I began reading On Friendship, a collection of Michel de Montaigne’s essays, mostly as a change of pace from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which is one of those books, at least for me, that is best enjoyed in smaller sections separated by sufficient time for reflection. Rather than merely changing Bachelard’s pace, however, Montaigne soon set a pace of his own, and I found suddenly that I had read him from cover to cover, though I had intended to read him only an essay at a time.
The collection is seven essays long, but it is the first piece, “On Friendship”, that I found most compelling. Some of the later essays in the volume, like “On the Affection Of Fathers For Their Children” or “That We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Until After Our Death”, are certainly interesting in their way and certainly fine examples of writing as well, but they lack the passion that is so clear in “On Friendship”, where Montaigne describes his relationship with Etienne de La Boetie with real intensity. “In the friendship which I am talking about,” he says, “souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found,” and this kind of personal passion distinguishes the essay from all the others in the collection.
Interestingly, Montaigne locates the origin of this friendship, not in a face to face encounter, but in a text that La Boetie had written against tyranny. “I am particularly indebted to that treatise,” says Montaigne, “because it first brought us together,” and he goes on to say that this treatise was what prepared him “for that loving-friendship between us which as long as it pleased God we fostered so perfect and so entire that it is certain that few such can even be read about, and no trace at all of it can be found among men of today.”
While I am more than a little sceptical of Montaigne’s claims about the exclusive nature of his friendship, I am fascinated by the role that writing played in the development of his relationship with La Boetie. Montaigne read the work of La Boetie long before he met him in person, and he claims that this reading made him acquainted with La Boetie, preparing the conditions which would enable their friendship to develop when they did at last meet. Here, at least, whatever poststructuralist criticism might say about the absence of the author and the illusion of authorial intention and whatever else, here, a reader claims that the act of reading made him acquainted with a writer in such a way that a friendship became possible.
Writing is never adequate to its author, of course, to its author’s thinking or to its author’s intention. It is only ever adequate to itself. Its function is not to mean what the author thought or intended, but simply to mean what it comes to mean. Nevertheless, the example of Montaigne and La Boetie shows, as does my own experience, that writing does return us to its author in some way. It is not that writing allows us to determine anything about the author, and it is not that writing makes its author somehow present to us. Writing merely turns us toward an author, indefinite and undetermined though this author may be. It allows us to make an author’s acquaintance. It opens the possibility of friendship.
It is this possibility that underwrites the act of reading for me. Though many of the authors I read are now dead, and though it is not likely that I will ever meet and befriend those of them who are still living, I still read in order to be turned toward the author, toward this someone else who writes for me without knowing me. I read in order to make the aquaintence of this unknown one, to open a possible friendship with this anonymous other, even and especially because the possible friendship will almost certainly remain unrealized.
I read to encounter this impossible possibility.