Monday, May 16, 2016

Bakewell on Montaigne

I'm currently reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, an account for the smart generalist of the roots, thought, and key figures of existentialism. I'm not deep enough into it to share anything more detailed than good impressions thus far: if the existentialists interest you at all, it's probably worth taking a look.

What brings me here today--breaking an irritatingly long work-driven hiatus--however, is what I found when I pulled Bakewell's book off my shelf: the handful of pages that I tore out of the galley of her excellent book on Montaigne, How to Live, after I read it in 2013. Torn-out pages, you gasp? I had a reason: I read the book while traveling in Japan, and I was carrying so many books that I was ready to lighten my load any way possible--including throwing out the galley after I'd read it. But . . . what was I to do about the pages I'd dog-eared to share with you folks later? Rip!

So here, four years, a change of address, and another trip to Japan later, they are. First, there's this, from a section that compares Stoics and Epicureans, emphasizing their interest in thought experiments that involved imagining the last day of your life:
Some Stoics even acted out these "last moment" experiments with props and a supporting cast. Seneca wrote of a wealthy man called Pacuvius, who conducted a full-scale funeral ceremony for himself every day, ending with a feast after which he would have himself carried from the table to his bed on a bier while all the guests and servants intoned, "He has lived his life, he has lived his life."
Which, we can all surely agree, seems a bit much.

Though if we're honest can we say that's any worse--for the servants, at least--than this silliness?
[Montaigne] was so determined to get to the bottom even of a phenomenon that was normally lost by definition--sleep--that he had a long-suffering servant wake him regularly in the middle of the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him.
Then there's this, on Montaigne's dislike of small talk:
As well as banishing formal etiquette, Montaigne discouraged tedious small talk. Self-conscious solo performances bored him too. Some of his friends could keep a group rapt for hours with anecdotes, but Montaigne preferred a natural give and take. At official dinners away from home, where the talk was merely conventional, his attention would wander; if someone suddenly addressed him, he would often make inappropriate replies, "unworthy of a child." He regretted this for easy conversation in trivial situations was valuable: it opened the path to deeper relationships, and to the more pleasant evenings where one could joke and laugh at ease.
While I am frustrated by small talk in theory, Montaigne here hits upon one of the reasons I admire those who do it well: it puts others at ease, and it begins the labor of opening a space of comfort in which, down the line, we might place more meaningful conversation. Sports and the weather have been the first steps in many a friendship.

In the following passage Bakewell identifies one of the most lasting, important aspects of Montaigne's genius: his "sense of how one could survive public catastrophe without losing one's self-respect":
Long after the sixteenth-century Stoic Montaigne was forgotten, readers in troubled times continued to think of him as a role model. His Essays offered practical wisdom on questions such as how to face up to intimidation, and how to reconcile the conflicting demands of openness and security. . . . Just as you could seek mercy from an enemy forthfrghtly, without compromising yourself, or defend your property by electing to leave it undefended, so you could get through an inhumane war by remaining human.
Throughout the twentieth century, Bakewell points out, readers--Stefan Zweig one of the most prominent among them--found in Montaigne a shelter and a guide, a reminder that troubled times pass, and that extremism is always best opposed by openness and moderation.

Part of that openness comes down to a willingness to accept that one's own knowledge has limits--as in this passage, which Bakewell glosses nicely:
"If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off--though I don't know."

That final coda--"though I don't know"--is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.
Indeed. And it's better to live with it alongside Montaigne than without him. If you've only read some Montaigne, or none, or even if you'd already count yourself a fan, I heartily recommend How to Live: it transformed me from an occasional thoughtless dipper-into the Essays to someone who finds them endlessly readable and--perhaps more important--thinkable, and Montaigne himself from some forbidding, white-ruffed figure from the distant past into someone with whom I feel we're having a conversation. It's a remarkable achievement.


  1. Perhaps it's time I renewed my acquaintance with Montaigne. It's been awhile.

  2. enlightenment thy name is Montaigne... i've found consolation at bad times by reading his work. i've always thought it awful that he had to suffer from the stone so much; see "travel Journal" edited by donald frame...