Readers continue the conversation over Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live:
Montaigne‘s near-death interval is very interesting – it makes me wonder how generalizable his description is to other peoples’ experiences. The pleasantness is an interesting surprise, because his physical behaviors manifest unpleasantness during this time. I can’t help but think of a friend of a friend, who, described the feeling accompanying beholding her newborn as “just like tripping on DMT.” There’s definitely some writing hypothesizing a connection between near death experience and DMT release; it does occur in some amounts in mammals. And it does seem that Montaigne‘s “out of body experience” allowed him to avoid the suffering associated with the experiences of the body at the time.
Another shares his own story:
What would someone 500 years ago, when people lived without indoor plumbing, have to say? And wouldn’t the writing be filled with difficult words, clumped together in long, flowery paragraph-free chunks? That’s what I thought, so before buying the book, I downloaded a sample and while reading it, remembered something I’d completely forgotten.
During sixth grade, I contracted Valley Fever. I was so sick for so long and nobody knew what was wrong with me. I found myself floating above myself, looking down, finally pain-free. I could hear the oldies (“These Boots Were Made For Walking”, “King of the Road”) playing on the radio that someone put beside my bed. But I simply let go and became more relaxed than anything I’d ever experienced in my uber-Protestant-work-ethic-running-around-in-circles-as-fast-as-you-can family. I knew I was close to death, but at eleven, what does that mean?
Montagne’s account of his own near-death experience brought this feeling back as if it were yesterday. The feeling of relief, of letting go, is beyond words, particularly when you are naturally tightly-wound. My adult kids hate it now when I tell them I look forward to death, as there is a peace you can never describe, and the opposite of competitive, hurry-hurry life trying to get ahead (of what?) in San Francisco. Fine, I tell them. They can join my parents in extreme FoxNews-like fear of death, which, when they talk about it, sounds more like they’re afraid of not controlling everything and everyone, and what will we do without that?
Think I’ll share a little Montaigne, particularly the chapter entitled, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.” It’s about as far as you can get from our family’s Mission Statement (“what are you doing reading when you could be doing something?”).
The book is available here if you’d like to join in. Think of it as a blast of sixteenth century sanity for a crazy 21st century world.
Next up: was Montaigne a closet atheist? Or a very modern kind of Christian? Send your thoughts to email@example.com. I’ll weigh in – but check out this Mark Lilla essay first.
(GIF of Dimethyltryptamine, aka DMT, via Wiki)