This was supposed to be written yesterday but it never was. It’s the first and probably not the last post that will fail to adhere to the every-other-day pattern of my blog.
This time Montaigne came through with some pertinent things to say that can be strongly related to my experiences. Instead of talking about proper ways of conducting a ceasefire, he’s talking about speech! Exactly the thing that has brought me to France! He says,
So we see in the gift of eloquence, wherein some have such a facility and promptness, and that which we call a present wit so easy that they are ever ready upon all occasions, and never to be surprised; and others more heavy and slow, never venture to utter anything but what they have long premeditated, and taken great pains to fit and prepare.
As for my own experiences in France thus far, I exemplify each of these by turns. When in a conversation with more than two French people at once, I say almost nothing unless directly addressed. Instead I sit there and try desperately to follow what is being said. There is no room for wit or eloquence. I simply struggle to keep my footing, not bothering with any fancy maneuvers that might trip me up. And even in conversation with one French person, where I am obliged to speak, I make myself understood, but often so circuitously that the original point of what I said has been obscured or lost. Presumably this will get better with practice, but true eloquence is yet a ways off.
Par contre, when I am with other English speakers, the eloquence that I strive for so longingly in French spreads its wings, which have remained unexercised and encaged within a foreign tongue, and takes flight, soaring and dipping and dancing through the sky. I feel so natural and free in English. Judging by the loquacity of the English speakers who I went out with yesterday evening they were experiencing the same sense of freedom restored. Perhaps these were even people who would normally choose words carefully, but who were so thrilled by the familiarity of their own language.
But of course Montaigne was not seeking to extend his differentiation between spontaneous, effortless speech and methodical, premeditated speech to people seeking to express themselves in foreign languages. The trajectory of his essay therefore does not coalesce with mine but is nonetheless interesting. He says that the person who meditates less on what s/he says, says things more gracefully and approachably. What he means to say is that over-thinking and over-exerting bog down a person’s thoughts and actions. He says, “I know experimentally, the disposition of nature so impatient of tedious and elaborate premeditation, that if it do not go frankly and gaily to work, it can perform nothing to purpose. We say of some compositions that they stink of oil and of the lamp, by reason of a certain rough harshness that laborious handling imprints upon those where it has been employed.” He is cautioning against overworking your own ideas and projects to the point where it is obvious that they were achieved with great difficulty. The implementation of my 30-minute time limit was essentially conceived to the same purpose.
And here we find ourselves.