Citation and Circulation in Montaigne`s Essais
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Resistance to Appropriation: Citation and Circulation in Montaigne’s Essais
Victor Hugo Velazquez
University of California, Irvine
“[A] Nous roüons sans cesse en ce cercle.”
“[C] Qu‟on ne tient pas tout ce qu‟on
emprunte, à l‟adventure se pourra il verifier
par moy mesme.” (3.8. 936; 715)
In the Essais, Michel de Montaigne comments on his position as a writer and questions
his relation to his literary past. Even when there is no sign of direct influence from ancient
sources on his text, and his writing can be said to be “sans patron” (2.12. 546; 408), Montaigne
imagines that his text has been read in the light of previous texts and interpreted as a kind of
larceny.2 And yet, he insists that he does not quote in order to appropriate the texts of others.
Montaigne writes, “[A] Ce que je desrobe d‟autruy, ce n’est pas pour le faire mien [. . .]” (2.10.
408 fn. 7, emphasis added). On the one hand, he is hyperconscious of his position of
“belatedness” in relation to the texts of ancient antiquity, as Harold Bloom might put it. On the
other hand, he categorically rejects the idea that his intention is to make what he steals his own.
Montaigne‟s ambivalence regarding his relation to his literary past underscores some of the
problems that emerge from thinking of language as property. This paper will focus on the notion
of appropriation as the violent movement of textual material from one text to another in order to
emphasize the inappropriateness of reading textual relations in terms of individualized private
property as the terms “larceny,” “appropriation” and “literary inheritance” would seem to
suggest. I will further suggest that by displacing the trope of appropriation with terms like
circulation and exchange, important insights into alternative modes of textual relations and
subjectivity, which would no longer be centered exclusively on tropes of domination and the self,
Stealing, Borrowing, and Credit: Toward a General Economy of Textual Exchange
In Les commerces de Montaigne, Philippe Desan reads Montaigne as a literary capitalist
who exploits the ancients (or their texts) and effaces their identity for his own gain. He reads
Montaigne‟s gesture of omitting the names of his sources—a practice which was common at the
end of the Renaissance3—as his way of pillaging their texts:
Quotations are from Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne, ed. Pierre Villey (Paris: PUF, 1999), and Donald Frame‟s
The Complete Essays of Montaigne, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976). References are given by book,
essay, and page number, where the first page number refers to the French text and the second to Frame‟s translation.
The traditional A, B, C designations have been used to indicate the different layers of the text: A (1580), B (15801588), and C (post 1588 additions as indicated in the Bordeaux manuscript).
Montaigne writes, “[C] Si sçay-je bien combien audacieusement j‟entreprens moy mesmes à tous coups de
m‟esgaler à mes larrecins, d‟aller pair à pair quand et eux, non sans une temeraire esperance que je puisse tromper
les yeux des juges à les discerner.” (1.26.147; 108, emphasis added).
See Claire Crignon-de Oliveira, “Tout est à moi et rien n‟est à moi: la digestion des sources dans l‟Anatomie de la
mélancolie de Robert Burton,” in Emprunt, plagiat, réecriture aux XVe, XVIe, XVIIe siècles. Ed. M. Couton.
(France: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2006), pp. 242.
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Par la lecture, Montaigne s‟approprie le travail d‟autrui, il exploite
cette armée de travailleurs que sont les Anciens [. . .] Dans le cas
de Montaigne, nous constatons une confusion fréquente des
auteurs qui perdent peu à peu leur identité et sont dépossédés de
leurs textes pour ne plus être que des travailleurs génériques qui
servent à renforcer la marchandise produite par Montaigne. Le
lecteur ne sait bientôt plus qui parle, l‟Ancien devient tout
simplement l‟Autre : « Un autre disoit… » (1.14. 52 A), « et
l‟autre… » (1.26. 171 C) écrit fréquemment Montaigne quand il
s‟agit d‟identifier ses sources. (Desan 102-103)
Desan calls attention to Montaigne‟s tendency to omit the names of his sources in his text as a
sign of domination.4 He argues that Montaigne appropriates the texts of others, thus marking an
inequality among the texts that highlights his individuality and his superiority over his sources.
