KLASSEN ON BOOKS - OCTOBER 2016 - By John Klassen
Sarah Bakewell, (1962-) is an English writer of non-fiction. She has published four books: The Smart (about an 18th century forgery); The English Dane (about a 19th century adventurer who was a key player in a revolution in Iceland to break from Danish control); How To Live: A Life of Montaigne; her latest is At the Existentialist Cafe (about the existentialist movement).
How to Live presents a history of Montaigne's life (1533-1592) within the historical contexts of his time, and of his great achievement in the Essays, published 1570-1592. Bakewell poses twenty questions on 'how to live' and presents her understanding of how Montaigne dealt with each of them. How to Live is also a history of the Essays, its place in the literary canon, how it has been constantly reinterpreted by successive generations, the ups and downs of its popularity, and why it should still speak to us today, in the 21st century. A very good book that I thoroughly enjoyed for its insights and its introduction to Michel de Montaigne.
This 'review' takes the form of a series of quotes from How to Live to, I hope, give a flavour of the book and of Montaigne and why both are well worth reading. (Phrases in italics are from Montaigne; all other entries are from Bakewell)
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne
The Essays is thus much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history, while starting out afresh get almost every time with that cry of 'How did he know all that about me?'
Flaubert: "Don't read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live."
If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it.
In his library, Montaigne had various inscriptions put on the wooden beams in the ceiling. These included:
"How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely?" Euripides
"Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain/And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man." Pliny the Elder
"There is no more beautiful life than that of a carefree man; Lack of care is a truly painless evil." Sophocles
What was unusual in [Montaigne] was his instinct that the observer is as unreliable as the observed. The two kinds of movement interact like variables in a complex mathematical equation, with the result that one can find no secure point from which to measure anything. To try to understand the world is like grasping a cloud of gas, or a liquid, using hands that are themselves made of gas or water, so that they dissolved as you close them.
Virginia Woolf considered Montaigne to be the first writer to, "pay such attention to the simple feeling of being alive." 'Observe, observe perpetually' was his rule, she said--and what he observed was, above all this river of life running through his existence.
As Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out. The only one who can keep you mindful of this is you: It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly...What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.
As Montaigne got older, his desire to pay astounded attention to life did not decline; it intensified. By the end of the long process of writing the Essays, he had almost perfected the trick. Knowing that the life that remained to him could not be of great length, he said, I try to increase it in weight, I try to arrest the speed of its flight by the speed with which I grasp it...The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it.
One unsuitable text which Montaigne discovered for himself at the age of seven or eight, and which changed his life, was Ovid's Metamorphoses.
'Forget much of what you learn' and 'Be slow-witted' became two of Montaigne's best answers to the question of how to live. They freed him to think wisely rather than glibly; they allowed him to avoid the fanatical notions and foolish deceptions that ensnared other people; and they let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led--which was all he really wanted to do.
...his feeling for the multiplicity of perspectives on every human situation, a feeling that runs like an artery through the Essays.
Whenever a few individuals do break free...it is often because their eyes have been opened by the study of history. Learning of similar past tyrannies, they recognize the pattern in their own society. Instead of accepting what they are born into, they acquire the art of slipping out of it and seeing everything from a different angle--a trick Montaigne, in the Essays, would make his characteristic mode of thinking and writing. Also, there are usually too few of these free spirits to do any good. They do not work together, but live alone in their imaginings.
Four themes resound throughout the Essays: habit, nature, perspective, friendship.
There were three philosophies that Montaigne turned to in times of grief or fear, as well as for guidance in dealing tight more minor everyday irritations: Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism.
The key is to cultivate mindfulness...Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world--and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, one who can never be bored with life. ...for Montaigne, learning to live appropriately is the great and glorious masterpiece'of human life.
One should be able to accept everything just as it is, willingly, without giving in to the futile longing to change it. Montaigne seems to find this trick easy: it came to him by nature.
We are, I know not how, double within ourselves.
Montaigne inclined more towards a position known as Fideism, which placed no reliance at all on human reason or endeavour, and denied that humans could attain knowledge of religious truths except through faith. Montaigne may not have felt a great desire for faith, but he did feel a strong aversion to all human pretension--and the result was the same.
All Pyrrho [founder of Pyrrhonian Scepticism] renounced, according to Montaigne, was the pretension most people fall prey to: that of regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth. This was what really interested Montaigne in the Sceptical tradition...their desire to take everything provisionally and questioningly. This was just what he always tried to do himself.
Scepticism guided him at work, in his home life, and in his writing. The Essays are suffused with it: he filled his pages with words such as 'perhaps', 'to some extent', 'I think', 'It seems to me', and so on..,
...for Montaigne, philosophy is incarnate. It lives in individual, fallible humans; therefore it is riddled with uncertainty.The philosophers, it seems to me, have hardly touched this chord.
We, and our judgement, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling unceasingly. Thus nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion.
This might seem a dead end, closing off all possibility of knowing anything, since nothing can be measured against anything else, but it can also open up a new way of living. It makes everything more complicated and more interesting: the world becomes a vast multi-dimensional landscape in which every point of view must be taken into account. All we need to do is to remember this fact, so as to become wise at our own expense, as Montaigne puts it.
Even for him, the discipline of attention required constant effort: We must really strain our soul to be aware of own fallibility...
