I’m no expert on Montaigne. I don’t observe the world having been fully empowered with Montaigne’s observations, and then, having made some astute observation or another, exclaim gleefully to myself, “Ah! Just as in Montaigne’s “Of Sleep,” wherein x, y, and z phenomena of the world have already been perfectly explained and all I need to do is regurgitate my perfect knowledge of one particular essay or another.
This is not what happens. Instead, I read his essays chronologically. Sometimes I have something to say, and sometimes I don’t and pass on to the next essay. Last night, when I saw the title, “Of Sumptuary Laws,” I thought to myself, “Oh great. This is sure to be a hit with my readers.” I could have quoted him a couple times. He had an interesting observation or two that might spark some debate. For example:
In all things, saving only in those that are evil, a change is to be feared; even the change of seasons, winds, viands, and humours. And no laws are in their true credit, but such to which God has given so long a continuance that no one knows their beginning, or that there was any other.
I could have written a post about this were I so inclined, but it would work better with that hypothetical method I mentioned earlier, which I don’t actually employ since I’m not actually an expert.
Next up after “Of Sumptuary Laws,” was “Of Sleep.”
“Well,” I thought to myself, “now that has some promise.” I’ve been hearing a lot about sleep recently, and by recently I don’t even mean over the past five years, but rather over the past two weeks. According to new research, sleep may help detox your brain. My question is: what sort of toxins are we talking about? Toxic chemicals that have gotten in through inhalation of polluted air, or toxic thoughts that sit and corrode your mental well-being? Read this article. (Clearly, my comment was facetious, but who’s to deny there may be some truth in it?)
Then, right after learning about our brains’ nightly forays into detox, I listened to a TEDtalk podcast by (someone whom I can only assume is) a noted sleep-oriented neuroscientist. In his talk he rhapsodized about the different and healthier outlook Elizabethans and pre-industrialists had of sleep as compared to that had by Industrialists, post-industrialists, and us. However, it wasn’t to be simply a rhapsody. He started making interesting links between diagnosing and treating sleep deprivation and diagnosing and treating some of those worrisome psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder.
So, needless to say, I was excited by the prospect of reading Montaigne’s thoughts on sleep…
Which unfortunately weren’t at all what I was hoping for. It starts off fine–quite an attention grabber really:
Reason directs that we should always go the same way, but not always at the same pace. And, consequently, though a wise man ought not so much to give the reins to human passions as to let him deviate from the right path, he may, notwithstanding, without prejudice to his duty, leave it to them to hasten or to slacken his speed, and not fix himself like a motionless and insensible Colossus.
But despite this promising beginning, his main point in this essay seems to be to give examples of famous Romans, who, once having resolved in their minds to commit suicide and having taken several of the necessary measures (“settl[ing] his domestic affairs, divid[ing] his money amongst his servants, and set[ting] a good edge upon a sword he had made choice of for the purpose”) they manage, somewhat amazingly, to drift into imperturbable (although not final and eternal) sleep–you know, the sleep of loud, resonant snores, the sleep requiring shouts and shakes of a noble servant to rouse the sleeper, who, once having been awoken, carries out his grisly resolve.
Clearly, humans aren’t machines. They can’t be expected to hit on all cylinders all the time. This is just good evidence of why you can’t take a single writing by anyone–not even Montaigne!–and come to a snap judgement about their quality or worth as a writer.
(However, I must admit that, even though I did know that Cato committed suicide, I did not know that Emperor Otho also did–nor could I have known, frankly, never having heard of him before.)
Happy taking-people-for-who-they-are Tuesday.