For Desan, the ancient authors are dispossessed, and their identity is effaced in a way that depicts
Montaigne as an oppressor of the “Other.” As the ancient authors are relegated to the status of
anonymous workers, Montaigne‟s subjective position seems to be reinforced through their labor,
which is used to produce “la marchandise produite par Montaigne.” Desan suggests that
Montaigne‟s (brand) name or his textual identity is built on the backs of the authors he cites and
appropriates. However, I would suggest that in the Essais the cited texts resist such effacement
and domination; rather, they remain in circulation and at play within Montaigne‟s text as
Whereas Desan‟s interpretation recalls Marxist and Œdipal models that posit the death of
the Father or the exploitation of the proletariat, in order to speak of the development of the
individual or society, I would argue that something different is at stake in Montaigne‟s use of
citation. For one, as Hugo Friedrich suggests in Montaigne, we can understand Montaigne‟s
omission of his sources‟ names as a gesture challenging the “intrinsic,” and often inflated, value
of the ancient texts (85-86). By omitting the names of his sources and circulating them on equal
terms with his own (and other texts), Montaigne opens a space for discussion that is no longer
overdetermined by the authority of ancient authors. As Montaigne himself suggests, late
humanism came to think so highly of the Ancients that their names often carried more weight
than the argument to which they were attached: “[B] Je dis souvent que c‟est pure sottise qui
nous fait courir apres les exemples estrangers et scholastiques. Leur fertilité est pareille à cette
heure à celle du temps d‟Homere et de Platon. Mais n‟est-ce pas que nous cherchons plus
l‟honneur de l‟allegation que la verité du discours?” (3.13. 1081; 828). Accordingly, the
anonymity that he ascribes to them through his practice of citation reveals the rejection of a
certain humanist fetishizing of ancient sources, and the suggestion that the value of ancient texts
lies in their ability to circulate with and against other texts.
Cf. Harold Bloom‟s argument regarding Montaigne‟s “ransacking” of the Ancients in The Western Canon: the
Books and School of the Ages. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), pp. 150-51.
If Desan refers to the cited texts as the Other, we should understand the term as a figure of something that is at
once radically different from and yet constitutive of Montaigne‟s textual self.
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Whereas Desan suggest that Montaigne‟s “larrecins” signal his appropriation,
exploitation, and dispossession of the Ancients‟ texts, as well as the effacement of their authors‟
identities, I would suggest that the Essais reveal that something different is at stake when
Montaigne “steals” from his sources. As Kathy Eden suggests, the question of textual
appropriation often implies the problem of theft and plagiarism as an ethical problem.6
Accordingly, the question deals with an author‟s relation to (an) other author, or more precisely,
a thief‟s relation to his “victim.” Not withstanding the obvious fact that, as opposed to what
occurs with real property, “wisdom [. . .] never departs from its owner, even as others take
possession of it” (Eden, “Literary Property and the Question of Style” 27), let‟s turn to what
Montaigne says about real thieves and how that might reflect on his own “larrecins.”
In the Essais thieves are, one way or another, made accountable for their thefts. In the
“Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” for example, Montaigne illustrates the faithfulness of animals
by telling a story about a thief who stole from an Athenian temple and was followed by one of
the guard dogs until he was caught and punished (1.12. 476-77; 350). Similarly, I would argue
that if Montaigne steals wisdom from the Athenian temple of his sources—let us remember that
Athena is the goddess of wisdom—as in the case of the thief of the narrative, the theft does not
go unnoticed. Instead of a complete appropriation that would reduce his sources to nameless and
dispossessed “others,” what we see is a resistance to appropriation. If Montaigne says that when
he steals from others, “[C] j‟ay à escient ommis parfois d‟en marquer l‟autheur” (2.10. 408; 296),
he assures us that it is because he is conscious that the theft reveals itself. And even when the
theft is not evident, we might suggest that there will always be a faithful watcher who, like the
chien, can expose the crime. As Montaigne notes, there is a marked difference between his text
and those he steals: “[A] Si j‟estoffois l‟un de mes discours de ces riches despouilles, il
esclaireroit par trop la bestise des autres” (1.26. 147; 108).
