Thursday, 27 December 2012

HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE by Sarah Bakewell


Montaigne was a Frenchman of the eighteenth century , who wrote a series of essays with titles such as:
OF FRIENDSHIP
OF CANNIBALS
OF THE CUSTOM OF WEARING CLOTHES
HOW WE CRY AND LAUGH FOR THE SAME THINGS
OF NAMES
OF SMELLS
OF CRUELTY
OF THUMBS
HOW OUR MIND HINDERS ITSELF
OF DIVERSION
OF COACHES
OF EXPERIENCE

He wrote 107 of such essays, and on these his reputation rests. This is in part due to the content of the essays, and in part due to their form. Montaigne joins Shakespeare as being among the first to write directly of our divided experience as individuals, to express what now seems to us self-evident – the contradictory inner life of each person. Bakewell explains: “Montaigne and Shakespeare have each been held up as the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.”

How modern is this:
I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We became habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.

He describes much that is common human experience, such as finding famous sites, when they are at last seen, almost imaginary:
Something similar happened to Freud in Athens when he saw the Acropolis. ‘So all this really does exist, just as we learned at school!’ he exclaimed, and almost immediately thereafter felt the conviction: ‘What I see here is not real.’

This book is more or less a biography of Montaigne, but the author has attempted to make it more appealing by framing it in terms of questions as to how to live, answered from his work. This is only intermittently successful. Montaigne had a distinctly odd childhood, having been spoken to only in Latin up to the age of six, which meant that pretty much only his tutor could speak to him. He went on to be a magistrate, before at the age of 37 ‘retiring’ to his father’s estates to write his essays. He was actually supposed to be managing those estates, but he mostly left that to his mum.

He is very much interested in being free of constraints, such as estate management:
No prison has received me, not even for a visit. Imagination makes the sight of one, even from the outside, unpleasant to me. I am so sick for freedom that if anyone should forbid me access to some corner of the Indies, I should live distinctly less comfortably

One of this primary suggestions as to how to live comes from Montaigne’s close brush with death, which he was surprised to find was in fact a gentle and easy experience. From then on, he “tried to import some of death’s delicacy and buoyancy into life. ‘Bad spots’ were everywhere, he wrote in a late essay. We do better to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.’”

The book’s charm comes in part from the window it provides onto his period. He saw the plague whip through rural France, so quickly and fiercely that he often saw sick people dig their own graves and lie in them awaiting death. It was a time of great religious warfare:
For today, to mug one’s neighbor, massacre ones’ nearest relatives, rob the altars, profane the churches, rape women and young girls, ransack everybyody, is the ordinary practice of a Leaguer and the infallible mark of a zealous Catholic; always to have religion and the mass on one’s lips, but atheism and robbery in one’s heart, and murder and blood on one’s hands.
Apparently things haven’t changed as much as we would have liked.

Apparently at that time they believed that sex with your wife should be as cautious as possible. Montaigne quotes Aristotle: “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he careeses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” They also believed that too much pleasure for a woman could make the sperm curdle within her. I just love it that they have such confidence in their powers. That probably is my problem, that sex has just transported me beyond the bounds of reason that once too often.

The closest that Montaigne came to in terms of an answer of how to live was in his last essay, which apparently Virginia Woolf was fond of quoting (though it seemed to do her little good):
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
Bakewell comments, interestingly:
Either this is not an answer at all, or it is the only possible answer.

Anyway, Montaigne has been much loved through the centuries, with one critic commenting:
His book is the touchstone of a sound mind. If a man dislikes it, you may be sure that he has some defect of the heart or understanding
.

I feel that way about quite a few books. Some random person opens their mouth at a party about one of these books, to say something stupid, and I just have to cross them right off the list.

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