Today, we engaged in a rather Montaignian (Montaignesque?) discussion in 203, which I found exceptionally enjoyable. Almost everyone participated, thought I’ve still got a few hold-outs! We did some small group work first, where I asked students to draw on the introductory/contextual reading guide questions, finding one or two that struck them as most interesting as “entry points” to the reading. What kind of context do we need to really understand what Montaigne is trying to do in the Essays? Many groups focused on a question regarding the Renaissance concept of interiority, which proved a good starting place indeed for the full-class discussion; it allowed us to tie Montaigne to what we already knew from reading Petrarch, as well as from the introductory readings to the cultural context. From there, we moved on to a discussion about his style, the formal features characteristic of his essays, and the remainder of the class was spent with “Of the Power of the Imagination,” which students found a bit tough overall, but once we got into it seemed clearer.
I think the question of context–what do we need to know to properly frame our reading?–was a good one, and I’ll try to draw on it in the future. Several key themes and questions informed our discussion of “Imagination,” too–in particular, the idea of an “essay” as a trial, an experiment; the role of allusion and anecdote; the significance of personal, embodied experience and the critical exercise of reason; the way that real effects can come from false or immaterial causes; the connections between blind belief, superstition, and empty ritual; the value of storytelling. Much of this tied back in to the cultural context or to the Renaissance sense of interiority.
Several students had some excellent insights into the essay, deriving–not insignificantly–from personal anecdote and experience, and Kathleen, Sarika, Viju, Amanda, and Rachelle were especially on fire today! But what made me most happy was the way that the discussion seemed to move smoothly from idea to idea, suggesting that the connections were actually being made, the story was making sense. Next meeting, we’ll get to enjoy “Of Cannibals,” a topic that brings me much joy, indeed!