Monday, August 22, 2016

`The Best and Closest of All Your Friends'

“For the weekend times when there is nothing new in the house to read, and nothing much to think about or write about, and the afternoon stretches ahead all bleak and empty, there is nothing like Montaigne to make things better.”

I read digressively. I remembered Lewis Thomas’ soothing words on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Houston while reading not Montaigne but Zbigniew Herbert’s “Monsieur Montaigne’s Voyage to Italy” (The Collected Prose 1948-1998, 2010):

“. . . it is the antiquities of Rome that made the greatest impression on Montaigne. The author of the Essays, who spends so much attention during his journey on meals and the cleanliness of bedclothes, falls into a truly poetic and exalted mood at the sight of the Forum. His sobriety, formed by ancient authors (Montaigne himself resembles a Renaissance Pliny), does not allow him to fall into sentimental raptures.”

Of course, Herbert is writing autobiographically. He too writes of cathedrals visited and meals consumed, the grit of daily activity, but his focus is not on the preciousness of the merely personal. There is little self-congratulation, though both Montaigne and Herbert clearly find themselves and the lives they lead enormously interesting and perhaps representative – as we all should, with the obvious qualifications. The title of the essay by Thomas I remembered and reread after many years is “Why Montaigne Is Not a Bore” (The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974), and it applies as well to Herbert. Travel writing and personal essays can be deadly stuff in the wrong hands, solemn fairy rings of epiphany with the writer dancing in the moonlight. At least in theory, a good travel book could be written by a quadriplegic who never leaves his bed. By the time Montaigne was writing his Essays, he was seldom leaving his tower. How did he turn himself into the most companionable of writers and not a crashing bore? Thomas writes:

“He is resolved from the first page to tell you absolutely everything about himself, and so he does. At the greatest length, throughout all 876 pages of the [Donald] Frame translation, he tells you and tells you about himself. This ought to be, almost by definition, the achievement of a great bore. How does it happen that Montaigne is not ever, not on any of all those pages, even a bit of a bore?”

It’s a matter of rare and unlikely balance, an omnivorous appetite for almost everything. We know this from experience. Consider the one-subject obsessive who brings everything back to his hobbyhorse, whether religion, crackpot politics or vegetarianism. Montaigne is never dogmatic or theoretical. He doesn’t proselytize. He admits his mistakes and even finds them interesting. Most importantly, he knows something about the world and is happy to share it. Montaigne is fascinated with the endlessly amusing experience of being Montaigne, but never loses a comparable fascination with the rest of creation, including, at several removes, you, the reader. Thomas writes:

 “Montaigne makes friends in the first few pages of the book, and he becomes the best and closest of all your friends as the essays move along. To be sure, he goes on and on about himself, but that self turns out to be the reader’s self as well. Moreover, he does not pose, ever. He likes himself, to be sure, but is never swept off his feet after the fashion of bores. He is fond of his mind, and affectionately entertained by everything in his head.”


Arthur Lynas said...

Thanks, as always, for this brief essay. Like you perhaps I greatly enjoyed Thomas in about 1980. I was thinking recently, after 35 years of oblivion, of Late Night Thoughts and in particular the lovely essay Called, I think, In the Attic of the mind or brain. A real classical humanist who I really needed at that time, or indeed any time. Arthur (from Glasgow)

Paul M. Gales said...

This discussion of montaigne is very well done! In general it is very difficult to write interesting, thought-provoking blog posts. That you are able to do this on a daily basis is truly a gift to your readers. Thank you.