Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Montaigne: Obsessed With Death, Humorous

One of the handful of books that I seem to always be reading is Montaigne's Essays. I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post that some of us have one or three or a bunch of books that we feel always at home in, they are always near us, within reach of our beds, and we may have multiple copies of these books, they have wormed their way into our Being, etc. For me, Montaigne - generally acknowledged as the "inventor" of the essay-form (essai = "attempt") - grows with me; I feel I "know" him after all these years. He died in 1592 at 59, which was a ripe old age for that time. 

If we have passing acquaintance with Montaigne, we know he lived on a landed estate, and had a round room with a view that was built with bookshelves that encircled him, and all he wanted to do was enjoy his Greeks and Romans (by far the Romans) and somehow get himself to be a Stoic, or something along those lines. Perhaps you read his very long essay Apology for Raimond de Sebonde in some required class.

When Montaigne was 30, his dearest friend, an intellectual named Etienne de la Boetie, died. The essays are in some way the letters he might have written to his friend, had Etienne lived and they had not been able to hang out and party together. But the grieving for his friend seems to have actuated his invention of the essay form, and we are glad something good came of such grief...

He was a popular guy - he was surprised to learn he'd been elected to local office back home while he was traveling in Italy - in his stomping grounds (south of France), but really, by age 40 or so, he wanted to be alone to read and enjoy himself, and teach himself to deal with what it means to live and die well.

Anyway, the main reason I read Montaigne is his personality; he makes me laugh. He's not trying to be funny. He is simply a well-articulated human character, and we see ourselves in his circumspection and (rather oddly) his "modern" mind. He is fascinated with minutiae and luminous details, and this seems much of what makes his writing great, although he always wondered why his first book of essays sold well. He thought is was because the locals "think it droll to see me in print." I laugh with Montaigne in a similar way that I laugh with Leopold Bloom...

I see from some recent book reviews that Montaigne's "hot" right now; three or four books about him have come out in the last 18 months or so. The minor meme that seems to have flitted through the noosphere from these books: an author says Montaigne was the first blogger! And I can see that, if I squint...

Q: Quick! like a bunny-rabbit: what do all these people have in common?

-John Florio
-Jacob Zeitlin
-Donald Frame
-M.A. Screech
-Charles Cotton
-George B. Ives
-E.J. Trechman
-Wyatt Mason
-John M. Cohen

A: Correct! Your erudition astounds me, my friend! Yes, they all translated Montaigne into English. A few of these figures seem fairly obscure; I have read some from the translations of four of the above. From what I can gather of this collection of translators, they are all wonderfully weird characters in their own way. 

The Cohen is the Penguin edition you will probably find of most easy avail, and it's terrific and readable for the 21st century denizen new to Montaigne, but he leaves out a lot. I think you get an adequate but truncated Montaigne from Cohen. Cohen's introduction is magnificent, though.

My favorite is the Cotton, because he introduced me to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne with his late 17th century English, which has gotten under my skin and into my sinew. And Cotton was quite a character too. Check out the poem devoted to "M.H." at the end of the Wiki link for Cotton above.

So yes: Montaigne. After having read him through once in entirety, for years I dipped into him at random. But recently I started over, reading him from the beginning. The corpus of Essays is broken into three Books, chronologically as they were written, mostly. I am now almost through Book One, and Montaigne's overarching obsession with death is the main theme, although his essays are - thankfully! - always leavened with utterly delightful short pieces such as essay number 8, "Of Idleness," in which he starts off with a rather twisted analogy about seeds and crops that need to be tilled in order to produce what they were meant for, just as human minds need to be occupied or bad stuff happens. As an American, I always read this very short essay and feel the Puritan lecture coming on, despite the fact that I know he will soon admit that, when he has leisure, he plans to do any number of useful things and not waste his precious time, and yet seems dismayed to find that his mind works "like a horse that has broken from its rider [...] and creates me so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one upon the other, 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." 

Yes! Good idea: my psychoanalyst implored me to keep a journal also.
In his first few essays he seems abundantly fascinated with how and why certain people met their death in battles, as gleaned from his beloved library. And there are florid hints of the gruesome deaths that a bright kid into violent video games might appreciate.

Going through the essays from Book One, I realize I am now so familiar with each one that I could write my own "essay" upon each one. But my prolixity has already gotten the better of me, and I haven't yet gone into my thoughts on Montaigne's rather jocoserious attempt to get his curious and compendious mind to embrace the Stoic attitude. He's constantly affirming how we ought not fear death, as this is losing one's liberty in a broad sense.

There is a very great charm in his mental fights with death; these reflect his Catholic sensibilities, yet he was worldly, his mother was Jewish, and one never gets the feeling Montaigne was ever all that devout. There are no overt jokes like "I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens," from Woody Allen. The exertions towards some sort of detente with death make him lovable to me...

I have grown much more fond of him when he's not talking of death, of his noticing how odd his own mind works, the strange and wonderful things he finds in his books, or when he starts on a topic, then diverges upon divergencies with anecdotes from his life or friends, or someone like Horace, Livy, Lucretius, or Seneca, who, he found as "friends" in much the same way I see Montaigne as one.

Epistemologically, Montaigne had learned enough from the Stoics and their logic that I think he qualifies as a proto-MaybeLogic thinker, of the type Robert Anton Wilson championed in his career that ended in 2007. Montaigne is never sure of his own opinions; he would rather just test them and learn more. He saw that knowledge was contingent; he is after my own heart.

Anyway, I can see you're getting bored, so I will end my first foray into Montaigne in this blog by noting that, from the beginning of Book One, he's seemingly obsessed with death in all its manifestations. And by essay 19, "That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die," the first time he stretches out and really writes more than four or six paragraphs, he's almost Nietzschean, in that he seems to be attempting an occult exercise by deeply meditating and reiterating - these are incantations (to write himself into another mental state?), really - how it's truly foolish to fear death: did we fear being born? It's all over when we die: all the worries, whips and scorns that flesh is heir to, there was nothingness before we were born; there will be nothingness after: nothing to fear!, etc. And he builds and builds until the final part of the essay, when Nature herself (Montaigne is channeling her?) begins to speak about the foolishness of being afraid of death, with copious support in footnoted quotes from Lucretius.

"Nature" goes on and on like this, a small snippet:

"Death is less to be feared than nothing, if there could be anything less than nothing." Which is then supported by a footnote from his beloved Lucretius: "Death would seem much less to us - if indeed there could be less in that which we see to be nothing."

We get the point.

It is not clear if Nature was plagiarizing Lucretius, or vice-versa. One assumes Lucretius is guilty!

This is all meant to calm both us and Montaigne down, as I read it. But what's hilarious to me is that this occult operation never quite "takes;" Montaigne will grapple with death to the end, because he so loves the wonders and delights found in his books and in living. And, ummmmm...me too!


ARW23 said...

Beautiful essay to Montaigne! I think your essay would make Montaigne very happy. Thank you for making him immortal.

Is Montaigne 'Nietzschean' or is Nietzsche 'Montaignean'?

michael said...

Thanks for the kind words, but I'm not sure Montaigne wasn't already immortal. Nietzsche admired Montaigne, but I compare Montaigne to Nietzsche because I assume more readers know Nietzsche than Montaigne, but I could be wrong about that. In some future blogspew I will call Fred Montaignean.

It's reassuring to know that one person read the Montaigne piece!