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French Ecocriticism

From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century


Edited By Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

This book expounds fruitful ways of analysing matters of ecology, environments, nature, and the non-human world in a broad spectrum of material in French. Scholars from Canada, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States examine the work of writers and thinkers including Michel de Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Arthur Rimbaud, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Simondon, Michel Serres, Michel Houellebecq, and Éric Chevillard. The diverse approaches in the volume signal a common desire to bring together form and content, politics and aesthetics, theory and practice, under the aegis of the environmental humanities.

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The Vanity of Ecology: Expenditure in Montaigne’s Vision of the New World (Pauline Goul)

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Pauline Goul

The Vanity of Ecology: Expenditure in Montaigne’s Vision of the New World

Abstract: Ecocriticism can acquire important insights from interrogating Renaissance, humanist texts and contexts. The humanist authors who seem to be at odds with ecocriticism’s professed turn to the natural world – in this study, Michel de Montaigne – exhibit, in fact, a certain form of environmental awareness in their work. They index humanism’s shifting relationship to the environment in ways that have shaped our own ecological consciousness. Building on Louisa Mackenzie’s development of a queer, early modern French practice of ecocriticism, this chapter goes beyond merely thematic understandings of ecology to question how the human being confronts environmental change. Montaigne’s ‘Des coches’ [‘On Coaches’] and ‘Des cannibales’ [‘On Cannibals’], often read as economic and ideological critiques of colonisation, contain the depiction of an environmental crisis in Renaissance France, in terms of the notion of a global world, and insofar as the Wars of Religion turn the French territory into a barren wasteland. Juxtaposed with Georges Bataille’s La Part maudite [The Accursed Share], particularly the notion of dépense [expenditure], Montaigne’s essays appear to pre-formulate a paradoxical concern for sustainability. This chapter begins by examining the overlooked backdrop of ‘On Cannibals’ as one of environmental troubles, or trembling, based on moveable ground and the considerations of floods. This unsettling sense of humans’ insufficient control over the nonhuman environment carries into an analysis of the setting of ‘On Coaches’ at the other end of the Essais, focussing on the (perhaps metaphorical) sea-sickness of Montaigne. Is his discussion of an anxiety about travel the symptom of a larger, more global concern for a world in which imperialistic views are overtaking human beings? Montaigne’s arguments regarding luxury and commerce take on the depth of an environmental critique if we compare them to the postmodern environmental economy of Bataille that is founded on a paradoxical relationship to expenditure. The tone of vanity frequently adopted by Montaigne coincides with Bataille’s arguably vain ecology. In the early modern period, as in 2016, is ecological thought an inherently absurd endeavour?

A great paradox courses through sixteenth-century literature in France. Despite being a century of abundance and economic prosperity after many decades of war and famine, and notwithstanding the glorious Renaissance of Loire Valley châteaux and Francis I’s colonial endeavours in the New World, scholars such ← 43 | 44 → as Rebecca Zorach argue that abundance and excess were far from unanimous.1 Many of the most influential writers of the period dwell on the wastefulness of the century: Michel de Montaigne deplored a ‘siècle desbordé [an overwhelmed century]’,2 a ‘saison si gastée [a wasted season]’ (E 649). In the second chapter of the first book of the Essais (1580), Montaigne congratulates himself on ‘se sentir preservé de la contagion d’un siecle si gasté [feeling unspoiled by the contagion of such a wasted century]’ (E 22).3 Despite Montaigne advocating a philosophy of moderation, images of overflow and excess suffuse the Essais. These versions of waste amount to a dépense [spending] of energy, money or natural resources. What led Montaigne to maintain such a negative opinion of spending and expenditure? I shall argue that Montaigne is an environmental writer by way of his definition of dépense. In my reading, ‘environmental’ is a term that can be applied to texts and authors who demonstrate a tropological relationship to the nonhuman environment as a structural dimension of their thought.4 In his chapters about the New World, ‘Des cannibales’ and ‘Des coches’, Montaigne develops a strangely modern care for the environment, yet scholars have not often drawn conclusions that combine Montaigne’s economic and ecological insight.5 An environmental and economic reading of expenditure in the wake of Bataille helps us to rethink environmental crisis in our own era as much as Montaigne’s, and might begin to explain why the long sixteenth century began with the Columbian Exchange and concluded with the Wars of Religion. How was the promise of a new world with new resources ultimately wasted?

