It can seem cruel to pile on a form of self blaming to a grieving process. Loss alone is difficult enough without a sense of personal responsibility for handling some part of an important relationship better in some way. But I believe that some self-reflective guilt can be really important in processing loss, because it allows us to grow from the experience and handle our current and future relationships a bit better.

It also allows us, in a very Nietzschean way, to feel less like a helpless victim of misfortune and more like someone who can take comfort in responsibility. It is our way of self overcoming, taking on the weight of the past as a way of freeing oneself in the future.

I wrote yesterday about our family’s grief over the loss of our nine-year old puggle Dollie. In that reflection, I noted my own responsibility for her early death — for not being more disciplined about the food that I gave her and the exercise that I allowed, or forced, her to participate in.

Over the past two years, I have been extraordinarily disciplined about my own wellness. I eat a highly restrictive diet that most people would consider no fun at all. I exercise five or six days per week for at least an hour at a time. I have had success at various points in my life taking weight off, but I have had great difficulty maintaining my success. So far at least, this effort has been different. A long-term commitment to a disciplined diet combined with regular exercise and a commitment to continuous improvement is working for me. I will probably need to tweak it as I go to avoid injury and maintain the right caloric balance, but so far so good.

The experience with Dollie, however, is forcing me to reassess if such a personal commitment is good enough. Do I also have a responsibility to share what I have learned with my animal companions and with my children? Our dog Bogey, also a puggle, is three years younger than Dollie but well on his way to following her health trajectory if he does not start eating better and walking more frequently. No one else can do that for him, I have put him on this path and have to take him off it.

It’s a bit less clear if I bear the same responsibility for my children. I am certain that I would have lived a happier life if I could have started off with a healthier diet and approach to exercise and stayed on it. I would have had more self esteem, I also may have been less prone to periods of depression and anxiety. But how much of this can I pass on to my kids without seeming like an annoying scold who they immediately turn off? And is it even possible to force kids to have a healthy lifestyle if looking and feeling better aren’t personal goals?

I’m unsure of the answers, but it might be the right time to start the conversations. They can see for themselves that their parents exercise frequently and do not overindulge with food. It will be up to them to care enough to do the work, which shouldn’t be that hard for rapidly growing boys.

If they eventually choose to live healthier lives as a way of honoring Dollie’s memory, all the better. But perhaps that is just my own wishful thinking. That’s fine too — a little wishful thinking can make the hard work of grieving go down a little easier.

I’ll never forget the first thing an employee at the dog shelter told me after he brought Dollie out to meet out family in May 2014– he said Dollie was obviously a very intelligent dog because she made great eye contact. I have no idea if there’s an actual correlation between eye contact and canine intelligence, but as someone who has done much public speaking training, I immediately attached to a creature who had mastered this high level skill. And it was true, Dollie had a gaze that would just not let go of you.

This same employee told us that Dollie was dropped off at the shelter by a family that was moving away and couldn’t keep her. I found this story impossible to believe, because Dollie was too sweet for any warm hearted family to walk away from. I imagine that the real story is that she was a breeding dog, abandoned by a puppy mill that no longer had use for her. When I’d take her on walks, Dollie always gave me the sense of being a mother on the lookout for her lost puppies — and sometimes she would follow her nose to a path with great purpose.

After two years, we found a long lost puppy for Dollie to look after, a younger male puggle named Bogey (or sometimes Bogie … we never really know how to spell him.) We more commonly call him Bobo, the Spanish word for clown, and it’s apt, because Bobo is a silly character next to Dollie’s stately emotional leadership. Bobo was also a rescue and he shows it. The poor guy gives the sense of being abandoned cruelly early in his life and he clings constantly, mostly to me but also to Dollie. He will miss her terribly.

I’ve never met a dog with as much pure love in her heart than Dollie. She would prefer to lick everyone in the face to the point where they could take it no more, but learned as she aged to back off. She also let go of some of her territoriality and let Bobo take over as the voice of home defense. At a younger age, Dollie would stand at the fence and confront a pitbull face to face. She had no fear. And every fluffy dog in the neighborhood had to beware, because they were her natural enemies.

Every one of my children has a picture of Dollie as the background of their favorite device. They created a mythology around her — the Wisdom of the Dollie — that elevated her to the leadership role in our household and sometimes the entire world. And it was well earned.

