Secret history of the exclamation point

Secret history of the exclamation point

I’ve been reading Michel de Montaigne’s Essays with friends this year. When I took his course on Renaissance classics in college, Professor Dain Trafton observed that Montaigne was the one author we had read who in his estimation stood with Shakespeare. That made an impression on me because Professor Trafton is himself a devoted Shakespearian scholar and we had read Machiavelli, Cervantes, Rabelais, Erasmus, Castiglione, and Thomas More in the course.

This summer I studied Montaigne’s essay “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” both with friends for fun along with other essays of Montaigne and for a one-week Summer Classics course at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. The “Apology” is the central essay, the longest essay, and perhaps the most challenging of all Montaigne’s essays.

The experience of reading the essay is facilitated by the sections that modern translations break it into under appropriate headings. Here are a few as they appear in sequence in Donald Frame’s highly regarded translation:

The vanity of of man and of man’s knowledge without God
Man is no better than the animals
Man’s knowledge cannot make him happy
Man’s knowledge cannot make him good
Man has no knowledge

I wrote about the essay in “No apology for Raymond Sebond.” I don’t think these headings are to be taken at face value as reflecting Montaigne’s true thoughts, but this is subject to reasonable argument.

The section breaks in the essay are props supplied by the translator. Reading the essay with my friends, I discovered that Montaigne did not even break the essay into paragraphs. See, for example, the Les Essais as presented in the Montaigne Project. Here is the “Apology.” One wonders how Montaigne could have written the essay in this fashion, or how anyone could have read it. May I thank God for the invention of the paragraph?

This prompted me to think about punctuation. The classic works of Greek and Roman literature did without it. They also got along somehow without breaks between words.

Think about how much modern punctuation contributes to our ability to express ourselves in writing, or to understand what we are reading. Think about it! Which brings me to the exclamation point, I hope, in what should be the brief conclusion to this frolic and detour.