It was, in fact, the Essays' Scepticism that made it such a success on first publication, alongside its Stoicism and Epicureanism...the early Montaigne was embraced by the orthodox as a pious Sceptical sage, a new Pyrrho as well as a new Seneca; the author of a book at once consoling and morally improving. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to discover that by end of the following century he was banned with horror and that the Essays was consigned to the Index of Prohibited Books, there to stay for almost a hundred and eight years.
It is absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the use of our own, and go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside. Yet there is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting only on our own rump.
In some ways, Montaigne's world became a private universe unto itself, with its own values and an atmosphere of freedom. Yet he never made it a fortress. He insisted on welcoming anyone who arrived at the gate, though he knew the risks and admitted that sometimes it meant going to bed not knowing whether he would be murdered in his sleep by some itinerant soldier or vagrant. But the principle was
In the view of William James, as of Leonard Woolf and Montaigne, we do not live immured in our separate perspectives, like Descartes in his room. We live porously and sociably. We can glide out of our own minds, if only for a few moments, in order to occupy another being's point of view. This ability is the real meaning of 'Be convivial"...
Habit makes everything look bland; it is sleep-inducing. Jumping to a different perspective is a way of waking oneself up again. Montaigne loved this trick, and used it constantly in his writing.
[Montaigne] does not want to show that modern civilization is corrupt, but that all human perspectives on the world are corrupt and partial by nature....The only hope of emerging from the fog of misinterpretation is to remain alert to its existence; that is, to become wise at one's own expense. But even this only provides an imperfect solution. We can never escape our limitations altogether.
Montaigne, by contrast, saw himself as a thoroughly ordinary man in every respect, except for his unusual habit of writing things down. He bears the entire form of the human condition, as everyone does, and is therefore happy to cast himself as a mirror for others....That is the whole point of the Essays. If no one could recognize themselves in him, why would anyone read him?
Transcendental humours frighten me, said Montaigne. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another's point of view, and 'goodwill'--none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.
There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally; and the most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being.
More often, [Montaigne] is admired for his stubborn insistence on maintaining normality in extraordinary circumstances, and his refusal to compromise his independence.
Montaigne, the political conservative, proved himself a literary revolutionary from the start, writing like no one else and letting his pen follow the natural rhythms of conversation instead of formal lines of construction. He omitted connections, skipped steps of reasoning, and left his material lying in solid chunks, coupe or 'cut' like freshly chopped steaks. I do not see the whole of anything, he wrote:
Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide but as deep as I know how. And most often I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view.
Laurence Stern and Montaigne both engaged constantly with a world which always generates more things to write about--so why stop? This makes both accidental philosophers: naturalists on a field trip into the human soul, without maps or plans, and having no idea where they will end up, or what they do when they get there.
Montaigne did not smear his words around like Joyce, but he did work by revisiting, elaborating and accreting. Although he returned to his work constantly, he hardly ever seemed to get the urge to cross things out--only to keep adding more. The spirit of repentance was alien to him in writing, just as it was in life, where he remained firmly wedded to amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens.
The only thing that stopped him at last was his death. As Virginia Woolf wrote, the Essays came to a halt because they reached, "not their end, but their suspension in full career."
People would always find things [in Montaigne] that he never intended to say. In doing so, they would actually create those things. An able reader often discovers in other men's writings perfections beyond those that the author put in or perceived, and lends them richer meanings and aspects.
I have read in Livy a hundred things that another man has not read in him. Plutarch has read in him a hundred besides the ones I could read, and perhaps besides what the author had put in.
There can be no really ambitious writing without an acceptance that other people will do what they like with your work, and change it almost beyond recognition. Montaigne accepted this principle in art, as he did in life. He even enjoyed it. People form strange ideas of you; they adapt you to their own purposes. By going with the flow and relinquishing control of the process, you gain all the benefits of the old Hellenistic trick of amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens. In Montaigne's case, amor fati was one of the answers to the general question of how to live, and as it happened it also opened the way to his literary immortality. What he left behind was all the better for being imperfect, ambiguous, inadequate, and vulnerable to distortion. 'Oh Lord,' one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, 'by all means let me be misunderstood.'
Modern readers who approach Montaigne asking what he can do for them are asking the same question he himself asked of Seneca, Sextus and Lucretius--and the question they asked of their predecessors. This is what Virginia Woolf's chain of minds really means: not a scholarly tradition, but a series of self-interested individuals puzzling over their own lives, yet doing it co-operatively. All share a quality that can simply be thought of as 'humanity': the experience of being a thinking, feeling being who must get on with ordinary human life--though Montaigne willingly extended the union of minds to embrace other species too.
I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff.
It was not that age automatically conferred wisdom. On the contrary, he thought the old were more given to vanities and imperfections than the young. They were inclined to a silly and decrepit pride, a tedious prattle, prickly and unsociable humours, superstition, and a ridiculous concern for riches. But this was the twist, for it was in the adjustment to such flaws that the value of aging lay. Old age provides an opportunity to recognize one's fallibility in a way youth finds difficult. Seeing one's decline written on the body and mind, one accepts that one is limited and human. By understanding that age does not make one wise, one attains a kinds of wisdom after all.
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
...Montaigne offers more than an incitement to self-indulgence. The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life and in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgement, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world. It is unthinkable to Montaigne that one could ever gratify heaven and nature by committing massacre and homicide, a belief universally embraced in all religions. To believe that life could demand any such thing is to forget what day-to-day existence really is.
Tags: John Klassen