By Harold Bloom
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The paper on which the text of the Essais appears is, indeed, a place of difference: it allows the rewriting and naturalization of foreign texts; it thereby permits the search for the identity of a moi in contra-distinction from what is “other”; but at the same time it defers any final access to the goal of the search, since the self is expressly an entity dissociated from the activity of writing. B20A(Essayists) 32 3/15/05 7:22 PM Page 32 Bloom’s Literary Criticism 20th Anniversary Collection If read in that deconstructionist manner, then Montaigne is achieving an awareness that the experiential fullness he seeks outside language, and which he hopes to represent in his own language, is no more a true presence in Plutarch and Seneca than in his own pages, or in his own self.
The morality of the Christian Bible is scarcely Greek or Latin, and the God of Christianity remained the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rather than the gods of Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas. Imitation or mimesis, whether of nature or of a precursor, is a Greek notion, rather than an Hebraic postulate. We cannot image an ancient Greek or Latin author confronting the stark text of the Second Commandment. B20A(Essayists) 3/15/05 7:22 PM Page 29 Essayists and Prophets 29 Erich Auerbach, in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, finds in Rabelais and Montaigne an early Renaissance freedom of vision, feeling, and thought produced by a perpetual playing with things, and hints that this freedom began to decline not so much in Cervantes as in Shakespeare, the two writers who by paradox may be the only Western authors since antiquity clearly surpassing the powers of even Rabelais and Montaigne.
Since God is hidden, according to Pascal, our condition is not less than tragic. A hidden God is doubly an incoherence for us; intolerable if he exists, and equally intolerable if he does not. We are thus reduced to an ironic quietism, in which we are best off doing nothing in regard to worldly realities. We reject the order of society so thoroughly that pragmatically we can accept it totally. The extraordinary ironies of the Provincial Letters are founded upon this Pascalian stance, that allows him to chastise the Jesuits for worldliness while defending society against them: B20A(Essayists) 38 3/15/05 7:22 PM Page 38 Bloom’s Literary Criticism 20th Anniversary Collection What will you do with someone who talks like that, and how will you attack me, since neither my words nor my writings afford any pretext for your accusation of heresy and I find protection against your threats in my own obscurity?