I set myself to reading Montaigne this morning with the intention of writing a post that actually incorporated some of his ideas. I was hoping to fuse it with my own experiences over the past couple days since that is presumably the raison d’être of this blog. Instead, I’m afraid I’ll have to confine myself to Montaigne’s essay without much overlap into discussion of my week so far.
The past several essays have come and gone almost completely unremarked. His erstwhile obsession with death is unbecoming to a blog which should celebrate the vitality and excitement of the point where cultures and languages meet—which is to say myself, or my mind. Thus I gave you a rapturous (though brief—concise maybe) post on the Palais Garnier, containing lots of pictures showing how I’ve been going all over the place. If I had discussed Montaigne, you’d have been forced to read about how “to study philosophy is to prepare oneself to die.”
It was therefore with some reluctance that I resolved to write on Montaigne today. But to my amused surprise the title of today’s essay is “Of the Force of Imagination,” surely an interesting topic, not necessarily related to death (though I wouldn’t put it past Montaigne to bring death into it). It started interestingly, with some strange examples from antiquity of people who imagined things until they became true. For example, “Cippus, King of Italy,…having one day been a very delighted spectator of a bullfight, and having all the night dreamed that he had horns on his head, did, by the force of imagination, really cause them to grow there.” Interesting, no doubt, but difficult to believe.
The amusing surprise came a few pages in, when his talk of the force of imagination brought him to discourse extensively on impotence. To read it discussed in his half-disguised, antiquated prose made me think of all those Shakespearean innuendoes. I will now provide a couple extensive extracts for your own amusement.
“The indocile liberty of this member is very remarkable, so importunately unruly in its timidity and impatience, when we do not require it, and so unseasonably disobedient when we stand most in need of it: so imperiously contesting in authority with the will, and with so much haughty obstinacy denying all solicitation, both of hand and mind. And yet, though his rebellion is so universally complained of, and that proof is thence deduced to condemn him, if he had, nevertheless, feed me to plead his cause, I should, peradventure, bring the rest of his fellow-members into suspicion of complotting this mischief against him, out of pure envy at the importance and pleasure especial to his employment; and to have, by confederacy, armed the whole world against him, by malevolently charging him alone, with their common offense. For let any one consider, whether there is any one part of our bodies that does not often refuse to perform its office at the precept of the will, and that does not often exercise its function in defiance of her command.”
But here he makes excuses for this “offending member,” saying that it is not the only part of our bodies to act without our explicit consent. So why be angry or embarrassed by it?
“The same cause that animates this member does also, without our knowledge, animate the lungs, pulse, and heart, the sight of a pleasing object imperceptibly diffusing a flame through all our parts, with a feverish motion. Is there nothing but these veins and muscles that swell and flag without the consent, not only of the will, but even of our knowledge also? We do not command our hairs to stand on end, nor our skin to shiver either with fear or desire; the hands often convey themselves to parts to which we do not direct them; the tongue will be interdict, and the voice congealed, when we know not how to help it. When we have nothing to eat, and would willingly forbid it, the appetite does not, for all that, forbear to stir up the parts that are subject to it, no more nor less than the other appetite we were speaking of, and in, like manner, as unseasonably leaves us, when it thinks fit.”
My dad has asked me if there is anything that Montaigne doesn’t write about. Now you know; nothing is off limits.
*NOTE: I figured that pictures wouldn’t be appropriate.