Montaigne seems to link the question of theft to a problem of exchange and circulation.
He humbly writes, “[C] Il faut muser ma foiblesse souz ces grands credits” (2.10. 408; 296). As
he considers his “foiblesse” in relation to the “grands credits” of the texts he steals from,
Montaigne‟s use of the word “credit” introduces a notion of exchange. The modern meaning of
credit was not fully developed in Montaigne‟s time, and his use of the term suggests something
closer to “reputation, belief, or trust” (Randal Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English
Tongues). I would nonetheless argue that the sense of circulation is already suggested in the text,
particularly in the narrative of the thief from the “Apologie.” As he recounts how the story ends,
Montaigne places emphasis on the circulation of information:
[B] La nouvelle de ce chien estant venue aux marguilliers de cette
Eglise, ils se mirent à le suivre à la trace, s‟enquerans des
nouvelles du poil de ce chien, et en fin le rencontrerent en la ville
de Cromyon, et le larron aussi, qu‟ils ramenerent en la ville
d‟Athenes, où il fut puny. (1.12. 476-77; 350)
See Kathy Eden. “Literary Property and the Question of Style: A Prehistory.” Borrowed Feathers. (Oslo: Unipub,
2008), pp. 32 ff.
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It is precisely through the retelling of a narrative, the circulation of “la nouvelle de ce chien,”
that the thief is caught. Similarly, the circulation of ancient texts as citations in itself would
betray Montaigne‟s theft. The “grands credits” of the ancient texts make Montaigne‟s insertion
of the source names unnecessary since the texts practically name themselves (not unlike the
reputation or “credit” of the “chien” exposed the Athenian thief)—the thefts were open secrets to
those who would be able to “suivre [. . .] la trace.”7 Indeed, Montaigne asserts that the authors he
cites, “[C] Ils ont tous, ou fort peu s‟en faut, de noms si fameux et anciens qu‟ils me semblent se
nommer assez sans moi” (2.10. 408; 296).
But perhaps the link between circulation, credit and theft is more explicit in “Du
repentir,” where Montaigne writes about another thief, a man who is called “larron” by his
neighbors as a testament to his illegitimate trade. Even when the theft is not punished by law, it
is significant that it does not go unnoticed. The thief is identified by the community, and “[B] il
se confesse ouvertement” (3.2. 812; 616). Moreover, the ethical demands on the thief do not
allow him to get away with his crime: the victims (the others) place a demand on him, not before,
but rather outside the law. As the “larron” himself tells Montaigne, “[B] pour s‟accommoder
avec Dieu de ses acquets,” he makes it a point to repay those from whom he has stolen (Ibid). In
this case the problem of theft is clearly established as a question of delayed payment, or of credit.
Indeed, the inheritance he bequeaths to his children is a debt to those from whom he stole: “[B]
s‟il n‟acheve [de payer] (car d‟y pourvoir tout à la fois il ne peut), qu‟il en chargera ses heritiers,
à la raison de la science qu‟il a luy seul du mal qu‟il a faict à chacun” (Ibid). But if they have a
debt to pay later, in the present they enjoy the benefits: “[B] Il se trouve à cette heure, en sa
vieillesse, riche pour un homme de sa condition” (Ibid).
It is telling that the word “credit” in its earlier Latin form, creditum, was used as a noun
meaning a “thing entrusted to another.” Already in Cotgrave‟s 1611 French-English dictionary,
“credit” is defined as “trust, or credit given; or a debt entrusted,” thus suggesting a kind of
circulation and exchange like the one described above. In this sense, we can suggest that the
“grands credits” Montaigne reflects on represent the great texts entrusted to him, that is, the texts
he cites and circulates in his book. Indeed, Montaigne imagines his own “borrowing” in terms of
credit: “[C] [. . .] mon terroir n‟est aucunement capable d‟aucunes fleurs trop riches que j‟y
trouve semées, et que tous les fruicts de mon creu ne les sçauroient payer” (2.10. 408; 296-97).