The environmental aspects of ‘Des cannibales’, one of the most studied chapters of Montaigne’s work, are somewhat dissimulated under the author’s humanist commentary, but the environment is structurally significant to Montaigne’s ← 44 | 45 → argument. From the beginning, ‘Des cannibales’ grapples with questions of space and scale. Montaigne first identifies the New World as ‘cet autre monde [this other world]’, introducing the eyewitness account of a man who was in his service, and who lived a decade in ‘la France Antartique’.6 Immediately after announcing this continent as irremediably other, Montaigne narrows the scope from world to ‘païs’: ‘cette descouverte d’un païs infiny, semble de grande consideration (E 208) [the discovery of a boundless country seems worthy of consideration]’.7 In Middle French, pays refers to a ‘région géographique habitée, plus ou moins nettement délimitée [a geographical region that is inhabited, more or less neatly delimited]’.8 It is likely that the ‘less neatly delimited’ dimension interests Montaigne: ‘Infiny’ points to the idea of the New World having no limits – neither material nor conceptual, since its boundaries are still being defined as a site of speculation. The figurative limits of the world are at stake in the discussion that follows: ‘j’ay peur que nous ayons les yeux plus grands que le ventre, et plus de curiosité, que nous n’avons de capacité: nous embrassons tout, mais nous n’estreignons que du vent [I am afraid we have eyes bigger than our stomachs, and more curiosity than capacity. We embrace everything, but we clasp only wind] (E 208; W 182). Montaigne moves from a mere consideration to a declared fear, revealing his scepticism about colonial endeavours in the New World. It is significant that the chosen idiom usually refers to appetite or greed; Montaigne relates the infiniteness that defines the New World to the finiteness of human capacities and the human body. In Montaigne’s analogy, it is as if humanity will bodily absorb the New World in some way. From the very beginning of ‘Des cannibales’, colonisation is a problem of consumption that is a vain movement: ‘nous n’estreignons que du vent’.

The human body is never far from the nonhuman environment in Montaigne’s work, and both entities are closely related, if not, I would argue, porously bound. The aforementioned reference to wind is not uncharacteristic, and the text soon turns to another meteorological element. Surrounded by images of water and floods, we come across Atlantis: ‘jadis et avant le deluge, il y avoit une grande Isle nommée Atlantide, droict à la bouche du destroit de Gibraltar, qui tenoit plus de païs que l’Afrique et l’Asie toutes deux ensemble [in days of old, before the ← 45 | 46 → Flood, there was a great island named Atlantis, right at the mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar, which contained more land than Africa and Asia put together]’ (E 208; W 182).9 After retelling the tale of Atlantis, Montaigne concludes by describing the simultaneous, common end of the island, its inhabitants, and some Athenians who ‘furent engloutis par le deluge [were swallowed up by the Flood]’ (E 209; W 182). This is the first of many instances of engloutissement – another form of consumption – in relation to the New World, and it sets up a motif of conflict between earth and water that resurfaces in ‘Des coches’. The biblical flood prompts an environmental thought: ‘il est bien vraysemblable, que cet extrême ravage d’eau ait faict des changements estranges aux habitations de la terre: comme on tient que la mer a retranché la Sicile d’avec l’Italie [it is quite likely that that extreme devastation of waters made amazing changes in the habitations of the earth, as people maintain that the sea cut off Sicily from Italy]’ (E 209; W 183). Montaigne’s environment is nonhuman; the only human element is the ‘habitations de la terre’. It is the nonhuman that acts: the sea cuts off the land between Sicily and Italy. The images invoke water wasting away the land, as the exceptional dimensions of the water conjure associations with a disaster: the ‘extrême ravage d’eau’ and the ‘effect incroyable d’inundation’ are followed, a few lines later, by the erosion of the Dordogne, as the discussion of Atlantis prompts Montaigne to consider his païs alongside the Dordogne.

Without concluding the reflection on Atlantis, or introducing the discussion of erosion, Montaigne proceeds: ‘il semble qu’il y aye des mouvemens naturels les uns, les autres fievreux en ces grands corps, comme aux nostres [it seems that there are movements, some natural, others feverish, in these great bodies, just as in our own]’ (E 209; W 183). The chiasmus opposes two types of movements with adjectives that do not seem to contradict one another, although their position in the chiasmus suggests that they do. In this context, naturel appears to be synonymous with normal, and to stand in opposition to fievreux, which denotes a disease, an infection, or an abnormal event in the body.10 Montaigne situates his observation in the realm of medicine, since the other parallelism of the sentence – the simile – links human bodies and the somewhat vague concept of ‘ces grands ← 46 | 47 → corps’. This description finds meaning somewhere between the various islands under discussion, ‘ce monde nouveau [this new world]’ (E 209; W 183), and ‘les terres [the lands]’ (E 209; W 183). The result of the observation is a merging of lands and human beings as ‘corps’ [bodies] encompassing normal and abnormal movements. In ‘Des cannibales’, environmental disasters appear as floods or figures of imminent, ongoing erosion, and are compared to diseases of the human body in a condemnatory mode informed by Montaigne’s negative views on medicine.