Today Dollie is gone and I feel some guilt about it. She was morbidly obese by the time of her death and I am largely responsible for that. When Bobo came along, he brought with him an aggressive debating style that would ask for people food until he was satisfied. Not wanting to leave Dollie out, I also gave the food to her. And as they both puffed up, Dollie became less and less active. The walks became less frequent. By the end, Dollie had to be carried up the stairs to sleep with us. If anyone in the family is angry that Dollie left us too soon, I will shoulder that blame. I’ll try to do better with Bobo and future canines.

I had a couple opportunities this week to have last moments with Dollie. I laid on the couch with her yesterday and rubbed her stomach for a long time. She seemed contented in a way that she hadn’t been for awhile. This morning, after she drank some water, I carried her over to the couch and pet her. Those brown, expressive eyes looked different. They had clouded over and her time was coming to an end.

We will miss Dollie terribly, but she leaves us with nothing but good memories and there are very few creatures in the world of any species who do that for you in life. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

I have taken a break from Montaigne for about a month, and I felt the urge to return to it today. However, I also feel an anti-urge to avoid the subject matter that dominated my previous series of essays. With the benefit of some time and space, I have found peace from some of the emotions that were top of mind (tormenting is probably too strong of a word, but just barely) at that time.

I am also fighting a destructive urge to go back and destroy that series, and pretend that it never existed. Perhaps no one would even notice or care, but to me it seems like a false ending. A better way to reframe that series might be to step back and explain why I had such a desire to express myself in such a fashion. To reach that destination, I’m going to write about writing while referring to a Montaigne essay about sex, because why not?

The interesting thing for me about the new essays in the Montaigne Project is that I have very little idea who read it or what conclusions they drew from it. It might be better that way. Many issues I addressed in it revolved around subjects I had recently explored in therapy, which was risky for me. Why put myself out there like that? The ready answer that if you’re going to write about Montaigne you have to adopt Montaigne-like self reflection, and that has some truth. But the real reason is that I had no one in particular to whom I could tell my story, so I figured the “message in a bottle” approach was my next best option.

Montaigne begins his essay “That difficulty increases desire” with a quote from Seneca:

Sorrow for something lost is equal to the fear of losing it.

This is a wonderful quote that well captures the mindset of someone who struggles with a fear of abandonment. I don’t need to give a human example either — I can see it every minute of every day with my dog Bogie. He has this intense fear that I’m going to walk away and not come back. This is reinforced every time I leave the house, but the real sorrow for something lost came earlier in his life, when Bogie was abandoned by his first human and taken to an animal shelter. Bogie’s sorrow never enters the past, it is his constant companion and I know that I need to soothe that sorrow as I comfort him.

Sometimes the loss is not for a living breathing thing either. For me, the original Montaigne project from 2011 is something that was immediate and alive in me for the more than three months it took to write it and for the next six months as I attempted to sell it for publication. The fact that it did not sell was a loss, but even more so was the loss of not writing it, of not discovering something new in Montaigne every day. And so I feared that if I could not find new material in Montaigne during a trying time in my life — and the world’s life — then perhaps it was permanently lost to me. This fear drove me to bring it back.

So what are our desires? Montaigne makes the case that it is yearning itself that summons our desires, which then take shape based on their novelty and difficulty to acquire:

Our appetite scorns and passes over what it holds in its hand, so as to run after what it does not have. To forbid us something is to make us want it.

But here’s the interesting part — Montaigne argues that it is the loss, the failure to acquire or to hold, that makes an object of desire alluring. So while Montaigne held my interest long enough to complete my project and take my best shot at pitching a book, if I had succeeded in getting it published, I would likely have no interest at all in returning to the subject now.  It would just be another line item on my resume by now:

We are equally troubled by desiring something and by possessing it. Coldness in mistresses is most painful, but in very truth compliance and availability are even more so; that is because the yearning which is born in us from the high opinion in which we hold the object of our love sharpens our love, and the choler similarly make it hot: but satiety engenders a feeling of insipidness; our passion then is blunted, hesitant, weary and half-asleep.

Which brings me to the subject matter of many of these new essays, which just happened to touch on desire. That object of desire was, in fact, no different than a desire to acquire literary fame or to get to call oneself a published author. To desire a closeness with a therapist in the context of a transference relationship is perfectly normal, no different than a writer desiring an audience for his work. What makes the closeness so appealing is the impossibility of it being anything more than what it is — a professional relationship with strict ethical boundaries drawn around it.

Severing such a relationship prematurely, therefore, is no different than a dog losing its human companion or a writer receiving his final rejection letter from a publishing house. This loss, inevitably, makes whatever relationship that existed before seem more beautiful, perfect and impossible to live without.