Montaigne transplants the “flowers” from his sources to his “terroir,” as a kind of textual
exchange that functions as credit. The texts he takes are, in a sense, entrusted to him with the
condition of a future payment, a debt that with false modesty Montaigne claims he is unable to
And yet, I would argue that the debt is paid as Montaigne adds value to those ancient
texts by interpreting and circulating them. Indeed, the story of the Athenian thief who stole from
the temple is a good example of such a payment. Montaigne takes the story from Plutarch and
interprets it in a way that gives it a (surplus) meaning that was not intended by Plutarch.
Plutarch‟s text advances an argument whose main concern was to show that animals are owed
the duty of justice because they too can be rational and moral. Accordingly, the story was meant
Cf. Joseph de Zangroniz Montaigne, Aymot et Saliat. (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1975). Zangroniz argues that
Montaigne‟s “hidden” quotations of Aymot‟s translation of Plutarch would have been obvious to any contemporary
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to show that animals are not fundamentally inferior to humans as the Stoics maintained. In the
context of the “Apologie” Montaigne‟s interpretation, however, gives Plutarch‟s text a different
value as an argument for the abasement of human rationality. No longer does the story elevate
animals to the level of humans; rather, it lowers humans to the level of animals.
Montaigne changes the value of Plutarch‟s text; however, he does not appropriate it in the
sense of making it his own and giving it his own voice. The argument he advances was always
already present in Plutarch‟s text as a potential interpretation. Moreover, Plutarch‟s text resists
appropriation and remains somewhat foreign in the Essais. In fact, it is even circulated under
Plutarch‟s own name. Montaigne reveals his source as he tells us that, “[A] Plutarque tesmoigne
cette histoire comme chose tres-averée et advenue en son siecle” (1.12. 477; 350). Thus,
Plutarch‟s voice remains readable alongside Montaigne‟s citation, revealing the polyphony of
E Pluribus Unum (?): Appropriation, Polyphony, and the Question of Voice
As many critics have pointed out, the use of citations in the Essais suggests a certain kind
of fragmentation of the speaking voice. In Montaigne bilingue, Floyd Gray makes this claim.
Gray‟s interpretative approach, moreover, is representative of the methods used by many critics
to discuss citations in the Essais. He reflects on the “accumulation de citations par rapport au
discours personnel de Montaigne” by asking about the tenuous position that the speaking self
might occupy in a polyphonic text such as the Essais: “Où se situe-t-il parmi tant d‟emprunts?”
(76)8 Although he suggests that the question probably cannot be answered accurately, he argues
that Montaigne does not always use his Latin citations to quote others, “mais parfois pour se
citer, c‟est-à-dire pour se dire autrement dans l‟autre langue des Essais” (41-42). He then
concludes that Montaigne
[. . .] cite correctement ou incorrectement; il adapte son texte à
celui des Anciens ou le contraire; il est fidèle à ses auteurs, mais il
les tire aussi à lui, les transformant, les faussant même, pour qu’ils
l’expriment. (143, emphasis added)
Gray‟s conclusion reveals the tendency to see the hand (or “esprit”) of Montaigne as the ordering
factor that would give meaning to the fragmentation of the Essais. While I largely agree with
Gray‟s analysis, especially his emphasis on the fragmented nature of Montaigne‟s text (partly as
a result of his use of citations), I would question the weight given to what Gray calls “l‟esprit de
By assuming that there is an essential esprit de Montaigne, Gray‟s interpretation of the
text often (re)turns to figures of appropriation: “[C]e procédé d‟appropriation chex Montaigne”
(39). It soon becomes clear that the evocation of Montaigne‟s esprit or hand suggests the
existence of an a priori stable identity (a self) that finds expression through the appropriation and
mastering of other texts.9 By contrast, I would suggest that the circulation of a previous text
On the subject of polyphony in the Essais see Françoise Joukovsky, “Qui parle dans le livre III des Essais?” in
Revue d‟histoire littéraire de la France, Vol. 88, no5, (Paris: PUF, 1988), pp. 813-27.
Gray‟s argument thus parallel‟s Desan‟s.
