Monday, October 27, 2008

`Few Men Have Been Less Metaphysical'

As I’ve been rereading Montaigne: A Biography by Donald M. Frame, who sketches the essayist’s life and thought with thoroughness and clarity, I have frequently been reminded of another writer,our contemporary and one of Montaigne’s leading successors, Theodore Dalrymple. Throughout the book, Frame pauses to distill Montaigne’s thought or the pattern of his life, and with striking regularity these capsules read like profiles of the Good Doctor. I’ve scanned Dalrymple’s work, in print and online, and found passing references to Montaigne but no extended treatment. Here are some of the pertinent excerpts I’ve noted in Frame’s biography:

“Montaigne’s central concern was always man and his life, why we behave as we do, how we should. Few men have been less metaphysical. His interest is in the here and now, not in the unknowable hereafter. A psychologist of curiosity and acumen, he is ultimately a moralist seeking to assess, as well as understand, his actions and those of others.” [page 148]

“For all his variability, Montaigne is basically conservative, not radical, an accepter, not a reformer, seeking harmony, not conflict, within.” [page 157]

“He was always fascinated by human motivation and behavior. His judgments of authors read before he began to write show the same curiosity as he feels about his ancestors. From the first the essays reveal his interest in `lofty and hazardous undertaking’ and his awareness of what it requires: `We must probe the inside and discover what springs set men in motion.’” [page 182]

“He likes his language just as it is, `dry and thorny, with free and unruly movements.’ His order need not be logical; it must be that of his mind: `I have no other marshal but fortune to arrange my bits….I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is. I let myself go as I am.’ For the style must be part of the man and of his portrait.” [page 187]

“Writing at first to make his wandering mind behave, he had moved from compiling anecdotes to probing the ills that menace man and their possible remedies; from this to a skeptical rejection of presumptuous faith in reason; and from this to the study and portrayal of self, for which he developed the essay as a form and a method. After exposing his and our limitations, he had displayed our resources.” [page 201]

“I believe it is above all his sturdy, honest independence, his cheerful self-acceptance, that draws the crowd of readers to his book today. Our love of moral independence is ambivalent; our anxiety and sense of guilt make us often hanker rather for an `escape from freedom.’ And here we have a man, not the best that ever lived no doubt but assuredly far from the worst and better than most of us, who with scandalous serenity lays himself on the line and says in effect, quite simply, Here I am.” [page 323]

What these passages suggest is nothing so simple as “influence.” They hint at affinities that transcend culture and nationality between writers separated by four centuries. Both strive for honesty as the prerequisite virtue. Both question what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.” Without narcissism, both look inward and judge themselves by the same vigorous standards they do their fellows. Both stir us to strive for comparable honesty.

Last week I linked to a brief essay in the British Medical Journal in which Dalrymple suggested would-be writers read the work of E. Spencer Shew, a one-time crime correspondent for the Daily Express, Dalrymple calls him “a master of concision, who could convey atmosphere and character in a few exquisitely chosen words,” and his books include A Companion to Murder (1960) and A Second Companion to Murder (1961). I found the American edition of the latter in the library. It’s written in the form of an encyclopedia. Each alphabetized entry is devoted to an English murder from the first half of the 20th century. The book is compulsively readable, as well-written accounts of depravity usually are. Dalrymple was right about Shew’s gift for concision. Consider two sentences from the four-and-half-page entry given Alma Victoria Rattenbury, accused with her lover of murdering her husband in 1935, and savor Shew’s descending chain of adjectives:

“Alma Rattenbury was an elegant, indeed beautiful woman. She was also a generous, kindly creature, artistic, gregarious, passionate, emotionally unstable, entirely amoral, faintly vulgar and rather silly.”

Montaigne and Dalrymple, I’m certain, would be intrigued by Mrs. Rattenbury, as Shew obviously is and as we are.

1 comment:

rebecca said...

Can I tell you how obsessively I've read and reread Shew's A Second Companion To Murder. The way his wiriting is described in your post is so accurate. I'm trying to find the first book of the series now.