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Painter in his studio, Picture by Gerard Dou

Co-Editors Note: This is the first of what we hope to be an ongoing series of Readers and Book Lovers writing about their favorite authors. It is intended to be complementary to diaries dealing with particularly favored or interesting books, mysteries, SF stories or what you will; even really bad works which have something unique or humorous to say. And of course any themes in the diaries allowing us to further our nefarious Kossack plot of polluting the precious bodily fluids of America is appreciated

   For the inaugural edition of this series I propose to write about a writer who I think has been particularly influential to me as well as to the authorial craft and Western Literature. He is credited with pretty much inventing the form of the personal essay (the term derives from the French word meaning 'to attempt') and wrote very much in the spirit of the enlightenment, which, as a country we seem to be in need of reminding about. Particularly given the political currents swirling around us today; it is my deeply held conviction that enlightened thinking is not necessarily a permanent part of society.

   And, I have always felt the spirit of DK - the Orange enlightener - very much derives from the creativity and intelligence of the individual diarists who for the most part can write about any damn thing they feel like. Yes, DK is a progressive site, as befits those of intelligence and creativity - reality often has a liberal bias - but even more so is the subjectivity and often laudable 'me'-ness of the contributors who can go beyond the usual diet of claptrap found in most political blogs. Often it is this subjectivity that is enlightening. So let's jump below the arabesque to explore the works of an author who, in a way, deserves to be an honorary 16th century Kossack

So let us meet our first author, who has so much to say to us today, and Republicans should take note: he is French: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official, gentleman farmer and vintner who lived in the Perigord area of Southwestern France from 1533 to 1592. Over a period of ten years, almost on a whim, he wrote what still has to be one of the best collections of essays that the mind of mankind has invented; in fact, he invented the term by calling his works his 'attempts', three volumes of them. He revised them a few more times and I suspect never stopped thinking about them until he died

Putting aside the content of his essays, for a moment, it is hard now that the form has become so commonplace to realize what a real departure it was for an author to put himself in the center of his work. . .to use the 'I' so freely. It is a bit like reading Shakespeare for the first time or seeing 'Citizen Kaine' for the first time on a DVD and a home widescreen - the experience seems so ordinary, so in touch with what we think of in a play or movie, you have to exert a little effort to realize that when they first came out, these were brilliantly new forms of an art that was relatively new itself. Similarly it takes some effort in reading Montaigne that his work represents, as Daniel Boorstin puts it "Here was a landmark in man's movement from the complacency of divine certitude to the piquancy of experience and human variety".

Having said that, when one first encounters the essays, particularly if one is young, they are not a pulse pounder. Montaigne was heavily influenced by both the Stoic philosophers and the Epicureans, neither of whom were exponents of the unrestrained passions or feelings that appeal to our romantic sides. Indeed, he was heavily influenced by Lucretius 'De Rerum Natura'; a work which I have written about here There are almost a hundred direct quotations of Lucretius in the Essays and in 1989 a copy of the poem surfaced that turned out to be Montaigne's personal copy, with notes in it in the author's own hand. There can often be something bloodless in the essay's cool skepticism, in its renunciation of passion and in his frank description of himself as a person governed by random desires that swerve this way and that, to the left or right as circumstances carry us, whimsicality carried to an extreme as it were. This was a writer whose most famous aphorism was 'Que sais-je?' ('What do I know?').

And yet, one has to understand the times when the Essays were written, what late 16th century France was like. Basically it was a newly emerging country which made a very serious suicide attempt in the name of religious certainty; there was irreconcilable and cruel conflict between Catholics and protestants (as well as the monarchist faction which, while Catholic, was often unable to restrain it's more violent followers, and was even hated for lack of heretic-extirpating zeal). The so-called Saint Bartholomew massacres had taken place in 1572 when Montaigne had first gotten started writing. Thousands had died and Montaigne had drawn stark lessons as to the cruelty that was committed in the name of righteousness, fueled by an absolute certainty of belief. How much better, he reasoned to be skeptical, cool and collected and not give into one's impulses. Thus, in his wide ranging 107 essays, Montaigne doesn't tell us how we should live; he just tells us how to live by relating what works for him.