The surprising appearance of an environmental discussion is little more than a pretext for another anecdote on a legendary transatlantic voyage. The consideration of the erosion of the Dordogne comes just before the chapter reaches its announced topic, cannibals, by way of the Aristotelian anecdote of Carthaginians who found a fertile land in the West: ‘cette narration d’Aristote a non plus d’accord avec nos terres neufves [this story of Aristotle does not fit our new lands any better than the other]’ (E 210; W 184). As he approaches the topic, Montaigne considers all of these islands and lands in order to trace the relation of possession between a land and its inhabitants. The first mention of the key term païs is bound with a possessive ‘leur’, and the Atlantis anecdote concludes with another determiner: ‘et eux et leur Isle furent engloutis [both the Athenians and themselves and their island were swallowed]’ (E 209; W 182). Once the Dordogne comes under discussion, Montaigne moves toward his own possession of the land:

Quand je considere l’impression que ma riviere de Dordoigne faict de mon temps, vers la rive droicte de sa descente; et qu’en vingt ans elle a tant gaigné, et desrobé le fondement à plusieurs bastimens, je vois bien que c’est une agitation extraordinaire: car si elle fust tousjours allée ce train, ou deust aller à l’advenir, la figure du monde seroit renversée. (E 210)

[When I consider the inroads that my river, the Dordogne, is making in my lifetime into the right bank in its descent, and that in twenty years it has gained so much ground and stolen away the foundations of several buildings, I clearly see that this is an extraordinary disturbance; for if it had always gone at this rate, or was to do so in the future, the face of the world would be turned topsy-turvy.] (W 183)

In Middle French, the word ‘impression’, which one annotation translates as érosion, signifies a trace left by one body on another;11 to take an example from the Essais that features in the Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé: ‘action d’un ← 47 | 48 → corps sur un autre [the action of one body on another]’.12 Montaigne’s comments about the ‘agitation extraordinaire’ evoke the feverish movements of human and nonhuman bodies, as the author accounts for the impact of changes in great bodies on the human realm. The scale is also quite striking, since the mere erosion of a riverside prompts Montaigne to foresee its global impact: ‘la figure du monde seroit renversée’. The verbs such as ‘desrobé’ and ‘renversée’ convey the instability of the environment that surrounds the human being, and a lack of control over these surroundings is perceptible: ‘mais il leur prend des changements: tantost elles s’espandent d’un costé, tantost d’un autre, tantost elles se contiennent. Je ne parle pas des soudaines inondations dequoy nous manions les causes [but rivers are subject to changes: now they overflow in one direction, now in another, now they keep to their course. I am not speaking of the sudden inundations whose causes are manifest]’ (E 210; W 183).13 Montaigne mentions environmental movements whose causes human beings understand, such as floods, but erosion is not one of these; in that regard, he depicts a frightening view of the seaside in his vicinity: ‘en Medoc, le long de la mer, mon frere Sieur d’Arsac, voit une sienne terre, ensevelie soubs les sables, que la mer vomit devant elle [in Médoc, along the seashore, my brother, the sieur d’Arsac, can see an estate of his buried under the sands that the sea spews forth]’ (E 210; W 183). Similar devices of environmental unrest appear, as the possessed land, ‘sienne terre’, is immediately threatened by another version of engloutissement, ‘ensevelie soubs les sables.’ The text becomes violent, with sand being generated by the sea throwing up.14 The link between human and nonhuman bodies on the basis of movement comes full circle through the motif of sickness: the personified sand morphs into monstrous invaders, and the païs infiny gives way to a more universal environment: ‘ces sables sont des fourriers. Et voyons de grandes montjoies d’arenes mouvantes, qui marchent une demie lieue devant elle, et gaignent païs [these sands are its harbingers; and we see great ← 48 | 49 → dunes of moving sand that march half a league ahead of it and keep conquering land]’ (E 210; W 183). With ‘fourriers’, derived from fourrer [to stuff], Montaigne provides another image of engloutissement. At the beginning of a chapter about American natives consuming each other and the bodies of European colonisers, Montaigne piles up, like dunes, visions of a nonhuman environment consuming itself and human constructions.

In counterpoint to such unstable ground, Montaigne foregrounds anecdotes of conquered lands, and ‘Des cannibales’ comes to represent settling in an unsettled environment. The Carthaginians of Aristotle’s anecdote discovered ‘une grande isle fertile [a great fertile island]’, prompting them to settle there: ‘eux, et autres depuis, attirez par la bonté et fertilité du terroir, s’y en allerent avec leurs femmes et enfans, et commencerent à s’y habituer [they, and others since, attracted by the goodness and fertility of the soil, went there with their wives and children, and began to settle there]’ (E 210; W 184). From inhabitation to accustomisation, ‘s’y habituer’ embodies a range of circumstances: the personal pronoun denotes a relationship to the land; the adverbial pronoun refers to a place; the verb signifies ‘accoutumer [to grow accustomed]’ and ‘s’établir’, the active movement of settling. The digressive anecdotes that inaugurate the chapter are fundamental to the core argument in ‘Des cannibales’. Montaigne argues that cannibalism is a matter of accustomisation: ‘or je trouve, pour revenir à mon propos, qu’il n’y a rien de barbare et de sauvage en cette nation, à ce qu’on m’en a rapporté: sinon que chacun appelle barbarie, ce qui n’est pas de son usage [now, to return to my subject, I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation, from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice]’ (E 211; W 195 [my emphasis]).

