Tag Archives: Montaigne

Marginalia, no.291

I hereby join the success circle of the Psychic Club of America, with the right to withdraw whenever I see fit. While I am a member, I pledge myself to join my brethren in sending out thoughts of love, encouragement, help, and success, to myself, my brothers and sisters of the success circle; and all mankind. I will do my best to refrain from all thoughts of fear, discouragement, failure, and hate, and I will do my best to add to the loving and helpful thought wave being sent out by the circle.

~ Pscyhic Club of America “Success Circle” pledge (circa 1900)

I don’t know how long the loving and helpful thought wave produced by members of the success circle was maintained, or how large it managed to swell before breaking on the pebbly, saline shore of reality, but let us bless its memory. To paraphrase Montaigne, at a time when to do evil is so common, to do only what is ridiculous, useless or absurd is commendable.

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Healthy Animal Insensibility

“I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.” William James, on the infamous morning of April 18, 1906, woke to a real earthquake, his first. He was visiting Stanford University, thirty miles below San Francisco. A number of the brick dormitories and other campus buildings collapsed, though James was unharmed. Fascinated, he traveled into the city where he spent all day touring the rubble and watching the progress of the fire.

James was impressed by the general lack of histrionics. Survivors survived and made little fuss about it. The dead made no fuss at all. What particularly interested him was the strange vigor and excitement that he – and so many others – reported feeling. It was out of place, but undeniable. “Mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance,” he wrote. “At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place.”

Three hundred and some years earlier, Michel de Montaigne was nearly killed in a riding accident. He was knocked to the ground, delirious and vomiting blood. His companions were horrified at his apparent suffering, but Montaigne himself experienced the moment quite differently. Though he expected to die, he was in a state near ecstasy. “It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”

“I believe,” he says, “that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting with weakness in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause.” Our pity of the dying, Montaigne suggests, is an effect of distance similar to what James describes. To move from health to the worst extremities of disease and injury seems, from where we stand, a horrible traverse. But the conclusions we draw from our perception of the moment may not correspond at all to the inward experience of the sufferer. (It would be nice to believe this.)

There are, of course, various philosophical approaches to suffering. One is to suggest that suffering is the basic condition of existence and the lack of it only a brief anomaly. Another is to see in suffering something which may contribute toward a higher good, in this world or the next. Yet another is to deny that suffering is real at all. It’s tempting, but wrong, to read this last view into James and Montaigne. They don’t mean to suggest that suffering is illusion, only that we are wrong to imagine we always understand or recognize it.

Human beings have no monopoly on suffering and death. All living things die, and most, it seems, are capable of suffering to one degree or another. How many trillions of creatures were starved, maimed, crushed, tortured, devoured, or killed by disease before our ancestors ever came down from the trees? Some people find the idea of a life founded on these conditions intolerable and so they choose to believe in a primordial state without disease or violence, and a historic fall from that condition to our present one. They feel that suffering and death prove a sort of satanic disruption in the cosmos.

If there is a mystery to suffering, we’re not likely to solve it. Part of what James, at least, seems to have experienced, was the thrill of survival. I felt it myself in the first days after a car accident in which I was knocked unconscious and for an hour or two lost my memory. Even when we do not personally survive, however, survival is the universal rule. The world continues without us, and the life that we shared in for our portion of eternity is practically indestructible. I draw no conclusions, but this may provide a handle by which to turn the problem around in curious ways. In a passage from Walden Thoreau almost exonerates a murderous universe:

“I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, – tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.”

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Marginalia, no.288

The ascetic is the inverted libertine.

~ Gilbert Seldes, The Stammering Century

Montaigne observes that “it is much easier to go along the sides, where the outer edge serves as a limit and a guide, than by the middle way, wide and open.” It seems true, at least, that one extremity is more readily traded for another than for anything in-between. The righteous Puritan is less tempted by lukewarm agnosticism than by outright devil-worship.

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The Heavy and the Dead

I once arrived for a great-aunt’s memorial service just as her son was rushing out to, in his words, “fetch mother.” He’d left the urn containing her ashes on the table at home and didn’t want to start things without her. What an odd errand that must have been. After committing himself to the continued personhood of her remains, could he possibly have tucked her into the trunk for the return drive? Wasn’t he emotionally obliged to set the urn on the passenger seat instead? And if so, wouldn’t it have been necessary to buckle her in to prevent the urn from spilling? Circumstances like these tempt us to suspect that the grand machinery of the cosmos and all its patient sifting of chance serve only for the production of Woody Allen moments.

Other animals don’t bother moving deceased friends and relatives from one place to another. I did hear once about a chimpanzee in such denial of the death of her baby that she carried it around for a week. But while they may gather to sniff and grieve, animals are generally content to let the dead lie where they’ve fallen. We humans distinguish ourselves by making sure that everyone gets a final, free ride to the cemetery. Some of us get substantially more than that. According to certain rites and traditions, corpses of saints or princes (or parts thereof) are paraded through the streets on holidays, and I read once about a group of Papua New Guinea tribesmen that tie their dead chiefs to rocking chairs and bring them out now and then for a chat and to touch them up with clay.

Incan emperors, and the kings of the Chimu before them, were honored in similar fashion. Their mummies were carried on litters through the streets for special occasions and they continued to live in the palaces they had built and to receive tribute from the territories they had conquered, forever. Through their numerous descendants, retainers and loyalists, dead rulers could exert real political and cultural influence for generations beyond their death. (This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Think of the cult of Reagan.)