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through citation resists readings that find in citational texts the expression of a single, unified,
and differentiated voice that has successfully appropriated other texts. I would further stress that
the fragmentary and polyphonic voice of the text results from circulation, and is comparable to
the voyage of currency: “A circular voyage [. . .] This is the voyage of money metamorphosing
through all its incarnations, but it is none of them, they are only the moments of a something
which is nothing, money” (François Lyotard, Libidinal Economies 163).
The “voice” that emerges by reading the citations of the Essais through the lens of
appropriation is a product of that zero, that nothing of money (language). As signifiers that can
take on different values, texts might not contain essential or unvarying meaning, and much less a
stable identity. Language is vulnerable to being “emptied” of its intended meaning and being
used to convey something (completely) different. This is especially true because of its ability to
be reproduced and placed in various contexts as we showed above in the case of Plutarch‟s
“tesmoigne” of the story about the dog. Montaigne‟s citation seems to empty the original
meaning and assign a new value to the text, and in the process tension emerges between the
text‟s paradoxical tendency toward multiplicity and toward unity, allowing an image of textual
identity to appear. But, the identity that emerges is nothing but that, an appearance. What is
identified as a stable identity or an individual voice might be nothing but movement (exchange
and circulation). As Montaigne writes, “[B] Toutes choses y branlent sans cesse : la terre, les
rochers du Caucase, les pyramides d‟Aegypte, et du branle public et du leur. La constance
mesme n‟est autre chose qu‟un branle plus languissant” (3.2. 804-805; 610). Montaigne‟s
“juggling” or circulation of different voices gives an appearance of a unified speaking subject:
the skeptic whose motto is “[B] Que sçay-je ?” (2.12. 527; 393).
In effect, I would argue that the value of a text is a function of nothing if not a function of
circulation and exchange. Like money, we might say about a text that, “sa valeur dépend d‟être
remis en circulation” (Desan 93); however, we might add that there is no loss of value in such an
exchange. Unlike the textual exchange figured as theft or appropriation, in this case one‟s
prosperity does not depend on plundering the Other. The wealth of the Essais, which according
to Desan is partly built through Montaigne‟s “pillaging” of ancient authors, does not impoverish
the latter as it enriches the former. As Giovanni Dotoli argues, “ [d]ans les Essais il y a un
« modèle commercial et échangiste », d‟après une « interaction entre Montaigne et l‟Autre »
avec une « écriture circulaire »”; however, the interaction that results from the circulation and
exchange is a kind of cooperation: “ C‟est un « négoce » entre les interlocuteurs : tout est
communication, dans la page et dans la vie” (La voix de Montaigne 56). Such an understanding
of reading would parallel Montaigne‟s understanding of a speaker‟s relation to his interlocutors
as open-ended and inter-subjective conversation.10 Without circulation and exchange there is no
communication, and more importantly, no voice.
As Eden suggests, an author‟s use of the literary past does not take anything away from
either the source authors or their texts. This is so, not only because, as we have been arguing,
texts are not objects that can be owned in a traditional sense, but because every citation, as reiteration, is always already different from its source (and hence a double, or “counterfeit,” rather
Cf. “De l‟art de conferer” (3.8).
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than a theft). Citations can never perfectly reproduce the original; the reproduction is always
different. As Montaigne suggests, there is difference in the most similar things,
[B] Et les Grecs, et les Latins, et nous, pour le plus expres exemple
de similitude, nous servons de celuy des oeufs. Toutesfois il s‟est
trouvé des hommes, et notamment un en Delphes, qui
recognoissoit des marques de difference entre les oeufs, si qu‟il
n‟en prenoit jamais l‟un pour l‟autre; [C] et y ayant plusieurs
poules, sçavoit juger de laquelle estoit l‟oeuf. [B] La dissimilitude
s‟ingere d‟elle mesme en nos ouvrages; nul art peut arriver à la
similitude. (3.13. 1065; 815)
Indeed, there are those who can tell the difference between eggs, and those who know from
which hen an egg came. Similarly, the resemblance between two texts does not efface their
differences to the eye of the perceptive reader. Indeed, I would add that the reiteration of a text
through citation necessarily represents a displacement of the cited text rather than a replacement
or effacement, and thus represents a difference. Nevertheless, this difference (or differance)
should not be thought of in terms of originality. As Shelley Angélil-Carter suggests in Stolen
Language, “originality and autonomy as values are based on an ideology which tends toward
individualism and competition rather than community and cooperation, [and] independence
rather than interdependence [. . .]” (27-28). Instead, the difference occurs as a result of the
somewhat accidental intersection of two texts and the exchange that takes place between them.