These are all illusions, of course. Bogie has never had a better friend than me, regardless of the loss he carries around with him from his previous abandonment. My original Montaigne Project was an interesting collection of writing, but it wasn’t the last word on things I can express — even as it relates to Montaigne. And there was nothing magical about my last therapy relationship, it just ended too soon for me to fully process what I was feeling, so those feelings took on an operatic scale.

And human beings have an endless capacity to make the impossible and lost seem magical, which has applications to religion as well.  To drive home this point, Montaigne quotes Ovid:

What is allowed has no charm: what is not allowed, we burn to do.

Should I even pretend to link this piece to Montaigne? Nah, it’s an essay, that’s enough.

I’ve been spending a lot of my quarantine free time on movies and I’m still pondering writing a long series about Eric Rohmer’s films. What’s holding me back are the Rohmer movies not available anywhere, it’s very frustrating.  Why are three of the four Rohmer tales of the seasons available, but not “A Tale of Springtime?” Why are four of the six Comedies and Parables available, but not the first two (“The Aviator’s Wife” and “A Good Marriage”?) I was able to find some movies on Facets, but they aren’t shipping out DVDs at the moment, so I wait.  I guess I could start with the Six Moral Tales, all available on the Criterion Channel, and maybe I will.  Stay tuned.

Rohmer helped me establish my Iron Law of Film Locales — any movie set in Paris is, by definition, watchable. That also applies to TV series, which led me to dip into the new Netflix series “The Eddy.” It’s about jazz musicians in contemporary Paris, with the first two episodes directed by Damien Chazelle.  What could possibly go wrong? Well, I’ve only watched the first two shows and my problem with it is that it doesn’t follow the rhythm of European cinema. If you set a series in Paris, you damn well better match the atmosphere, and for me that means going easy on the plot. I really want to spend my time soaking in the music and atmosphere and getting to know the characters, but instead I’m rushed into a semi-interesting murder mystery involving the Russian mob and some really stupid police work. Sigh … hoping once they move on from Chazelle (who, to be honest, is way too obsessed with plot in his own movies) they might chill out and enjoy their can’t-fail status.

I haven’t revisited many previously-watched movies during lockdown, with one exception — I’ve rewatched Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic “Persona” twice. The first time, deep in my transference obsessed days, I was blown away by what a perfect depiction of transference goes on in the movie. But my second time through this week, I had a new perspective. “Persona” is often compared to experimental cinema of the 1960s and especially the French New Wave. But I think the movie actually most closely resembles the work of Alfred Hitchcock and should be considered a horror movie. There are some genuinely terrifying moments in “Persona” and the mindfuckery going on in nearly every frame feels much more immediately terrifying than the genre’s standard worries about assailants with knives entering your home. Watch it in a double feature with “Vertigo” and you could very well be enjoying the two best movies ever made.

Final thought — I filled in long-neglected hole in my movie watching resume a few weeks ago by finally catching Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.” It’s one of those movies that ten times as many people talk about than have actually seen it — in part because the movie is such a perfect depiction of perspectivism. I think “Rashomon” is a great story, but I’m not sure if it really belongs in the canon of Kurosawa’s great films. It’s very clunky, directed more like a stage play than a movie. The happy ending seems tacked on to distract from the story’s obviously dark message about truth and human nature. Even the plot, while brilliant in its broad construction, could be more finely drawn in its detail. The movie actually screams out for a remake because it can be done better.

And with that heresy, I mark this piece complete.

Here’s another recent story about Montaigne in the age of the Coronavirus. The writer in this case is teaching a Zoom-based seminar on Montaigne, which would obviously appeal to me greatly. This is a mostly Christian-centric examination of Montaigne. One of the great things about the essays how many different ways Montaigne can be examined. I was just thinking today about the similarities between his work and the I Ching, for example, although I don’t feel I have the depth of Taoist knowledge to write about it. Anyway, I highly recommend this essay and will remain on the lookout for more.

Source: Faith in a Time of Doubt and Uncertainty

Good to see that others are following my call to turn towards Montaigne in this period of social isolation. Irish Times writer Lucy Sweeney Byrne last week recommended Montaigne’s On Solitude as a short piece that extols “the merits of being alone.”

Last month, Aeon published a thoughtful piece by Dorian Alston, also about On Solitude. His piece entitled “Don’t Take Life So Seriously” is very well done and much in the spirit of my project.

