Saturday, September 5, 2009

Montaigne and New York

I am often stimulated to think about New York from a new angle after reading something in the New Yorker magazine. It occurred to me after reading Jane Kramer’s article on the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne in this week’s magazine that Montaigne’s search for himself through his essays is similar to New York’s ongoing quest to carve a unique place for itself in the world, one that both highlights its dazzling variety and offers some kind of unifying identity.

As Kramer says, Montaigne in his essays was a “Protean creature” impossible to anticipate or pin down. He seemed to want to express everything, be everywhere, and embrace every possible tradition. He was less a self with boundaries and limits and more a self that was marked by its very lack of such limits or constraints. “He followed himself wherever his attention settled,” and it rarely settled for long in any one place. Kramer also quotes him as saying that “The only things I find rewarding are variety and the enjoyment of diversity.” He seemed to write to find himself, but his search was really a strategy for getting lost, to become tangled in a thousand different literary allusions and to reach out for the new, the bizarre, and the exotic, while evading the persona that lay within. In some crazily ironic and postmodern way, it was by way of evasion that Montaigne found himself.

Doesn’t New York strike us in a similar way? Ten thousand different possibilities, but nothing that unites or brings people together. New York’s greatness, like Montaigne’s, is in being everything, an everything that simply cannot be reduced to one single, defining quality. To use philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox, in which the hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many things, New York is a fox inhabited and animated by millions of foxes. Somehow, though, by knowing and appreciating and embracing thousands of things, it is thereby a hedgehog as well. The big thing that it knows and that it thrives on is far more than a tolerance of diversity; it is diversity itself.

In writing “My house, being always open, easily approached and ever ready to welcome all,” Montaigne could have been capturing New York’s unifying quality. It is by virtue of the acting out of this immense diversity that energizes, innovates, welcomes, baffles, frustrates and reimagines new possibilities that New York has been and will remain great and a model for the rest of the world.


  1. Montaigne's house as a metaphor not just for New York but for America itself. E pluribus unum, baby! Bring 'em on and we'll all be Americans together.

  2. My new book may be of interest--

    Premature Factulation: The Ignorance of Certainty and the Ghost of Montaigne

    info at