13 January 2011

Montaigne 1

I am reading Montaigne’s essays after reading an excellent account of his life and work by Sarah Bakewell (How to Live: A Life of Montagne, 2010). I like getting to the original, even if the original is in translation. It is the problem with my provincialism. And I am only at the very beginning.
But from Bakewell I have learned that Montaigne seems to have devoted the final twenty years of his life writing and (re)writing the essays. That is, the essays were in a constant state of revision and expansion; thus it is that any single essay can contain quite contradictory material. Of course, this reminds me of Talmud where contradictory opinions joyously abound and need not be reconciled. The process reminded m as well of Walt Whitman’s single great tome, Leaves of Grass. Undoubtedly, there are other publications from the American Bard, but it is Leaves of Grass by which he will always be known and on which he continuously revised and expanded. Whitman said early on, “Do I contradict myself? Well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” So with Montaigne, and his essays display not only what but how he learned from life, because in the essays one may read his history. More than most autobiographies I have read, there is no teleological purpose here. Montaigne admits that in his book “ . . . I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have no thought of serving either you or my own glory.” But having acknowledged that this is autobiography, Montaigne immediately dissuades any reader from spending anytime reading his work! “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” Ha!
He notes interestingly in the second essay, “On Sadness” (yes, I am only at the start) that he is one of those freest from this passion. This almost suggests to me Emerson’s dismissal of grief in his essay “Experience.” Except: Emerson goes out of his way to explain how grief has had no effect on his life (Emerson lost his wife, his brother and his son within a few short years), and Montaigne suggests not that sadness has no effect but that true sadness is inexpressible. Emerson says that grief falls off him and leaves not a scar, and Montaigne says that his sadness (and it is grief he means, and especially for his deceased friend La Boétie) so overwhelms that it benumbs and paralyzes. Later, when the extreme moment has passed, then tears may come. The tears are a relief from the paralysis; tears and lamentations are freedom of the soul.
Desire doesn’t paralyze, but it is inexpressible—except in action. Desire I think frees the soul and sadness paralyzes it. Perhaps in the throes of grief Desire becomes paralyzed.
Perhaps opposed to Desire is Sadness.  And are tears and lamentations merely expressions of the end of grief?


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