In the other chapter that Montaigne dedicates to critiquing the colonisation of the New World, we find a similar representation of humanity’s precarious position in an unstable environment. After evoking the landslides and the crumbling buildings of the Médoc during the Renaissance, ‘Des coches’ stages the ruin of the Inca and Aztec Empires, and evokes environmental upsets. The idea of transportation spans the chapter, from Montaigne’s coche to the mode of conveyance for of the last king of Peru, Atahualpa, who died while being transported on a golden chair. The chapter begins with Montaigne describing his motion sickness, following a more general sense of sickness in the narrative that depicts sneezing and various types of bodily waste: ‘me demandez-vous d’où vient cette coustume, de benire ceux qui esternuent? Nous produisons trois sortes de vent [do you ask me whence comes this custom of blessing those who sneeze? We produce three sorts of wind]’ ← 49 | 50 → (E 942; W 832).15 The text then abruptly turns to the main topic, reflecting on ‘la cause du souslevement d’estomach, qui advient à ceux qui voyagent en mer [the reason for the heaving of the stomach that afflicts those who travel by sea]’ (E 942; W 832). The conceptual conjunction of sickness and the sea recalls the vomissement of the sea on the shores of the Médoc in ‘Des cannibales’.

After mentioning the ‘heaving of the stomach’ in ‘Des coches’, Montaigne distances his symptoms from that which is usually thought to cause seasickness, namely fear: ‘moy qui y suis fort subject, sçay bien, que cette cause ne me touche pas [I, who am very subject to seasickness, know very well that this cause does not affect me]’ (E 942; W 832). The discussion continues on the subject of fear before returning to a more general sense of motion sickness: ‘or je ne puis souffrir long temps (et les souffrois plus difficilement en jeunesse) ny coche, ny littiere, ny bateau, et hay toute autre voiture que de cheval, et en la ville, et aux champs [now I cannot long endure (and I could endure them less easily in my youth) either coach, or litter, or boat; and I hate any other transportation than horseback, both in town and in the country]’ (E 944; W 833). The verb souffrir – with the Middle-French meaning of ‘to bear or to endure something’ – recalls ‘s’y habituer’ in ‘Des cannibales’. Is it un mal des transports that Montaigne is describing, or a more general nausea resulting from the instability of his grounding, from environmental unrest? At first, the sickness is directed at the sea, implying perhaps that transatlantic voyaging is the disease of the wasted century, yet the unease is by turns more general and more personal: ‘par cette legere secousse, que les avirons donnent, desrobant le vaisseau soubs nous, je me sens brouiller, je ne sçay comment, la teste et l’estomach: comme je ne puis souffrir soubs moy un siege tremblant [by that slight jolt given by the oars, stealing the vessel from under us, I somehow feel my head and stomach troubled, as I cannot bear a shaky seat under me]’ (E 944; W 834). The unrest is powerfully represented by the ‘secousse’, the verb ‘brouiller’, and the vivid image of a ‘siege tremblant’. Given that siege in Middle French signifies ‘la place que l’on occupe [the place one occupies]’ or even ‘un lieu où est établie une autorité [the place where an authority is established]’ (the Latin sedes is another word for habitation or domicile), Montaigne’s evocation of his ‘siege tremblant’ in the company of images of consumption and engloutissement, as well as the repetition of desrober, hints at environmental risk. Moreover, the key verb habituer, close to souffrir, expresses a concern for something akin to the modern notion of sustainability. How should one endure such crumbling buildings, such a moveable terrain? ← 50 | 51 →

The environmental implications of motion sickness set the stage for an exploration of the human consequences of the colonisation of the Americas. By way of various examples of coaches and transportation, the chapter comes to focus on issues of luxury and dépense. Motion sickness gives way to seemingly whimsical anecdotes about eccentric coaches: ‘l’Empereur Firmus fit mener son coche, à des Autruches de merveilleuses grandeur, de maniere qu’il sembloit plus voler que rouler [Emperor Firmus had his chariot drawn by ostriches of marvelous size, so that it seemed rather to fly than to roll]’ (E 945; W 835). The topics of coaches and expenditure diverge here, leading to a digression on the obsessive taste for luxury among sovereigns:

L’ estrangeté de ces inventions, me met en teste cett’autre fantasie: Que c’est une espece de pusillanimité, aux monarques, et un tesmoignage de ne sentir point assez, ce qu’ils sont, de travailler à se faire valloir et paroistre, par despences excessives. (E 945 [my emphasis])

[The strangeness of these inventions puts into my head this other notion: that it is a sort of pusillanimity in monarchs, and evidence of not sufficiently feeling what they are, to labor at showing off and making a display by excessive expense.] (W 835)

Montaigne contemplates the notion of dépense in an explicit critique of the excessive spending of kings, yet he does not condemn spending as such: ‘l’emploitte me sembleroit bien plus royale, comme plus utile, juste et durable, en ports, en havres, fortifications et murs: en bastiments sumptueux, en Eglises, hospitaux, colleges, reformation de rues et de chemins [the outlay would seem to me much more royal as well as more useful, just, and durable, if it were spent on ports, harbors, fortifications, and walls, on sumptuous buildings, churches, hospitals, colleges, and the improvement of streets and roads]’ (E 946; W 835). Montaigne’s account of the difference between excessive and acceptable spending in terms of the common good is perfectly in line with discussions of spending at the time.16 For a modern reader, the terms ‘useful’, ‘fair’ and ‘durable’ evoke ecological considerations. Is Montaigne formulating an early concern for sustainability? The United Nations definition of sustainability uses precisely such concepts: ‘sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.17 The French translation of ← 51 | 52 → sustainability – développement durable – chimes with Montaigne’s vocabulary.18 From ‘Des cannibales’ onwards, Montaigne’s writing expresses environmental concerns in a mode that can be perceived as a kind of advocacy for a reasoned consumption of resources. A discordant element is, however, present in the list of useful and durable constructions: how pragmatic are the ‘bastiments sumptueux’?

The notion of ‘bastiments sumptueux’ counters the utilitarianism of the other edifices, especially since ‘sumptueux’ fundamentally refers to pure consumption (since Roman times, sumptuary laws had served to control luxurious consumption). Montaigne’s appreciation for ‘la belle structure du Pont Neuf’ seems more aesthetic and pleasure-oriented than utilitarian. This account strongly contradicts the more conservationist and reductionist one in the earlier passage that hints at a care for some kind of sustainability. After criticising excessive spending, Montaigne surprisingly announces his admiration for luxurious buildings.19 How does an obsession with excessive spending sit alongside a concern for sustainability in an era without a definition for capitalism or ecology?20 In his study of Georges Bataille’s work, Allan Stoekl coined the term ‘postsustainability’ to refer to Bataille’s theory of dépense or expenditure; that is to say, ‘la notion de dépense’ and ‘la part maudite’.21 It could be argued that Montaigne is a presustainable writer because the Essais announce not only a series of concerns that will nourish modern ecological ← 52 | 53 → thought, but also because they coincide with several of Bataille’s key arguments. Bataille argues that societies are defined by how they put into use the surplus that they produce.22 Reversing common and moral ways of thinking about consumption, the core of Bataille’s argument is that human societies might gain something from considerable wastefulness. For Bataille, human activity is divided into two parts: one that is concerned with the ‘minimum nécessaire’, and the other that is a series of ‘dépenses improductives’, which he calls simply dépense. His definition of dépense aligns with the topics that Montaigne covers in ‘Des coches’: ‘le luxe, les deuils, les guerres, les cultes, les constructions de monuments somptuaires, les jeux, les spectacles, les arts, l’activité sexuelle perverse (c’est-à-dire détournée de la finalité génitale) représentent autant d’activités qui, tout au moins dans les conditions primitives, ont leur fin en elles-mêmes [luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality) – all these represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves]’.23 Leaving aside unproductive sex – which is very much a focus of the Essais, although not in ‘Des coches’ – the list accurately describes Montaigne’s train of thought. The difference in vocabulary – Bataille uses ‘monuments somptuaires’ while Montaigne writes about ‘bastiments sumptueux’ – is significant, though the etymological root has to do with consuming: the only two occurrences of the adjective ‘somptueux’ in all of the Essais qualify buildings and a meal; ‘somptuaire’ is quite another concern, since it figures in the title of ‘Des loix somptuaires’, one of the chapters in the first book of the Essais. Bataille, on the other hand, uses ‘somptuaire’ in his theory of expenditure as a central adjective that is essentially defined as a superfluous, luxury dépense. Both words subsume Montaigne and Bataille’s obsession with useless expenditure.24

