A Short Note on Montaigne (that was longer than anticipated)

I should make a disclaimer now that I am not necessarily trying to provide a clear and thorough description of every aspect of every essay that Montaigne writes. What I am writing is more of a response than an analysis. For example, my dear friend Patrick asked me privately if Montaigne ever writes anything uplifting.

It is true that he has chosen some heavier topics to deal with, but that isn’t to say that he necessarily treats them seriously throughout the entire essay. He certainly is not devoid a sense of humor. In today’s essay it shines through on several occasions. It is entitled, “That the soul expends its passions upon false objects where the true are wanting.” In it, he essentially pefigures some of the observations that became critical for Freudian psychoanalysis, saying at one point, ” ‘As the wind loses its force diffused in void space, unless it in its strength encounters the thick wood,’ so it seems that the soul, being transported and discomposed, turns its violence upon itself, if not supplied with something to oppose it, and therefore always requires an object at which to aim and whereon to act…And we see that the soul, in its passions, inclines rather to deceive itself by creating a false and fantastical subject, even contrary to its own belief, than not to have something to work upon.” A serious and sober-minded observation which he later comments upon more light-heartedly: “The philosopher Bion said pleasantly of the king, who by handsful pulled his hair off his head for sorrow, ‘Does this man think that baldness is a remedy for grief?’ ”

His essay on sorrow does talk about the serious, debilitating variety of sorrow, but it takes an intriguing twist when he goes on to talk light-heartedly about other intense emotions that have caused people to die spontaneously.  Joy for example, and even intellectual shame in the case of one dialectician who was unable “to disengage himself from a nice argument that was propounded to him.” Montaigne goes on to say, “I, for my part, am very little subject to these violent passions; I am naturally of a stubborn apprehension, which also, by reasoning, I every day harden and fortify.” Which is as much as to say that he is too slow to understand why anyone would get into such a passion, and so in order to preserve his own life from a sudden and unexpected demise, he logically (and paradoxically) seeks to preserve his (non-existant) intellectual lethargy.

So I haven’t just been reading depressing essays as I’ve been getting accustomed to life in France and figuring out how to connect bus lines to train lines and sitting in lecture halls with 30 irate American Teaching Assistants who have just learned that legally they are not allowed to work a second job and who are too immersed in the system to realize that the “porous” French bureaucracy doesn’t really care if you work extra hours. The line between legality and permissibility doesn’t necessarily overlap here; neither does the line between “illegality” and enforceability. Who’s going to care if you teach English to some French people on the side? Who’s going to know? No one! Quit wasting our time in this lecture hall by asking the same stupid questions over and over!

Sorry.

But seriously, that’s how I felt for nearly three hours as these righteous and indignant Teaching Assistants assured the people organizing the information session that someone had misinformed them and that it just wasn’t fair! Just get a job, people!

The second three-hour period was much more useful. Pedagogical training. Not all of their ideas were good, but some might turn out to be applicable to me. 

I’ll let you know which ideas are good later, because right now I’m out of time!

7 thoughts on “A Short Note on Montaigne (that was longer than anticipated)

  1. Patrick says:

    Woot! Mentioned in the blog! It’s a good thing those other American Teaching Assistants are there for your soul to get violent on. It sounds like their souls are directing their violence towards the French bureaucracy, which sounds like it is really just void space so their souls are turning on themselves?

    Or does your soul realize and expect French bureaucracy to be a void space and can thus direct violence towards it because it knows it for what it really is? Does that make it not a void space?

    Oh dear.

    • jamesrnelson says:

      Wow. So the fact that French bureaucracy is just void space in disguise has tricked them into directing all of their violence simultaneously outwards and inwards. Does that mean their souls exert more violence than normally possible and natural (i.e. twice as much as their fully realized potential)? Is this what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

  2. Mike says:

    You two sound awfully concerned about souls and struggles. You’re 22. What real troubles do you have? Enjoy life, and let the little things that trouble you (and they are little) roll like water off the back of a duck. I want to hear more about how nice the weather is, how great the food is, and how wonderful it is to only be working 12 hours per week. Worry about exerting violence with your soul (?) when you are older (much).

    • Patrick says:

      It’s not our souls you should worry about, it’s those American Teaching Assistant’s! I’m safe in America far from the French Bureaucracy, and it sounds like Jimmy has them figured out.

      And he told me he hasn’t eaten any good food yet… Can you believe that?!

  3. Cody says:

    Jesus, and I thought the American bureaucracy was awful. And you can’t even legally hold a second job? What is the worlds’ governments coming to!

    Sounds like you’re taking the right path by slipping through its pores. I suppose you won’t even pay taxes either?

    • jamesrnelson says:

      Well since I am an employee of the french government, those taxes will necessarily be unavoidable, but of course when I have a second job they won’t know about it, so won’t see any tax money from it.

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