The examined life may be the only one worth living, but does it make compelling autobiography? That's the question one ponders while navigating this elliptical, pedantic inquiry into the life of the mind. Brosman -- poet, critic, and professor of French at Tulane -- professes many things in 13 opinionated essays: Foremost are respect for language and love of vigorous intellects. A tomboy whose aversion to dresses matured into intolerance for intellectual tomfoolery like feminism or deconstructionist criticism, the self-described ""last traditionalist"" values above all the common enterprise. But claims of egalitarianism and directness are undercut by a failure to balance abstraction with human experience, and by finicky, belabored prose. An essay on summer camps features this tortuous passage: ""There is something in me that calls for communal enterprises -- perhaps less living in common, which can be appealing but is, strictly speaking, chiefly just a maintaining of life -- than common projects and goals, as though the best of human effort -- that which goes to remake the world (in any sense you wish to give the term except the artistic one) -- should, by its nature, be a shared undertaking."" Too often, Brosman's enterprise (ostensibly an exploration of human intellectual endeavor) lapses into literary elitism, wherein she quotes the masters to excess (principally Montaigne, Proust, and Gide) while her personal narrative flounders. And in her contribution to the gender war, ""On Men and Women,"" an insistence on portraying men as slobs and women as sensitive collectors of bric-a-brac contributes substantive evidence of just how archaic her viewpoint is. On men who belie masculine stereotypes: ""This white-wine-and-quiche set is not my type. After all, I am a woman; I can make a sauce myself."" Rigorous, but as offputting as a fussy aunt; Brosman's white-glove treatment of morality and aesthetics will appeal chiefly to academics, didacts, and makers of sauces.