In terms of war, the first coaches of ‘Des coches’ are ‘ces coches guerriers’, and luxury is broached with the turn to ‘despences excessives’ (E 945).25 The root of ‘somptuaire’ is focalised in relation to the rites of mourning for the death of the ← 53 | 54 → king of Peru: ‘et puis, pour endormir les peuples estonnez et transis de chose si estrange, on contrefit un grand deuil de sa mort, et luy ordonna on des somptueuses funerailles [and then, to lull the people, stunned and dazed by such a strange thing, they counterfeited great mourning over his death and ordered a sumptous funeral for him]’ (E 957; W 845). Montaigne even evokes art in the sense of ornament when distinguishing European and American civilisations according to their use of gold: kings in the New World use gold ‘pour faire ce grand monceau de vases et statues, à l’ornement de leur palais, et de leurs temples: au lieu que nostre or est tout en emploite et en commerce [to make that great heap of vases and statues for the adornment of their palaces and their temples; whereas our gold is all in circulation and in trade]’ (E 958; W 847). As for jeux and spectacles, these constitute the pivotal point of the essai, as the transition through which the discussions of excess and the New World merge. Environmental concerns resurface at a point of convergence between ‘Des coches’ and ‘Des cannibales’, where Montaigne stages human mastery over nature:

Et la place du fons, où les jeux se jouoyent, la faire premierement par art, entr’ouvrir et fendre en crevasses, representant des antres qui vomissoient les bestes destinées au spectacle: et puis secondement, l’inonder d’une mer profonde, qui charioit force monstres marins, chargée de vaisseaux armez à representer une bataille navalle: et tiercement, l’applanir et assecher de nouveau, pour le combat des gladiateurs. (E 950)

[Also, first of all, to have the place at the bottom, where the games were played, open artificially and split into crevasses representing caverns that vomited forth the beasts destined for the spectacle; and then, second, to flood it with a deep sea, full of sea monsters and laden with armed vessels to represent a naval battle; and third, to level it and dry it off again for the combat of the gladiators.] (W 839)

The redundancy of the phrase ‘les jeux se joueyent’, and the violence of ‘vomissaient les bestes’ (recalling the vomiting sea of ‘Des cannibales’), points to the circus-like characteristics of the New World, and the verb vomir recalls the nausea described by Montaigne at the beginning of the chapter. The deep sea with vessels and sea monsters in the centre of the arena – later deemed ‘ce grand vuide’ –refers to the motion sickness of the beginning, and to the great sea change of the sixteenth century, namely the advent of transatlantic commerce and moral anxieties resulting from the exploitation of the resources of the New World. Montaigne’s concerns about early consumerist behaviour and the environment converge on the notion of a Roman circus, prefiguring the cruelty and the wastefulness of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru.

Does the formulation of a concern for something akin to sustainability in Montaigne’s critique of colonial endeavours mean that colonisation is a ‘despence ← 54 | 55 → excessive’? For Bataille, the development of luxury is the dominant event of human history: ‘l’histoire de la vie sur la terre est principalement l’effet d’une folle exubérance: l’événement dominant est le développement du luxe, la production de formes de vie de plus en plus onéreuses [the history of life on earth is mainly the effect of a wild exuberance; the dominant event is the development of luxury, the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life]’.26 Montaigne expresses a similar view: ‘tant de villes rasées, tant de nations exterminées, tant de millions de peuples, passez au fil de l’espée, et la plus riche et belle partie du monde bouleversée, pour la negotiation des perles et du poivre: Mechaniques victoires [so many cities razed, so many nations exterminated, so many millions of people put to the sword, and the richest and most beautiful part of the world turned upside down, for the traffic in pearls and pepper! Base and mechanical victories!]’ (E 955; W 844). Montaigne spatially and temporally expands the scope of the essay beyond the New World by referring to ‘tant de nations exterminées’, yet the last part of the exclamation returns to a narrow focus on the New World. Behind Montaigne’s methodical critique of colonisation, there appears to be a critique (more universal than local, and more environmental than economic) of the waste of human and nonhuman resources due to societal progress. The quick and radical decay of societies such as the Roman Empire and the Incan Empire results in a feeling of wasted energy: ‘comme vainement nous concluons aujourd’hui l’inclination et la decrepitude du monde par les arguments que nous tirons de nostre propre foiblesse et decadence […]; ainsi vainement concluoit cettuy-là sa naissance et jeunesse, par la vigueur qu’il voyoit aux espris de son temps, abondans en nouvelletez et inventions de divers arts [‘as vainly as we today infer the decline and decrepitude of the world from the arguments we draw from our own weakness and decay […]; so vainly did this poet infer the world’s birth and youth from the vigor he saw in the minds of his time, abounding in novelties and inventions in various arts]’ (E 952; W 841). A term appears here that subsequently gains in importance: vainement, the same vanité that will title two of Montaigne’s other essays. Montaigne acknowledges that his position is a vain one, as a writer and human living in a ‘wasted century’. Bataille, too, focusses on the importance of vanity: vanity is a key term of the accursed share linked to the ‘vain gaspillage des profits’.27 If the dépense improductive is vain, is it wasteful, or is it necessary and meaningful? ← 55 | 56 →