I think it most salutory for overcoming one's fear of death; although I gave that up long ago (I have seen to much of it, I fear) I well understand how many are troubled by this issue. Especially I think those who are still young and vigorous, but have grown out of the feeling of being bulletproof that I well remember feeling. So here is Montaigne saying "If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it". Montaigne, you see, had had a near death experience himself when some idiot had ridden into him on horseback; fortunately for all of us he didn't die, but had the experience of death and found that the dying was painless; it was the coming back to life that was the painful part. So this loss of the fear of death was liberating. It got him to thinking about how to live, and as a bonus reinforced a belief that worrying about pain or pleasure in the afterlife was risible in the extreme.

It was thus that Montaigne, on his 38th birthday, decided to retire from public life (he had been a parliamentarian in Bordeaux) and shut himself up in a tower, writing his essays. The tower still stands, by the way, and the inscriptions he had carved on the beams of its library have been restored and can be read:

             Solum certum nihil esse certi
                      Et homine nihil miserius aut superbius

                      [Only one thing is certain; that nothing is certain
                       And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man]

So what awaits the modern reader of Montaigne? A wide ranging,almost stream of consciousness discourse on a bewildering variety of topics which meander like a stream and almost seem stream-of-consciousness. For example, he comments on his own idleness, in words that kind of resonate with those of us who like to write diaries as a weapon against boredom:

When I lately retired to my own house, with a resolution, as much as possibly I could, to avoid all manner of concern in affairs, and to spend in privacy and repose the little remainder of time I have to live, I fancied I could not more oblige my mind than to suffer it at full leisure to entertain and divert itself, which I now hoped it might henceforth do, as being by time become more settled and mature; but I find—

               "Variam semper dant otia mentem,"

     ["Leisure ever creates varied thought."—Lucan, iv. 704]
that, quite contrary, it is like a horse that has broke from his rider, who voluntarily runs into a much more violent career than any horseman would put him to, and creates me so many chimaeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of itself.

He expresses an opinion I find very relevant today as a refutation of those constricted mentalities who advocate a 'strict constructionism' in interpretation of the constitution:
And yet I am not much pleased with his opinion, who thought by the multitude of laws to curb the authority of judges in cutting out for them their several parcels; he was not aware that there is as much liberty and latitude in the interpretation of laws as in their form; and they but fool themselves, who think to lessen and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible: forasmuch as our mind does not find the field less spacious wherein to controvert the sense of another than to deliver his own; and as if there were less animosity and tartness in commentary than in invention. We see how much he was mistaken, for we have more laws in France than all the rest of the world put together, and more than would be necessary for the government of all the worlds of Epicurus:

          "Ut olim flagitiis, sic nunc legibus, laboramus."

     ["As we were formerly by crimes, so we are now overburdened by
     laws."—Tacitus, Annal., iii. 25.]
and yet we have left so much to the opinions and decisions of our judges that there never was so full a liberty or so full a license. What have our legislators gained by culling out a hundred thousand particular cases, and by applying to these a hundred thousand laws? This number holds no manner of proportion with the infinite diversity of human actions; the multiplication of our inventions will never arrive at the variety of examples; add to these a hundred times as many more, it will still not happen that, of events to come, there shall one be found that, in this vast number of millions of events so chosen and recorded, shall so tally with any other one, and be so exactly coupled and matched with it that there will not remain some circumstance and diversity which will require a diverse judgment. There is little relation betwixt our actions, which are in perpetual mutation, and fixed and immutable laws; the most to be desired are those that are the most rare, the most simple and general; and I am even of opinion that we had better have none at all than to have them in so prodigious a number as we have.

His perception of certain aspects of human nature is right on the mark:
There is another sort of glory, which is the having too good an opinion of our own worth. 'Tis an inconsiderate affection with which we flatter ourselves, and that represents us to ourselves other than we truly are: like the passion of love, that lends beauties and graces to the object, and makes those who are caught by it, with a depraved and corrupt judgment, consider the thing which they love other and more perfect than it is.

I would not, nevertheless, for fear of failing on this side, that a man should not know himself aright, or think himself less than he is; the judgment ought in all things to maintain its rights; 'tis all the reason in the world he should discern in himself, as well as in others, what truth sets before him; if it be Caesar, let him boldly think himself the greatest captain in the world. We are nothing but ceremony: ceremony carries us away, and we leave the substance of things: we hold by the branches, and quit the trunk and the body; we have taught the ladies to blush when they hear that but named which they are not at all afraid to do: we dare not call our members by their right names, yet are not afraid to employ them in all sorts of debauchery: ceremony forbids us to express by words things that are lawful and natural, and we obey it: reason forbids us to do things unlawful and ill, and nobody obeys it.

