When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?
Author Saul Frampton tells the story of how history, culture, and the personal genius of Montaigne conspired to create a new literary genre: the essay.
In 1570, at the age of 37, the French nobleman Michel de Montaigne retired from public life, retreated to the tower library of his rural chateau, and invented the personal essay – a tool he used to chronicle his views on everything from theology to household smells to cannibalism, along with disquisitions on fear, prayer, sleep, moderation, sadness, solitude and books. He even threw in an essay on thumbs for good measure.Skip to next paragraph
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Although they were first published more than four centuries ago, Montaigne’s essays can seem as topical as the morning newspaper. As more than one admirer has discovered, Montaigne’s essential gift – the art of conversation rendered on the page – is a timeless one.
With all that in mind, readers can easily overlook the fact that Montaigne’s essays did, indeed, originate from a particular place in a particular time. In When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?, author Saul Frampton tells the story of how history, culture, and personal genius conspired to create a new literary genre – and a literary master for the ages.
The title of Frampton’s book is a quote from Montaigne, who was speculating about the nature of animal intelligence, asking who was really the master in the human-pet relationship.
It’s the kind of question that seems thoroughly mainstream in today’s world of doggie hotels and feline spas. But in Montaigne’s day, as Frampton points out, animals were widely regarded as unfeeling and inert, and Montaigne’s suggestion that spiders, swallows, and cats might actually have something to teach humanity showed a writer who was “remarkable for his intellectual independence.”
Montaigne’s intellectual bravado is a running subject of Frampton’s book. As France was fraying into civil war between Catholics and Protestants, Montaigne argued for tolerance, noting that “it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive for them.” How true, as we continue to live in the shadow of 9-11. In a musing that also seemed to anticipate the current implications of the war on terrorism, Montaigne wondered about the usefulness of torture as a tactical device: “For why should pain sooner make me confess what is, than force me to say what is not?” Montaigne seemed equally prescient in his suggestion that someone should invent what would later become the battlefield tank.