— Michel de Montaigne (@M_de_Montaigne) February 18, 2014
A reader gushes:
I feel blindsided by joy and wonder reading Sarah Bakewell’s delightfully accessible book. I had no idea that this man from half a millennium past would give so many “that’s me” moments. Example: I’ve always felt that my forgetfulness was a plus. Something happens. I let go of it and it recedes to some far back place in my memory, unlikely to reappear. I’ve always referred to it as my Etch-A-Sketch mind. Lift up the plastic. All gone.
The other mindblower for me is allowing for doubt. This is a theme that has been mentioned many times in Dish posts. Its relevance in today’s world can not be overstated. Last year, I had a button-maker friend make me some “allow for doubt” buttons. I would notice many pitying looks when I wore it. I suppose nothing beats certainty.
This book club choice is a home run. It has expanded and reinforced my inquiry of life. Thank you.
A more reluctant fan:
I thought – essays? – on how to live? Heavy sigh. But I found the book at the library and decide that giving Montaigne a go probably wouldn’t kill me. I read the first chapter today while I sat at the pool during my daughter’s swimming lesson. It took me less than 15 minutes and I had time enough left to write a few pages.
It was a surprisingly light read. I was expecting tortured prose and deep, knee-bend navel gazing. But it was on death. An easy one and I was delighted to discover that Montaigne was a normal person for all his wandering in the mental back forty.
I have been convinced for some time that dying – the actual moments – is not at all what it appears to be and doesn’t need to be prepped for in any specific way (unless that makes a person feel happy or better in some way, though Montaigne‘s suffering over it in his youthful years would seem to suggest otherwise). I feel not vindicated, but reassured, after this first chapter.
I have low expectations for this experience, but I am determined to read a chapter a day. I don’t think he is going to be my bestie in literary terms, but he has made a good first impression.
That struck me also as something that jumped out. Today, we live our lives in terror not simply of death but of dying. In fact, we seem more afraid of dying than death itself. And Montaigne insists this may not be necessary at all. Dying might actually be pleasant. And not because he had confidence in Jesus (although he did have a priest preside over his eventual death at the age of 59). It was because an early near-death experience gave him a whole new take on the subject. On the surface, he was knocked off his horse, lost consciousness, started puking blood and began tearing away at his doublet as if a great weight were on him. But on the inside, all was calm, even light:
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. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.
In this, as in everything, Montaigne seemed to trust his own nature, to let it be, to have confidence that, beneath the wandering flickers of our minds, something deeper endures, if only we can accept it. It’s that calm acceptance of what is, along with gladness for it, that makes Montaigne almost Taoist at times. P.M. Carpenter joins the conversation:
One non-political passage in Sullivan’s superb survey I identified with rather acutely:
If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be [his] staring of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching…. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well: the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.
In my young and soulfully beautiful wife’s death I never found comfort in Scripture–“mysterious ways” my ass, she died young because we pour tons more cash into weaponry than cancer research–although in our daughter, hope does sustain me. She is my best and dearest friend and she’s as soulfully gorgeous as her mother. The prospect of my own imminent death disturbs me little; I already know its cause–years of self-destructive behavior. This seems only fair. I knew what I was doing and I proceeded to do more of it. I deserve what I get. My wife did not.
So yes, there’s the unfairness of life’s departure, but more than that there’s its seemingly vile randomness. Three years ago the universe ceased to make any sense to me, and its flagrant indifference to earthly justice I now find metaphysically offensive. What’s more, there’s the guilt–the pounding guilt: inhuman, senseless and random tragedies such as MH-17 occurred with grim regularity before my wife’s death, and yet I never wept over them. They failed to haunt me day after day as my wife’s death does a thousand times a day–and ruthlessly compel me to ask, “Why?” Thus I’m forced to conclude that I’m as indifferent to most human suffering as the universe is. And that’s a hard conclusion to accept.
To be clear, I’m not trying to pour my heart out here. See: Oscar Wilde. What I’ve instead attempted is a practical point which, I trust, Montaigne himself would have made: There are no plausible certainties about life, accept, perhaps, the one of the often dismaying utility of a searching skepticism. We can’t, and really don’t, know beans.
(Bottom image of victims from MH-17 via the NYT. Tweet translation from Dishtern Phoebe: “But as for death, we can only try it once; we are all apprentices when we get there.”)