Here is Montaigne on drinking:
to drink, after the French fashion, but at two meals, and then very moderately, is to be too sparing of the favours of the god. There is more time and constancy required than so. The ancients spent whole nights in this exercise, and ofttimes added the day following to eke it out, and therefore we are to take greater liberty and stick closer to our work. I have seen a great lord of my time, a man of high enterprise and famous success, that without setting himself to't, and after his ordinary rate of drinking at meals, drank not much less than five quarts of wine, and at his going away appeared but too wise and discreet, to the detriment of our affairs. The pleasure we hold in esteem for the course of our lives ought to have a greater share of our time dedicated to it; we should, like shopboys and labourers, refuse no occasion nor omit any opportunity of drinking, and always have it in our minds. Methinks we every day abridge and curtail the use of wine, and that the after breakfasts, dinner snatches, and collations I used to see in my father's house, when I was a boy, were more usual and frequent then than now.

Is it that we pretend to a reformation? Truly, no: but it may be we are more addicted to Venus than our fathers were. They are two exercises that thwart and hinder one another in their vigour. Lechery weakens our stomach on the one side; and on the other sobriety renders us more spruce and amorous for the exercise of love.

  Perfectly true by the way. And also, cannot one see whereby Shakespeare was inspired to pen his soliloquies?

He even has a disquisition about gallows humor thus:


How many ordinary people do we see led to execution, and that not to a simple death, but mixed with shame and sometimes with grievous torments, appear with such assurance, whether through firm courage or natural simplicity, that a man can discover no change from their ordinary condition; settling their domestic affairs, commending themselves to their friends, singing, preaching, and addressing the people, nay, sometimes sallying into jests, and drinking to their companions, quite as well as Socrates?

One that they were leading to the gallows told them they must not take him through such a street, lest a merchant who lived there should arrest him by the way for an old debt. Another told the hangman he must not touch his neck for fear of making him laugh, he was so ticklish. Another answered his confessor, who promised him he should that day sup with our Lord, "Do you go then," said he, "in my room [place]; for I for my part keep fast to-day." Another having called for drink, and the hangman having drunk first, said he would not drink after him, for fear of catching some evil disease. Everybody has heard the tale of the Picard, to whom, being upon the ladder, they presented a common wench, telling him (as our law does some times permit) that if he would marry her they would save his life; he, having a while considered her and perceiving that she halted: "Come, tie up, tie up," said he, "she limps." And they tell another story of the same kind of a fellow in Denmark, who being condemned to lose his head, and the like condition being proposed to him upon the scaffold, refused it, by reason the girl they offered him had hollow cheeks and too sharp a nose. A servant at Toulouse being accused of heresy, for the sum of his belief referred himself to that of his master, a young student, prisoner with him, choosing rather to die than suffer himself to be persuaded that his master could err. We read that of the inhabitants of Arras, when Louis XI. took that city, a great many let themselves be hanged rather than they would say, "God save the King." And amongst that mean-souled race of men, the buffoons, there have been some who would not leave their fooling at the very moment of death. One that the hang man was turning off the ladder cried: "Launch the galley," an ordinary saying of his. Another, whom at the point of death his friends had laid upon a bed of straw before the fire, the physician asking him where his pain lay: "Betwixt the bench and the fire," said he, and the priest, to give him extreme unction, groping for his feet which his pain had made him pull up to him: "You will find them," said he, "at the end of my legs." To one who being present exhorted him to recommend himself to God: "Why, who goes thither?" said he; and the other replying: "It will presently be yourself, if it be His good pleasure." "Shall I be sure to be there by to-morrow night?" said he. "Do, but recommend yourself to Him," said the other, "and you will soon be there." "I were best then," said he, "to carry my recommendations myself."

Which brings us, in beginning back to the image of Montaigne I like best: that of an unfettered mind roaming where he will, into the future, untroubled by thoughts of death or extinction. And so, in a different context I will quote Auden:

              "Were all stars to disappear or die
               I should learn to look at an empty sky
               And feel its total darkness sublime
               Though this might take me a little time

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 09:43 PM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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