August 18, 2015
In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay form, was in Rouen, France, at the invitation of King Charles the Ninth. It is not entirely clear why King Charles invited Montaigne, since the French monarch was only thirteen years old at the time and Montaigne doesn’t come immediately to mind as a rollicking playtime companion.
Perhaps the young king needed Montaigne’s help with his high school admissions essay?
In any case, also at Rouen that fateful weekend were three Tupinambá Indians, natives of what we now call Brazil, who had been lured onto a ship and transported to Europe for reasons not fully established by the historical record.
One theory (mine) is that the French wanted these fellows to taste the coq au vin.
But it gets even more interesting: these men were cannibals. Thus it is entirely likely that if they had tasted the coq au vin and enjoyed its many aromatic satisfactions, and if they had taken the recipe back to the rain forest on small index cards, they would have eventually applied their newly gained culinary knowledge to meats other than the thigh of the chicken.
But everything is better with pearl onions and a red wine reduction, non?
Montaigne was impressed by the flesh-eating Brazilian natives, or so he suggests in his essay “Of Cannibals.” In conversation with the trio of anthropophagus gentlemen, aided by “so ill an interpreter, and one who was so perplexed by his own ignorance to apprehend my meaning, that I could get nothing out of him of any moment,” Montaigne was somehow still able to establish that the Brazilian natives:
(a) were flabbergasted to see “so many tall men, wearing beards, strong, and well-armed” bowing down to a thirteen-year-old child, and
(b) were equally perplexed as to why the starving, emaciated Frenchmen seen begging just outside the doorways of the puffy and prosperous upper classes “did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”1
The cannibals do seem fairly reasonable (and in fact, on that latter point, somewhat prescient 2), if we care to trust the oblivious interpreter.
These visitors from afar apparently offered additional sage reflection that day, but, Montaigne writes, when asked “what of all the things they had seen, they found most to be admired,” they had three answers, “of which I have forgotten the third, and am troubled at it…”
The father of the essay, it seems, lacked a simple notebook and pencil. This, as a matter of fact, is why we now have university degrees focused on the writing of nonfiction, so that such catastrophic oversights never occur again.
In any case, and I am just speculating here, perhaps the third thing the flesh-eating dignitaries said that day was, “Monsieur de Montaigne, why is it exactly that your essays—which we digested with great interest on our long ocean voyage—rely so heavily on short snippets of wisdom culled from Cicero, Horace, Plutarch, and Virgil? Can you not rely upon your own individual thoughts and observations to make a point, without devouring every mental nugget these philosophers left behind? Exactly which of us is the cannibal in the room?”
Now those exact words may have been hard to articulate in the native Tupinambá language—I confess to having let my Tupinambá translation skills slide a bit since my college days—but the three gentlemen in question also had use of gestures, snorting noises, and skeptical raisings of the eyebrows, so I feel confident the point could have been made, had they urgently wished to do so.
I don’t know, of course, if any of this makes sense. I am doubtful.
We are cannibals, those of us who write the Montaignean essay. We are cannibals as well, those of us who chop and grind our family memories to write memoir.
Poets and fiction writers are not so much different.
Or playwrights, for that matter.
We take what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and everything we have read, heard, or think that we remember having read or heard, and process it into the hunk of meat that forms the basis of our literary coq au vin.
And then sometimes it goes too far.
Did you know that Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican painter, claimed to have consumed human flesh at least three times, out of curiosity, feasting on fresh cadavers purchased from the city morgue?
Yes. He was proud of this.
Frida Kahlo, later in her life, when both her love for Diego and her health were in sharp decline, wrote a love poem to Rivera in which she referred to him as “the useless toad” good only for eating “in tomato sauce.”
With pearl onions and a red wine reduction, who knows?
Only the Tupinambá Indians, and they aren’t much around these days.
1 The translation relied upon here is: Montaigne, Michel de. “Of cannibals.” Trans. Charles Cotton. 1580. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 26 Dec 2006. http:// essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/cannibals. Among other notable details in Montaigne’s essay, we learn that the Tupinambá wives apparently “employ to promote their husbands’ desires, and to procure them many spouses; for being above all things solicitous of their husbands’ honour, ’tis their chiefest care to seek out, and to bring in the most companions they can, forasmuch as it is a testimony of the husband’s virtue.” We have a name for this sort of solicitous procurement in the modern world, but it would perhaps not be polite to name it here.
2 Do you find the French revolting? Well, you might have if you’d visited in 1789.
Reprinted from DEAR MISTER ESSAY WRITER GUY Copyright © 2015 by Dinty W. Moore. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
DINTY W. MOORE is author of numerous books, including Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Life, Love, and Cannibals, Crafting the Personal Essay, and Between Panic and Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. He has been published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Harper’s, and The Normal School, among others. He also edits Brevity: The Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and is deathly afraid of polar bears.