Then there is this essay by Gabrielle Nissim on Gariwo.  “Immerse Yourself and Get Lost in Friendship” is very much in the spirit of this recent essay from my project.

Finally, a short, unsigned blog post in Psychology Today quotes Montaigne on the value of making the most of solitude and self reflection. I somewhat took issue with this argument in my wrap up post, but Montaigne is quoted accurately.

 

 

Before I begin, a hat tip is in order to one of my readers for pointing a recent story in Wired from Virginia Heffernan that quotes Montaigne. Finding Montaigne stories in the wild and commenting on them isn’t a bad future use for this blog, so I thank the reader for pointing it out and encourage others to do the same. And for anyone feeling jealous that one reader has moved to the head of the pack, I just want to assure you that I love all of my readers and wish you could all be Bart’s People.

As someone who has eaten many plant-based burgers in his day (I was a full-on vegetarian from 1993-1996, slowly adding fish and poultry into the mix over the next decade), I’m especially interested in the linked story, but have to admit that I haven’t read it yet. That normally doesn’t stop one on the Internet (especially a man) from opining, but I will defer to a future time.

Instead, I am going to use this essay to wrap up my 20-day project about Montaigne and Solitude.  Yes, I am bringing this series of essays in for a landing, even though we are all still sequestered, even though I haven’t actually written about the subject of solitude since week one, even though I’ve promised before to write less often but have churned out a post a day anyway. I may still keep posting daily, it’s better that I don’t try to predict my behavior, but I can see now that this particular well has run dry.

Montaigne actually doesn’t have a whole lot of reassuring or even useful things to tell us about our current predicament. He was basically retiring from a life that he found too beyond his control and felt the need to retreat to his tower. Talk about privilege — what a life you live when you have the option of retiring to ponder only yourself and how you relate to all the other great men and thoughts in history. The fact that something valuable came out of it was good fortune for the world, but Montaigne’s life provides no useful model for any human who has to earn a living and care for others.

So the question of Montaigne’s utility to us ends up being not about solitude at all — it has to do with introspection. Does it have any real purpose in our lives? I believe it has, but it also carries significant risks if carried on for too long. Introspection must be the opposite of rumination. It cannot get stuck on a single subject matter or event and endless turn it around until it becomes a mystical object. Introspection has to keep moving, it has to touch on multiple subjects and conditions — and it has to reach a definitive end point. This piece by psychologist Tasha Eurich does a really nice job of explaining the difference between the two. At the risk of oversimplifying her thoughts, it comes down to introspecting just long enough to find insight and not a moment more.

I could keep this version of the Montaigne Project going indefinitely. The first time through, I wrote essay to essay, creating an end point for the project. This quote-by-quote approach, on the other hand, is open ended to the point of absurdity. Even after all the quotes are dried up, I could just change the configurations of the quotes to examine a completely different issue. And maybe there is value in doing something like that for Montaigne scholars.  As someone with a pathetic knowledge of French and no hope of translating renaissance era French, I couldn’t begin to pretend that kind of expertise. (See this essay for more background on that personal trait.)

But ultimately, this project runs the risk of keeping me in a state of endless introspection at a time when the world is changing rapidly, and it seems a bit foolish to be so focused on the self. We’re still in this state of isolation, but we will soon come out of it and into a different world, one that has seen the most massive economic contraction in our lives. We really have no idea how quickly — even if — the world will rebound from this. The early signs from the U.S., where the first efforts at economic protection have benefitted the wealthy very well and have been scattershot for everyone else, signal great danger ahead.

Even that economic recovery is contingent on the world eventually getting a handle on this public health catastrophe. How many people may die in the Southern Hemisphere in coming months when COVID-19 roars across Africa and Southern Asia? In what form might it return — which it will — before we have an effective vaccine?  And how quickly will we be able to manufacture and distribute that vaccine? How many more periods of quarantine do we have ahead of us before the world reached herd immunity? Given all this, this is a time for thoughts to flow outward.

For me, this is especially the case because of the temptation of reliving, even as a form of tortured escape, what I’ve gone through the past several months. After years of trying, I finally found a therapy relationship that started to work for me. A Pandora’s Box opened, I felt completely disoriented, then the relationship fell apart. There’s ample material there to ruminate upon endlessly and to relate it to everything I come across daily. Or it might just be better to declare myself bored with the subject and move on.

There’s another risk involved in continuing the current series of essays — I could contaminate the memory of the previous essays.  The main reason that I returned to writing about Montaigne was to create a new forum for the old work that I did — basically a new hook for discovering the old work. But if this work just drags on and on with tedious over examination of material no one but me should care about, it could very well make people less likely to take a look at the old work.  Trust me on this — the old work is better.

