George and Michel

Thanks to a biting lack of free time, I’ve been unable to dig in for another novel at present.  Instead, I’ve been reading (and re-reading) essays – specifically of Orwell and Montaigne.  They make an odd pair, I suppose.  Orwell: the socialist, futurist, atheist, critic, journalist, idealist.  Montaigne: the humanist, classicist, skeptic, Catholic, epicurean, and realist.  Some thoughts:

Orwell in his essay My Country Right or Left says that “patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism.”  Certain incidents and catch-phrases from the recent American election leap immediately to mind.  Of course, both conservative and liberal philosophies operate in each party, and I’m not out to make a political statement.  But in my experience conservative appeals to patriotism do tend toward the dogged insistence that something which never really was still is and can only be ours tomorrow if we do our duty with regard to x and y.  A truer sort of patriotism, per Orwell, is the “devotion to something which is changing but is felt to be mystically the same.”  There’s a difference. 

It’s curious how Orwell’s sentiments skirt the borders of religious expression -and I mean more than his choice of words.  It’s precisely this loyalty to something changing and yet “mystically” identical through time that allows the long-suffering Roman Catholic to cling to an institution which often enough intends him harm, or at least manages to inflict it.  Montaigne, for one, expresses a fidelity to traditional forms of religion which sometimes seems at odds with his thoroughgoing skepticism.  In at least this respect he is a deeply conservative soul.  Of course he lived during the wars of religion that followed hard on the Reformation, and the carnage and brutality of it was all around him.  Rather than zeal or personal devotion, one suspects it was a longing for peace and stability that motivated him to keep with the old faith, along with a firm conviction that human folly was no respecter of persons or parties, which is always a safe bet.

*

In a radio broadcast for The Listener from June of 1941, Orwell reads and discusses Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Felix Randall.  He wraps it up with the following observation:

I have tried to analyse this poem as well as I can in a short period, but nothing I have said can explain, or explain away, the pleasure I take in it.  That is finally inexplicable, and it is just because it is inexplicable that detailed criticism is worthwhile.  Men of science can study the life-process of a flower, or they can split it up into its component elements, but any scientist will tell you that a flower does not become less wonderful, it becomes more wonderful, if you know all about it.

I once read a Nabokov interview in which the novelist claimed that objects become “more real” to us the more we know about them.  The lily, he said, is less real to an ordinary person than to a naturalist, and less real to a naturalist than to a botanist.  I thought this was bunk, and swapped Nabokov’s lily for a butterfly (Nabokov sidelined as a lepidopterist) and offered up the counter-example of my daughter.  Don’t tell me, I said, that her infant joy doesn’t grasp in the butterfly something too elusive for scientific observation – the simple, raw miraculous fact of the thing.

What I find remarkable in Orwell’s quote above is how he manages to offer the same basic observation as Nabokov while rendering it inoffensive and, to me at least, intuitively true.  (Perhaps it’s the substitution of gradations in wonder for gradations in real-ness?)  It is precisely the pleasure we take in life and in the objects of existence that motivate all living and all knowledge.  In Essais I, 20 (That to Philosophize is to Learn the Die), Montaigne says that

Whatever role man undertakes to play, he always plays his own at the same time.  Whatever they say, in virtue itself the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness.

That is, we always desire pleasure and happiness, and it is perfectly natural that we should.  Even the ascetic in a desert cell is after some form of pleasure, however subtle or transcendent, though he may prefer to call it by a different name.  But all science, all philosophy -all our thirsting after knowledge- is an epicurean pursuit.  We work our minds into the deeper how and why of things only in order to derive a deeper pleasure from them, and hence from living.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “George and Michel

  1. elberry

    Interesting post. One reason i enjoy Dante is for his sense that intellectual energy dovetails into other kinds, that it isn’t an abstract, Ivory Tower activity, Man looking at Nature through a microscope or test tube, utterly removed from what he studies, and his intellect utterly removed from his body and his emotions. We seem to have got into a way of looking at thought, knowledge, which separates them from things such as pleasure, from an ordinary life.

  2. Ian Woolcott

    You must have made it farther into Paradiso than I ever did.

    This habit of imagining we’re something other than a part of the natural order – I wonder, is it limited to western culture, or universal? We act as if we were alien colonists. How schizophrenic it seems. The pleasure of strength and speed and skill with one’s hands really is not so different from our intellectual pleasures. What I’ve wanted for a long time now is a better sense of myself (in all my activities and pursuits) as belonging to the natural order, at home in the world.

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