In the Essais, for instance, Montaigne suggests that his citations come to him by
happenstance: “[A] Si me gratifie-je de cecy, que mes opinions ont cet honneur de rencontrer
souvent aux leurs; [C] et que je vais au moins de loing apres, disant que voire” (1.26. 147-48;
107 emphasis added). Indeed, for him fortune and chance play a large role in the circulation and
future interpretation of a text: “[C] Mais la fortune montre bien encores plus evidemment la part
qu‟elle a en tous ces ouvrages, par les graces et beautez qui s‟y treuvent, non seulement sans
l‟intention, mais sans la cognoissance mesme de l‟ouvrier” (1.24. 127; 93). Through chance and
fortune, an interdependent relation emerges in which the able reader can create something new
and different from his source text. But, as the Essais suggest, instead of taking value away, or
consciously destroying and taking the place of the original text by appropriation, a cooperative
and intersubjective enterprise takes place through a chance encounter that enriches both the
citing and cited texts by adding meaning and rareness to them.11
Through citation, older texts gain new meaning and currency, making them less banal.
Montaigne suggests that he prefers the circulation of rare examples because their rareness gives
them more value, and thus their circulation makes the text richer. He correctly notes that we tend
to value what is rare: “[B] Nous nous durcissons à tout ce que nous accoustumons [. . .] la bonté
est plus belle et plus attraiante quand elle est rare” (3.9. 971-72; 741-42). That is why Montaigne
is so selective in his choice of citations. In “De la force de l‟imagination,” he writes, “[C] Et aux
diverses leçons qu‟ont souvent les histoires, je prens à me servir de celle qui est la plus rare et
Cf. Mary McKinley‟s discussion of the able reader (suffisant lecteur) in Words in a Corner: Studies in
Montaigne‟s Latin Quotations. (Lexington: French Forum Publishers, 1981).
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memorable” (1.21. 105; 75). Moreover, I would suggest that Montaigne gives new, strange and
rare meaning to the texts he cites through his unexpected interpretations. For him what is most
important is the potential meaning(s) of the text: “[C] Il y a des autheurs, desquels la fin c‟est
dire les evenemens. La mienne, si j‟y sçavoye advenir, seroit dire sur ce qui peut advenir” (1.21.
105-106; 75). Circulating as money might, the cited text gains currency and becomes the “eternal
present of possible exchange [. . . it] opens up duration and the durable permanence” (Libidinal
Economies 163, original emphasis).12 In this way, we can read citations in terms of a potentiality
and a multiplicity that become significant (valuable) in the process of interpretation.
Citation would thus represent a kind of “hybridity” that results from the polyphony of a
citational text. While a quotation gains new meaning as a result of being circulated in a new
context, it preserves some of the currency of the cited text. Words carry their history with them.
Consequently, citations become a method of layering polyphonic meaning in a text that can also
result in the fragmentation of the speaking voice of the subject.13 In other words, the difference
in value between two texts is not an index of preeminence, linear development, or domination—
as is implied by the conclusions of critics who use figures of appropriation—but rather of
conversation, cooperation, and exchange.