There is a redundancy to vanity that is embodied in the Roman circus as Montaigne describes it: ‘Tous les costez de ce grand vuide remplis et environnez depuis le fons jusques au comble, de soixante ou quatre vingts rangs d’echelons, aussi de marbre couvers de carreaux [all the sides of this vast emptiness filled and surrounded from top to bottom with sixty or eighty rows of seats, also made of marble, covered with cushions]’ (E 949 [my translation]). The etymology of the central verb in this description, ‘environnez’, is traced by Karen Pinkus to the verb ‘virer’, a maritime term signifying a turn, a change.28 As Pinkus argues, the Latin root of veering leads to vibrating, recalling Montaigne’s shaky seat, and the crumbling shores of the Médoc. This notion, reminiscent of Montaigne’s nausea, prompts several questions: insofar as we humans are surrounded by the environment, are we all on a shaky seat? What if the role of the human in the environment is all about movement? A movement that produces enduring nausea, and that perseveres despite a perceived lack of utility. Montaigne, using a compound of ‘virer’ once more in the context of vanity, writes: ‘nous n’allons point, nous rodons plustost, et nous tournevirons çà et là: nous nous promenons sur nos pas. Je crains que nostre cognoissance soit foible en tous sens. Nous ne voyons ny gueres loin, ny guere arriere. Elle embrasse peu et vit peu: courte et en estandue de temps, et en estandue de matiere [we do not go in a straight line; we rather ramble, and turn this way and that. We retrace our steps. I fear that our knowledge is weak in every direction; we do not see very far ahead or very far behind. It embraces little and has a short life, short in both extent of time and extent of matter]’ (E 951; W 840).

‘Des coches’ ultimately subsumes the abundance and the fertility of the New World into something like a wasteland, where humans err and are redundant. Their excess results in too little of everything, too little knowledge, too little life, too little sensuality, too little time, and too little matter. Montaigne evokes the necessity of turning away from such a course. If Bataille offers a post-sustainable alternative, as Allan Stoekl argues,29 Montaigne provides a pre-sustainable one. The sixteenth-century writer’s precocious grasp of sustainability strikes a middle way between commerce and ornament, between utility and durability, between the sumptuous and sumptuary dimensions of things.30 ← 56 | 57 →


Bataille, Georges, La Part maudite; La Notion de dépense, ed. by J. Piel (Paris: Minuit, 1967)

, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, trans. by R. Hurley, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Zone, 1988)

—, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927–1939, trans. by A. Stoekl, C. R. Lovitt and D. M. Leslie Jr (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986)

Bellenger, Yvonne, ‘“Nature” et “Naturel” dans quatre chapitres des Essais’, Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne V.25–6 (1978), 37–49

Frisch, Andrea, The Invention of the Eyewitness: Witnessing and Testimony in Early Modern France (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 2004)

Goul, Pauline, ‘“Et voylà l’ouvrage gasté”: The Poetics of Plenitude and Scarcity in Rabelais’s Gaster’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 50.3 (2014), 332–40

Le Trésor de la langue française informatisé (2016), <> [accessed 3 February 2016]

Montaigne, Michel de, Les Essais, ed. by J. Balsamo, M. Magnien, C. Magnien-Simonin and A. Legros (Paris: Gallimard, 2007)

—, The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, trans. by D. M. Frame (New York, NY: Knopf, 2003)

Ménager, Daniel, ‘Montaigne et la magnificence’, Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne VII.29–32 (1993), 63–71

Pinkus, Karen, ‘The Risks of Sustainability’, in Criticism, Crisis, and Contemporary Narrative: Textual Horizons in an Age of Global Risk, ed. by P. Crosthwaite (London: Routledge, 2011), 62–80

Stoekl, Allan, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

Takenaka, Koji, ‘Montaigne et l’économie royale dans l’essai “Des coches”’, Le Verger 2 (2012), 19 pages, <> [accessed 3 February 2016]

World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)

Zorach, Rebecca, Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005) ← 57 | 58 →

1 Rebecca Zorach, Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

2 Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais, ed. by J. Balsamo, M. Magnien, C. Magnien-Simonin and A. Legros (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), 923 [hereafter E; unreferenced translations are mine].

3 Note the etymological relationship between the Middle French gaster and the modern environmental issue of waste. For more details on the significant etymology of gaster, see Pauline Goul, ‘“Et voylà l’ouvrage gasté”: The Poetics of Plenitude and Scarcity in Rabelais’s Gaster’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 50.3 (2014), 332–40.

4 With this definition, I distance myself from a more thematic understanding of the word that would limit what is environmental to what is green or natural.

5 For an economic analysis of ‘Des coches’, see Koji Takenaka, ‘Montaigne et l’économie royale dans l’essai “Des coches”’, Le Verger 2 (2012), 19 pages, <> [accessed 3 February 2016].

