Tag Archives: Sarah Bakewell

Marginalia, no.153

Those plangent musical awakenings in his childhood had a lot to answer for.

~ Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne…

Bakewell summarizes the critique of Jules Michelet.  Montaigne’s father ordered that his son should only be awakened in the morning by the sound of soft music.  How much different, I wonder, would the Essays have been if Montaigne were roused each day by an alarm clock or, as I often was, by a father uncommonly skilled in mimicking the sound of a kazoo playing reveille.

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The Experience of Being Human

I honor those bloggers – like the indefatigable Patrick Kurp – cast in the heroic mold, who manage to publish something fresh and vigorous every day.  I am not one of them.  These days the demon Work devours my energies and what little I can hide away needs careful preserving for the nourishment of my other, better-loved demon, Novel.  I still manage to read, but reading refreshes rather than consumes.  Reading is to writing what indulgent recuperation at an alpine spa is to the wasting fevers, writhings and bilateral expulsions of a near-mortal illness.

My son and I are presently forging through Mervyn Peake’s adventurous Letters from a Lost Uncle.  And on the train or after midnight, when the machinery of my mind has burnt up all lubrication and I couldn’t write (or re-write) another goddamn sentence if the lives of a dozen day-old puppies depended on it, I pick up Sarah Bakewell’s luxuriously subtitled How to Live: A Biography of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Of course, no sooner had I ordered the book from the UK and paid my international shipping fees than its stateside release was announced for later this month.

Poor souls who have spent any time whatever in my virtual company will know that I am a great admirer of Montaigne.  I am not as much an admirer of Ms Bakewell, but my complaints with her method or style (or subtitle) are mostly trivial and her book has been a pleasure.  Early in an opening chapter – and periodically throughout her 350 pages – Bakewell describes the queer sensation so many readers experience on first acquaintance with Montaigne: the sense that he is writing about them as much as himself.  In his frank self-portraiture and embrace of amor fati, the happy acceptance of all the foibles and inadequacies that make him as an individual different than anyone else, Montaigne somehow helps us to better see what we all have in common, ‘the experience of being human.’

I don’t know that he was any great lover of Montaigne, but I’m reminded of a passage from Thoreau’s journals (February 12, 1851) describing the discovery – or rediscovery – of such communion:

I think that we are not commonly aware that man is our contemporary, – that in this strange, outlandish world, so barren, so prosaic, fit not to live in but merely to pass through, that even here so divine a creature as man does actually live.  Man, the crowning fact, the god we know.  While the earth supports so rare an inhabitant, there is somewhat to cheer us.  I think that the standing miracle to man is man.

Let’s not wax too poetical about this.  Montaigne accomplishes something remarkable in the Essays by his honesty, his curiosity and his habitual suspension of judgment, but thankfully he’s no magician, no demigod.  The point is his – our own – humanity.  The waking from intellectual isolation and the reminder, by a punch in the gut as often as a caress, that we all share and partake in a single, immutably mutable human nature – that is, to my mind, the point.

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