The multiple texts interact as equals in the sense that one text does not efface or dominate
the other: The citing author does not “master” the cited text, just as the cited text does not
“authorize” the citing author to write. The texts are commensurate, and participate in a reciprocal
exchange that resists the establishment of a mastering or stabilizing textual identity that would
nullify (synthesize, or collapse) the difference of the multiple voices within the text: The textual
difference, or multiplicity created by citation cannot be reduced to the univocal expression of an
author who appropriates other texts. Indeed, for Montaigne it is crucial to keep the multiple
voices of his text at play. We can see the value Montaigne gives to multiplicity and polyphony in
his claim that he does not make corrections to his book:
[A] Ce fagotage de tant de diverses pieces se faict en cette
condition, que je n‟y mets la main que lors qu‟une trop lasche
oisiveté me presse, et non ailleurs que chez moy [. . .] Au
demeurant, je ne corrige point mes premieres imaginations par les
secondes; [C] ouy à l‟aventure quelque mot, mais pour diversifier,
non pour oster. (2.37. 758; 574, emphasis added)
Although he is referring to his own thoughts in this passage, Montaigne‟s preference for
diversity is striking and might easily be applied to his use of citations.14 Citations then, ought not
to be regarded as the “Other” in the sense of strangers or adversaries to be vanquished in relation
In contrast, for Desan money seems to be linked strictly to the present: “L‟argent n‟a de valeur que dans le
present, il ne connaît qu‟une existence temporelle à part de celle du moment où il est reçu ou donné” (Les
commerces de Montaigne 93).
See Jules Brody‟s introduction to Michael Metschies‟ La citation et l‟art de citer dans les Essais de Montaigne.
(Paris: Champion, 1997), pp. 9-10; and Floyd Gray‟s Montaigne bilingue. (Paris: Campion, 1991).
Indeed, many of the “corrections” to the Essais are citations Montaigne adds to the text.
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to the text, but instead as “partner[s] without whom the game is not possible” (Libidinal
An Economy at Play
“The simple circulation of commodities
[. . .] is a means of carrying out a purpose
unconnected with circulation, namely, the
appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction
of wants. The circulation of money as
capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself,
for the expansion of value takes place only
within this constantly renewed movement.”
(Karl Marx, Capital 169-70)
Traditional interpretations of citation that use the trope of appropriation or influence
resemble simple economic models in which the ultimate goal is the satisfaction of wants, that is
to say, immediacy. Critics like Gray and Friedrich argue that the appropriation of ancient texts in
the Essais conveys Montaigne‟s genuine voice, thus satisfying his desire for self-expression. As
Montaigne himself argues, “[C] Je ne dis les autres sinon pour d‟autant plus me dire” (1.26. 148;
108). Accordingly, citations in the Essais have often been interpreted to work as transparent
vehicles that allow for the immediacy of the author‟s self-expression.16 By contrast, I would
suggest that the exchange that takes place in citation is closer to the circulation of capital in a
credit economy because citations create multiple meaning, and thus generate an expectation for
interpretations (meanings) yet to come. Rather than seeking immediacy by withdrawing meaning
(to satisfy the desire for Truth), or transforming textual capital into private property (crystallizing
the value of the author‟s labor into the „new‟ text), thus giving it a new identity as the original
voice of the author), the economy of citation is an intricate system of deferral and play. Such an
economy functions in a similar way to François Lyotard‟s interpretion of Freud‟s concept of the
Defining the process of the dream-work, Freud argues that through different processes,
such as representation, condensation, and displacement, the dreamwork distorts and represses
desire so that what appears in the content of a dream is merely a mediated wish-fulfilment. There
is no immediacy, but rather movement, transformation, and a call for interpretation. For Freud,
the “latent” content of the dream was what was most important in the dream, and it was through
interpretation that one could work backwards from the “manifest” or surface content to discover
the “meaning” of the dream.17 Freud writes that, “If [the content of] a dream is written out it may
As Desan suggests in Les commerces de Montaigne, Montaigne is acutely aware that he needs the Other, and he
sees the relation essentially as that of exchange (91ff.). The exchange is envisioned as reciprocal. Although Desan
notes that this type of non-zero-sum exchange is “un ideal irréalisable” (94), he concedes that it is the standard
Montaigne likes to live up to when it comes to conversation. I would argue that this same standard, ideal though it
may be, can be applied to the exchange that occurs in citation.
See, for example Dorothy Coleman‟s Montaigne : quelques anciens et l‟écriture des Essais. (Paris: Geneva,
Lyotard would challenge Freud‟s assertion by positing that there is no such “meaning,” or message in the dream.
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perhaps fill half a page. The analysis setting out the dream-thoughts underlying it may occupy
six, eight, or a dozen times as much space” (The Interpretation of Dreams 313).
