherewithal to contrive, and to give a colour of truth to false relations, and who can have no ends in forging an untruth. Such a one was mine; and besides, he has at divers times brought to me several seamen and merchants who at the same time went the same voyage.

Montaigne's moral judgments of both the rich and the poor — either as simple-minded commoners incapable of deceit, or as cunning opportunists — isolates him from the entire spectrum of potential readers, resulting in an elitist and affected tone to his piece.

Questions

1. Montainge refers to his informer as the man that he "had," using possessive statements to suggest that the man belonged to him. What was the man's role in Montaigne's house? How does the reader interpret the piece differently because of the ambiguous relationship between the two men, and what might the fact that Montaigne was in a power of authority over the man suggest?

2. When Montaigne is talking about the unreliability of men of high status, he refers to them as, "your better-bred sort of men." Naming this group of men, he introduces them as a separate entity, one in which the reader does not belong. He speaks of men of lower status in similarly isolating terms. Is this a purposeful technique, meant to avoid offending the reader by introducing both groups of men as "others"? Or does this technique estrange the reader, offending everyone?

3. What is the significance of Montaigne's last statement in the paragraph, "besides, he has at divers times brought to me several seamen and merchants who at the same time went the same voyage." Does he feel that it is necessary to have the word of the other men to back up his single informer?

4. Montaigne says of people of a high status, "they never represent things to you simply as they are, but rather as they appeared to them." What would it mean to represent things simply as they are? Aren't all experiences filtered through the mind of the observer and somehow tainted when they are retold? Can things ever be retold "simply as they are?"

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

20 September 2007

20 September 2007