Nicolas Malebranche and the preformationists had it backwards, it seems, when they imagined that Adam carried us all, to innumerable generations, as microscopic homunculi in his semen. Instead, the burden falls the other way and we’re the ones who have to carry our ancestors around with us. And not merely by remembrance, habits or predilections, of course, but in our genes. It’s my father who’s required now to endure his father’s heart disease, and not vice versa. In one of his essays, Montaigne marveled at how his own father had developed kidney stones in his middle sixties, decades after begetting Montaigne himself, but still had somehow passed down the curse:

Where was the propensity to this infirmity hatching all this time? And when he was so far from the ailment, how did this slight bit of his substance, with which he made me, bear so great an impression of it for its share? And moreover, how did it remain so concealed that I began to feel it forty-five years later? If anyone will enlighten me about this process, I will believe him about as many other miracles as he wants.

It’s not our physical descendants only who will have to carry us with them, but also our non-living children, the offspring of our minds. Family likeness is frequently unmistakable in art. We recognize a Rembrandt or an El Greco right away. I would know within a paragraph, I think, whether a certain passage were Emerson’s. I could guess in a sentence or two if it were Melville’s or Wodehouse’s. Within a couple measures, I feel sure I could distinguish Beethoven from Bach from Chopin. In his introduction to the reader, Cervantes says of Don Quixote that “I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest, and the cleverest that could be imagined; but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like.”

Without denying the possibility of original variation, there’s a lineage to every tone and word, a family history in every folly or obsession, an inheritance of glory or glorious failure in every vital attempt. None of us conceives immaculately. Which is just fine, because in the end we’d like to think that someone rather like ourselves – someone accustomed to our weight and sympathetic to our continued, if defunct, personhood – will strap us in gently and deliver us to the memorial.

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Marginalia, no.251

Who marvels at a goiter in the Alps?

~ Juvenal

People in the Alps used to be famous for goiters, the result of too little iodine in the soil. In his final essay Montaigne quotes Juvenal’s line – not because he suffered from goiter, but because he suffered from kidney stones. Montaigne meant that he wasn’t surprised at getting sick because that’s just what happens to our sort of creature. The Swiss started the fashion for iodized salt in 1922, but here in the U.S. things were still a little Alpish into the late ‘70s. As children we were always seeing old ladies with goiters at the local grocery store.

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Marginalia, no.243

Aesop, that great man, saw his master pissing as he walked. “What next?” he said. “Shall we have to shit as we run?”

~ Montaigne, Essays III, 13

This past Saturday night we were honored with the sight of a man following the example of Aesop’s master. Such acts of efficiency are commonly witnessed in the big city where the pace of life is faster and no one has time for anything. New labor-saving techniques are prized for their own sake. Former urbanites, now suburbanites, my wife and I had forgotten how to admire this sort of thing. As the quote proves, however, there’s no such thing as real innovation.

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Everyone Is Doing It


Twenty years ago I was somehow able to think about sex all day long. I could think about sex even when I wasn’t thinking about it. Temporarily distracted by bus schedules, term papers, potential muggers, or the likelihood of being able to pay my rent, sex still bubbled away undisturbed at the back of the old brain. Somewhere along the way, however, I traded my preoccupation with sex for a preoccupation with mortality. Death is the slow simmer now.

You might think that this would make me no fun to be around, but not so. I can be very charming when I happen to notice you or when I’ve downed a couple drinks. I don’t think my friends would consider me a morbid person. But then no one who knew me as an eighteen-year-old would have considered me a sex-obsessed monomaniac either.

Twenty years ago my experience of sex was, let’s say, comprehensively limited. I knew a bit about it, of course, the various scenarios in which it might occur, the basic biological processes involved. I knew people who had actually had sex. My experience of death today is similarly limited. I know a bit about it, the various scenarios in which it might occur and the basic biological processes involved. I know people who have actually died. But death for me (knock on wood) is still virgin territory.

Faced with the great catalog of life’s alumni, some people will panic at the thought of their own graduation day. Others find comfort in the thought of joining the beloved and admired who have gone before. Some may look to death as a final opportunity for rebellion or individualistic self-expression, but you might just as well see it as the ultimate surrender to peer pressure.

If death is a problem for you, religion may offer some limited assistance. “Limited” because you’ll always question your motives for faith if fear of death is what brings you to it. You may be so scared of dying that you’ll believe anything to make it seem less horrible. Anyway, religious solace only goes so far. If death is mere illusion, then life probably is too, and you’re back where you started. And even if there is a resurrection for dessert, you still have to eat your vegetables first.

Philosophy isn’t very helpful either. Spinoza wrote that the wisdom of a free man is a meditation on life rather than death, but he had to meditate on death a bit even to write that sentence. Socrates said that the whole business of philosophy was learning how to die. He said this because his sort of philosophy was all about cutting the threads that bind the divine and ethereal soul to the stinking, lice-ridden flesh – which is, conveniently, what death does too.

Montaigne wanted to endorse something like Socrates’ notion of philosophy in his earlier essays, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to making life into a death cult. Montaigne’s solution to the problem of death – if you want to call it a solution – was to not think of it as a problem in the first place. In his final essay, Of Experience, he recommends that we gratefully accept the world as God hands it to us, sex and death and all. It’s not as if we’re in a position to negotiate a better deal.

Death manages to feel like a problem anyway. I’m afraid of my children dying, or my wife. I’m less afraid, I think, of my own death, but I may be fooling myself. Twenty years ago I never would have admitted that I was afraid of sex, but of course I was terrified.

I can’t think about any of this without remembering Woody Allen’s 1975 send-up of Russian literature, Love and Death. In one scene, Boris (Allen) gets conscripted into the army that will face off against Napoleon, but before leaving he visits his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), whom he’s always loved. Full of foreboding on his own account, he asks Sonja if she’s scared of dying.

“Scared is the wrong word,” she answers, “I’m frightened of it.” An interesting distinction, Boris says.

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