When Montaigne developed the essay, he discovered in it an ideal vehicle for skepticism. Neither Montaigne’s name nor his words appear in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, but Montaigne’s skepticism, the skepticism of the essay, is the lifeblood of Coates’ work. But the opposite could be said too: that Coates’ new work gives new blood, new life, to skepticism; it is not just a renovation of the essay form, but it makes good on the essay form to make good the promise of skepticism.
But the redemption is achieved by modification. Here is one formulation of Montaigne’s skepticism in the translation of Florio:
If I speak diversly of selfe it is because I looke diversly upon my selfe. All contrarieties are found in her, according to some turne or removing, and in some fashion or other; shamefast, bashfull, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, pratling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward; humorous debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberall, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to bee in mee, according as I stirre or turne my selfe; And whosoever shall heedfully survey and consider himselfe, shall find this volubility and discordance to be in himselfe, shall find this volubility and discordance to be in himselfe, yea and in his very judgment. I have nothing to say entirely, simply, and with soliditie of my selfe, without confusion, disorder, blending, mingling, and in one word, Distinguo is the universal part of my logike. (Book II, Chapter I)
Montaigne denies “soliditie of selfe”; it finds liberty in the confusion, disorder, blending and mingling that we have come to see as relentless “self-fashioning.” Rather than worry over whether the dizzying alterations and vicissitudes undo the possibility of an authorial vantage, or whether the affirmation of an authorial vantage belies the claims to boundless mutability, Montaigne’s skeptical outlook allows for him to refuse absolutes entirely, fixing him in a state of perpetual play, where to make-believe about the self is to believe that something is always being made into its proper self. His skepticism depends on the belief about the self’s propensity for change; that fundamental belief liberates his skeptical powers.
Against this—sketched roughly, carelessly—set Coates: for Coates, there is no escaping,no denying the “soliditie of self” because that soliditie is the raced body to which he returns, the inescapable certainty of the essay and his life. And for Coates, the role of skepticism is not to encourage make-belief, but to undo the damage that make-belief can effect in the form of the Dream held by, holding hostage, most Americans who “believe” themselves to be white. Coates’ skepticism is a corrosive agent on the beliefs and fantasies that would distort, cloak, or deny the fundamental element of the self in American history: the body, as possessed or as an object of possession. Whereas Montaigne finds motivation for skepticism in mutability, Coates finds motivation for skepticism in the enduring, physical experience of the body: “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, and that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” And whereas for Montaigne, the essay is the form in which “a man must thorowly sound himselfe, and dive into his heard, and there see by what wards or springs the motions stirre,” for Coates, the essay is the form in which the possession of the body, and of the self, can be affirmed and reclaimed—which must occur before the sounding and diving are possible.
Montaigne’s skepticism is leisured; his essays digress with a performance of time held,not at abeyance or at whim, but held onto with confident ease in its vagaries: “My intention is to passe the remainder of my life quite and not laboriously, in rest and not in care. There is nothing I will trouble or vex myself about, no not for science it selfe, what esteeme soever it be of. I doe not search and tosse over books but for an honester recreation to please, and pastime to delight my selfe; or if I studie, I only endeavor to find out the knowledge that teacheth or handleth the knowledge of my selfe, and which may instruct me how to die well and how to live well.”
Such leisured learning might exist within Coates’ Mecca of Howard University, but the freedom of and from time underlying it is the impossibility of Coates’ essay: “It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the back race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent ready the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.” Montaigne’s essays are predicated on his having enough time to recover—to recover what he has read and forgotten (he tells us many times that he has a poor memory)—and in so recovering himself, to discover himself; but Coates’ essay acknowledges that he has had time, but it is on what it means to not have time, to have time curtailed, and to be subject always to the time of others. Whereas Montaigne’s peregrinations strolls time’s shifting labyrinths, Coates’ letter frets over the barren patch of time that History has left for a population of Americans (and though no population has been as dispossessed of time and body as have those marked out as “black,” many others could feel the power and pertinence of Coates’ words).
I do not doubt that Coates is writing an essay; but that he does so under epistolary auspices is a reminder of how differently he stands to history from Montaigne. The difference is not created only by the evolution of historiography since the Renaissance; and none could accuse Montaigne of existing outside of history. He is too careful in his allusions to contemporary atrocities, too aware of the sounds beyond the chateau, for that. But the letter, as Baldwin before Coates knew (and he is directly and consciously indebted to Baldwin, as he is not to Montaigne), does what the essay does not: it places the audience in a particular moment: we know it is not only written from a time and place, but to a time and place. Coates cannot assume that history will wait for him, or wait on him.
“An attempt” or “a try”: translations for the essay as Montaigne pursues it. But for Coates? One of the bracing words from his essay is kin to these, but with a sense of urgency that is absent from them: “I still urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves…” And earlier: “And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because ti assures you an honorable and sane life.” “Struggle” rather than “attempt” is the movement of the essay in Coates’ hands.
And the struggle is for sanity, but also, in a subtle play of words that is not unusual, for something else: “But that is your work. It must be if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.” “Sanity” has become “sanctity,” where to preserve the sanctity of the mind is to understand the possession and dispossession of the body of which the mind is a part: “The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness.” “This madness” is the madness of the country and of the people, but also the madness that may come from submitting to their dream. “The struggle,” he tells his son, a page later, “is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control.”
