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!
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!