23 March 2011

Of An Early Spring Snow

In Walden, Thoreau writes, “Next year I shall not plant beans. I have other seeds to sow.” I have a sense of his desire here. Last night an early Spring snow fell (Spring began just this past Sunday!), after a day of very mixed and unpleasant wintry weather, and in the early morning hour I trudged out to the cabin in the weighty boots I require to maintain my balance in such conditions. I stepped heavily and high, pulling my legs up and out in very uncoordinated and awkward rhythms. Early Spring snows are wet and heavy, and stepping through the accumulations is challenging. The coffee filling my mug sloshed about and slipped carelessly over the rim staining the newly dropped white snow. I didn’t care. 
In December or January I would have immediately begun shoveling a clear pathway from the cabin back to the house, but this month I did not shovel snow. I had other paths to clear. I entered the cabin with a half-full mug of coffee and sat down at the desk to read Montaigne. But I could not concentrate. 
However easy it might have been to dismiss the arduous chore of clearing the path to the cabin, it is not so simple to unblock the anxious paths that comprise my psyche and arrive at some contentment. I can with relatively little effort remove the snow from my path easing my way to and from the cabin, but I cannot so readily remove the obstructions that block the pathways to a greater serenity in the day. Wherever I go, there I am. 
I know Montaigne would argue that it is an illusion that I can ever leave myself behind, but I do think that his essays suggest a palliative to this oppression. If it is true that “we shall never heap enough insults on the unruliness of our mind,” then it must also be true that the wise individual would seek at least to understand that unruliness. Such is the function of the essays. At least twice in Book One Montaigne offers a motive for the writing that I can understand. In “Of Idleness,” which is really a brief essay about what to do with that indolence, Montaigne writes that idle hours “give birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” That is, the essays become analysand and analyst and Montaigne in the essay may write himself to happiness. In writing he attains a pleasure not available outside of that activity. He writes (I think with joy) not to eliminate the monstersthat is impossiblebut rather, to struggle by writing to understand them and thus render them less frightening and without threat. 
In “Of prompt or slow speech” (which is not really about that either, I think), Montaigne argues that since so much of his life occurs in casual and contingent circumstances, then it often happens that “I do not find myself in the place where I look . . . [but} I find myself more by chance encounter than by searching my judgment.” Thus it is that he often speaks with promptness, throwing off a chance remark (which he avers is clever to himself but not to his listener!), but soon loses the point so thoroughly “that I do not know what I meant; and sometimes a stranger has discovered it before I do.” Again, the relationship is between analysand and analyst, but the interaction is predicated on the occurrence of prompt speech! And again, in his writing (and even in his speech) Montaigne can enact the role of both analysand and analyst. Thus this book: the essays on subjects wide and random permit him to discover himself as if by chance, and in the process of writing (and discovery) to experience great amusement. “This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one.” And in the writing, better than by reasoned judgment, Montaigne would discover himself in having something novel always to accompany him wherever he might be. 
Probably, this early Spring snow will be gone in a week’s time, melted by the rising temperatures and the sharper rays of the Spring sun. I will begin thinking of Passover and clearing out the chametz from the house. I will try to simplify, simplify, and deal with the detritus that muddies the pathways out to the cabin and to my gladness. I will come out here to write.


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