The struggle can only proceed for Coates as it does for Montaigne: by way of sustained skepticism: “My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. Tat is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, question as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” But where Coates is most powerful in the tradition of Montaigne is to back such assertions with a refusal to dispense, as a thoroughly systematic philosopher would have to, with the language of knowledge, truth, and belief.
He repeatedly reminds and demonstrates that skepticism is not opposed to knowledge, and truth, and belief, but that it works on these, just as these are surer for possessing it; he avoids the perils of Pyrhonnism, without surrendering to the certainty of the Dream, or the Dream of certainty: “All I had was the feeling, the weight. I did not yet know, and I do not fully know now… By the time I visited those battlefields, I knew that they had been retrofitted as the staging ground for a great deception, and this was my only security, because they could no longer insult me by lying to me. I knew—and the most important thing I knew was that, somewhere deep with them, they knew too.”
One of the most impressive feats, to my eyes, of Coates’ writing is his ability to maintain the validity and force of these words—“know,” “believe”—while persistently doubting their validity and force. He will not let himself be deprived of them, either rejecting them as tainted and invalid or letting others claim them entirely for themselves; they will remain essential acts of communication and self-possession, but they will be alloyed by skepticism, checked by it. Skepticism does not deny truth or knowledge or understanding, but it denies them the conquests they would make, or the conquests that others would make in their names; often, the best answer to such conquests is to ask the “questions behind the questions.” And yet, at a point, even that must end; the skeptic must be skeptical of the aims of questioning and come to some resting place of sanity and action: “According to this theory, “safety” was higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value. I understood.”
“I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of “race”—“race” itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. You see this from time to time when some dullard—usually believing himself white—proposes that the way forward is a grand orgy of black and white, ending only when we are all beige and thus the same “race.”” But it is by more than questions the skeptic proceeds, and central to Coates’ method is the ironic pressure he puts on modal verbs (must, should), on the verbs that dictate the norms of life, by which people control one another’s actions, and by which morality is enforced. Take what strikes me as the most moving and perplexing (beguiling?) passage of the essay:
You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice…..Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of of all the promise of waking up at all…But you are a black boy and you just be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policemen who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.
The irony swells with the “must wake up,” because the “must” there is demanded and enforced not by the expectations of the father alone, but by the expectations of society: that is not a “must” that belongs entirely to Coates or his son, but to the Dream, and he sets that “must” and the subsequent three instances of “must” against the first two instances: “must struggle to truly remember” and “must resist the common urge,” which are spoken from chiefly from Coates’ experience and wisdom. And then the burden of “must” is perplexed by the alteration to “have to”: with that verb, the necessity sheds morality; becomes a matter of survival. And the hopeful, desperate final verb, “cannot,” both admits that Coates’ son “can” forget and draws attention to what may be a distance between moral imperative and actual possibility (can he be responsible?).
And what is frequent, if easily ignored, through Coates’ book, a further device of his mind’s skeptical movement: a refusal of easy coherence, an acceptance of rupture and leap and sudden movement by intuition, all registered on the page in a mark of punctuation: the m-dash. It is ubiquitous throughout the book, and it is at times a way by which to register “the breach between the world and me”: a breach in the text that he cannot fill on or explain: “And so I found myself, on any given day, traveling through several New Yorks at once—dynamic, brutal, moneyed, sometimes all of those at once.”
But also the breach between his instinct and understanding; between what he knows to be the case and what the world is willing to yield: “It was beginning the come together—even if I could not see what the “it” was.” And it is the breach between the world and its significance: “But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else—that love could be soft and understanding; that, soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.” It gives a space in which the understanding does not need to spell itself out, or to spell anything out; where doubt can remain without harassment: “And that is the deeper meaning of your name—that the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” It is a gap in the transformations of the self, and in the history of the self: “If my life ended today, I would tell you it was a happy life—that I grew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you. You have seen this in the conversation what the struggle has ruptured and remade me several times over—in Baltimore, at The Mecca, in fatherhood, in New York.” The skeptic finds the rupture of the dash to be acceptable.
And it is something else, a movement of the body of the text: “All I then wanted was to write as those black people danced, with control, power, joy, warmth.” In the dance of the words on the page, the dash allows what is forbidden to the black body in contemporary America: “The demon that pushed the middle-class black survivors into aggressive passivity, our conversation restrained in public quarters, our best manners on display, our hands never out of pockets, our whole manner ordered as if to say, “I make no sudden moves.””
Then there are times when the words move steadily, where a dash might have been expected, and where it is withheld, or assumed to be unnecessary, though the grammar suggests otherwise:
It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world—the ease between your mother and me, the miracle at The Mecca, the way I feel myself disappear on the streets of Harlem. To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds, fashioned by our ancestors, to the plunderer. We made that feeling, though it was forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied, we made it all the same. This is the beautiful thing that I have seen with my own eyes, and I think I needed this vantage point before I could journey out.
The absence of the dash after “disembodied” registers the immediacy, undeniable, un-ignorable, of a vision and comprehension that does not require skepticism.