6 For more details on the significance of testimonial narratives, see Andrea Frisch, The Invention of the Eyewitness: Witnessing and Testimony in Early Modern France (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 2004).

7 Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works, trans. by D. M. Frame (New York, NY: Knopf, 2003), 182 [hereafter W].

8 All notes on lexicology or etymology are sourced from the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales.

9 Here, païs signifies a quality, something solid that one holds, such as a stretch of land.

10 Montaigne seems to consider diseases as accidents (the word is repeatedly used), instead of natural phenomena, which they obviously are; nature appears to be a habit, whereas disease is a rare occurrence. For further details of the intricacies of nature and the natural in Montaigne’s Essais, see Yvonne Bellenger, ‘“Nature” et “Naturel” dans quatre chapitres des Essais’, Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne V.25–6 (1978), 37–49.

11 According to Le Trésor de la langue française informatisé (2016), it is an ‘empreinte laissée par un corps pressé sur une surface’, <;s=4010862615;r=1;nat=;sol=0> [accessed 3 February 2016].

12 Le Trésor de la langue française informatisé (2016), <;s=4010862615;r=1;nat=;sol=0> [accessed 3 February 2016]. The quotation comes from the very next chapter, I.31.

13 Montaigne could be suggesting that humans manipulate the causes of floods, perhaps provoking them (I thank Stephanie Posthumus for drawing my attention to this matter). While the context of the remark seems to hint simply at ‘understanding’, the twofold meaning is interesting, particularly in light of the subsequent discussion of human engineering in the Roman circus.

14 It is perhaps significant that the sea is feminine, and that the masculine ‘grands corps’ and ‘mouvements fievreux’ quite suddenly turn into a feminine river, as the Dordogne suddenly becomes plural (‘tantost elles s’espandent’).

15 There are echoes of ‘Des cannibales’, which starts with ‘nous n’embrassons que du vent’.

16 Daniel Ménager, ‘Montaigne et la magnificence’, Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne VII.29–32 (1993), 63–71.

17 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 43.

18 I propose to treat Montaigne’s environmental representation of the New World, and the subsequent shift to the rest of the world, as a register of ecological issues, in addition to the common perception of ‘Des coches’ as a chapter focussing on economic matters.

19 The adjective ‘somptueux’ is defined as ‘qui représente de fortes dépenses; qui impressionne fortement par sa grandeur ou sa beauté’. Le Trésor de la langue française informatisé (2016), <;s=1353711105> [accessed 3 February 2016].

20 It could be argued that Montaigne’s aesthetic admiration for luxury, even more blatant in the rest of ‘Des coches’ does not necessarily contradict his original condemnation of excessive spending. The ideas are, however, conflicting, and this contradiction is the basis of many modern concerns about adopting an ecological lifestyle. Efficiency and sustainability do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with beauty, and it is precisely the role of green consumerism to change this assumption.

21 Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion and Postsustainability (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Stoekl does not clearly define what he means by postsustainability, but it can be understood as what comes after sustainability, a state ‘in which we labor in order to expend, not conserve’ (xvii). Presustainability would thus be what came before sustainability: the contradictory movements of conserving and expending. As such, Montaigne in ‘Des coches’ strikingly prefigures Bataille and ecological concerns.

22 In the words of Jean Piel in his introduction to La Part maudite, ‘tout le problème est de savoir comment, au sein de cette économie générale, est utilisé le surplus’. Georges Bataille, La Part maudite; La Notion de dépense, ed. by J. Piel (Paris: Minuit, 1967), 16.

23 Bataille, La Part maudite, 24; Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess, trans. by A. Stoekl, C. R. Lovitt and D. M. Leslie Jr (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 118.

24 In the chapter on sumptuary laws, Montaigne refers to useless expenditure as ‘choses vaines et inutiles’. This description is key to the rest of my analysis.

25 In contrast to Bataille, who advocates for the necessity of military expenditure, Montaigne criticises extravagant spending related to wars.

26 Bataille, La Part maudite, 59; Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, trans. by R. Hurley, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Zone, 1988), 33.

27 Bataille, La Part maudite, 50; with Hurley’s translation of ‘the squandering of profits’ (22), the adjective ‘vain’ is lost.

28 Karen Pinkus, ‘The Risks of Sustainability’, in Criticism, Crisis, and Contemporary Narrative: Textual Horizons in an Age of Global Risk, ed. by P. Crosthwaite (London: Routledge, 2011), 62–80.

29 Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak, 144.

30 I thank Daniel Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus for giving me the opportunity to share this chapter, and for their excellent feedback in the editing process. At an earlier stage, my Renaissance colleague Jeff Persels also provided his invaluable constructive criticism, for which I am extremely grateful.