A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away this blog was supposedly going to incorporate responses to essays written by Michel de Montaigne. One of history’s oft bemoaned qualities is that it repeats itself. And so it does here: the essays of Montaigne are once more invoked to provide substance and insight to my otherwise frivolous European gallivants.
For this particular post I read a couple essays that might have been more useful towards the beginning of my time here, when I had just left my family and friends and was spending lots of time wandering around Paris alone and sitting in Coulommiers alone. In “That we laugh and cry for the same reason,” Montaigne explores the multiplicity of emotion that we can feel in response to a single event or towards a single person. “When I rattle my man, I do it with all the mettle I have, and load him with no feigned, but downright real curses; but the heat being over, if he should stand in need of me, I should be very ready to do him good: for I instantly turn the leaf. When I call him calf and coxcomb, I do not pretend to entail those titles upon him forever; neither do I think I give myself the lie in calling him an honest fellow presently after. No one quality engrosses us purely and universally.”
In “Of Solitude,” Montaigne professes that “ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and inordinate desire, do not leave us because we forsake our native country: they often follow us even to cloisters and philosophical schools; nor deserts, nor caves, hair-shirts, nor fasts, can disengage us from them.” So we should not go abroad looking for a sure-fire way of tweaking our faulty qualities or remaking our characters “Why do we seek climates warmed by another sun? Who is the man that by fleeing his country, can also flee from himself?” What he encourages is a sort of intense pleasure in one’s own company and one’s own solitude.
The following was a passage from “Of Solitude” that I remember distinctly from a French literature course I took a couple years ago (we took a day between dramas to frolic in the light and easily comprehensible Montaignian prose): “This it is to make choice of treasures that can secure themselves in such a place into which no one can enter and that is not to be betrayed by any but ourselves.” So far, so good. This seems to make sense in a Epictetian I’m-a-slave-but-I’m-still-happy sort of way, where your mind is so developed that you can defy, deny, or ignore your physical imprisonment. But then he takes this Stoic philosophy and ruthlessly, callously drives it home. This seems to be the problem with Stoicism: in order to subscribe to it fully one must emotionally detach oneself from family and friends by artificially devaluing their importance and significance in one’s life. And so it continues, callously, and probably impossibly: “Wives, children, and goods, must be had, and especially health, by him that can get it; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our own happiness must have its dependence upon them; we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat…there to laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, train, or attendance, to the end that when it shall so fall out that we must lose any or all of these, it may be no new thing to be without them.”
Such would be Montaigne’s advice to anyone in the world; I guess I would fall neatly into that category. If only I had read this essay towards the beginning of my stay so that I could have tried to put it into effect while here in France. On the other hand, I could simply take solace in the company of snaggletoothed, French, homeless women who sit next to me during the hour and a half bus ride and speak intelligently in English about poetry and cinema while at the same time displaying a curious obsession with the Mickey’s Buffalo Bill in the Wild West show at EuroDisney… That’s another option.