Similarly, some readers of the Essais, like Mary McKinley, suggest that Montaigne‟s
citations contain “latent” meaning that requires interpretation in order to yield the text‟s potential
meaning. In Words in a Corner, McKinley envisions the Latin citations of the Essais to be the
key that would give unity to the fragmented text (109). Accordingly, she suggests that the Essais
represent an incomplete text whose latent meaning can only be made manifest through the
reader‟s interpretation (105ff.). Although I largely agree with her reading of the Essais as a text
that encourages interpretation, I would also add that the processes of reading, interpreting, and
citing a text ought not to be understood in terms of a struggle to determine meaning. Citations
seem to yield an overdetermined text that calls for further interpretation and writing. However, I
would argue that the purpose of interpretation is not to determine the meaning of the “latent” text
(either the source text‟s, or the citing author‟s meaning), which would mean to master it; rather,
it is to discover, or generate more meaning through imaginative, interpretative play. As Lyotard
argues regarding the dreamwork, the goal of the dream is not the satisfaction of desire
(immediacy), but rather the never ending play of desire itself: “On comprendrait que
l‟accomplissement du désir, grande fonction du rêve, consiste non pas dans la représentation
d‟une satisfaction (qui au contraire, quand elle a lieu, réveille), mais entièrement dans l‟activité
imaginaire elle-même” (Discours-Figure 246-247). Likewise, citations allow and invite multiple
texts to enter into a conversation, but they also are and call for interpretative play. The
etymology of one of the modes of citation, “allusion,” from the Latin a-ludere (to play), suggests
As circulation and play, citations resist two kinds of interpretations: first, readings that
posit the existence of a unified speaking subject who is in perfect control of his and, more
importantly, other‟s texts (or the text of the Other); and second, readings that search for an
essential, True meaning or message expressed by such a unified subject. Instead, a citing author
merely participates in an exchange where his (and other) text(s) circulate, creating openings for
multiple interpretations, that is, for further play. As Floyd Gray suggests in Montaigne bilingue,
citations can be read as a kind of condensation of meaning that makes of the process of reading
(and writing) a “becoming-text”: “[. . .] le texte [. . .] se prête à toute intervention. Les citations
agissent ainsi comme des germes de nouvelles pensées, ouvertures sur un nouvel avenir du texte”
(145). The interpretation of a citational text is itself a citational text that encompasses but cannot
control or contain the meanings that it discusses. The new meanings citations generate emerge as
a result of the interplay between texts, and cannot simply be attributed to a single author.
Indeed, as Gray points out, the word “author” already suggests a multiplicity:
“étymologiquement l‟auteur est celui qui augmente” (Ibid). Or, as Montaigne points out, “[C]
Nos opinions s‟entent les unes sur les autres. La premiere sert de tige à la seconde, la seconde à
la tierce. Nous eschellons ainsi de degré en degré” (3.13. 1069; 818). Writing is a process of
accumulation of previous readings, but it does not imply that the latest author masters the texts
that came before him: “[C] Et advient de là que le plus haut monté a souvent plus d‟honneur que
de mérite ; car il n‟est monté que d‟un grain sur les espaules du penultime” (Ibid). Moreover, the
play among the multiple of voices present in citations destabilizes the concept that a text can be
interpreted as the unified and autonomous voice of the author, and highlights the extent to which
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that voice can only emerge in relation to those others with which circulation and exchange
occurs. Montaigne acknowledges this explicitly when he explains that his text is open to
[B] [. . .] chacun y peut joindre ses exemples : et qui n‟en a point,
qu‟il ne laisse pas de croire qu‟il en est, veu le nombre et varieté
des accidens [. . .] [C] Advenu ou non advenu, à Paris ou à Rome,
à Jean ou à Pierre, c‟est toujours un tour de l‟humaine capacite,
duquel je suis utilement advisé par ce recit. Je le voy et en fay mon
profit egalement en umbre qu‟en corps. (1.21. 105; 75)
The expansive aspect of Montaigne‟s writing, in fact, points to the idea that the (speaking)
subject of writing, like the subject of experience, is incidental. A text, just like an experience, can
be told (or experienced) by Jean or by Pierre all the same. There is no ownership when it comes
to narratives; what is at stake is the circulation of the stories and the generation of further
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