So, mymontaigneproject.org is not going away and neither is the Facebook page. I will likely continue to publish new essays when I feel like it. I will probably shift the focus of the pieces outward, which is very much not in the spirit of Montaigne … and it’s possible no one will read them.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I glad that I returned to this project, and I consider it time well spent. Thanks for reading.

Very few contemporary people would consider curiosity a vice. In fact, it’s considered a critical virtue. You want to hire people with curiosity for people and ideas. You want friends curious about your interests. You want a partner curious not only about your actions, but what you are thinking and where you want to go in life.

Oddly, Montaigne only seems to speak of curiosity in the most negative possible terms. At one point he says bluntly “curiosity is always a fault.” In another place he equates it with frivolity and sloth. When speaking of books, he recommends poetry to the literary curious, because he finds if frivolous, full of disguise and chatter. Here’s another attack:

The most gross and puerile of rhapsodies are to be found among thinkers who penetrate most deeply into the highest matters: they are engulfed by their curiosity and their arrogance.

This made me curious about the etymology of the word. Montaigne is using the Old French word curiosete, which derives from the Latin curiositatem, (a desire of knowledge or inquisitiveness,) but also from curiosus, which can mean meddlesome. That would make Montaigne’s aversion to it more understandable, but it doesn’t fit in context. The modern translators are correct to use the contemporary word curiosity as we speak and understand it now, it captures Montaigne’s intended meaning.

This made me think of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” and it turns out it originated in Montaigne’s time, except it wasn’t worded that way. Both Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare used variations of the phrase “care killed the cat.” That proverb has a meaning closer to the meddlesomeness than care as we understand it now, so perhaps it makes sense that by the mid-19th Century, it had fully morphed into the phrase that carries us all the way to an Iggy Pop song from 1979.

We assume that curiosity kills the cat by inviting her to roam into trouble, unconcerned with all the risks she’s overlooking. That seems to me to evoke a different word — impulsivity. There’s no question that impulsivity can be a dangerous trait for any creature. But is it really the same as curiosity? The cat could ponder the bookcase, for example, and be curious without deciding to climb it, which is impulsive.

Which returns me to what Montaigne says about curiosity, because he is not attacking the trait for being impulsive and leading to a feline’s demise. He’s attacking its idleness, the fact that the cat could just sit there and ponder the bookcase. It is most specifically an attack on philosophers burrowing deeply into big ideas and never leaving the rabbit hole.

Which sounds a bit like self criticism to me. What is Montaigne if not a person endlessly curious about himself. I know this because he pushes me into the same space and it can be really uncomfortable to dwell there. Replaying the same life stories from multiple vantage points, either with or without a guide, can lead to tremendous personal insights, but at what cost and to what use? For Montaigne, the end result was literary immortality. It’s impossible to argue with his success. But for someone following his path, either through writing or just thought, that lottery number is not coming up again. You have to settle for different rewards.

One place this project has led me is an examination of who is curious about me. Through these essays and the original ones in the project, I have revealed an incredible amount of information about myself. Who attends to this knowledge is interesting to me, but even more interesting is who does not show any care about it.  Who appears to have absolutely no curiosity in what I am doing right now, what I’m thinking, and what I am describing from my recent past?

The line between meddlesomeness and curiosity has been there from the very beginning of the word. I can understand if someone has a difficult time calibrating between all-in interest and none at all. Perhaps it is easier to go through life with an on-off switch when your natural instincts are to become fully enmeshed when engaged.

I suppose what I’d like from some people, maybe only one in particular, is enough curiosity to ask what’s going on with me. Why have I been behaving differently over the past several months?

I once told a story about a fictional village that has the world’s slowest speed limit. Everyone is expected to drive no faster than 5 miles per hour through the town, and it is far enough away from the beaten path that few outsiders ever traverse their roads.

The town, though, has no radar guns and the police never actually enforce the suffocating speed trap. What holds everyone roughly in harmony are the knowing eyes of neighbors. They see you when you dart past them. They remember the time you raced hurriedly to drop your kids at school. And you remember all of their transgressions as well. It’s the memory of past abuses that keeps everyone in equilibrium and from driving too insanely, because everyone is a storehouse of past bad acts, neatly tucked away as cudgels to be used if your personal sins are ever put on public display.

If everything is a violation, but nothing punished, what is lost? Sure, the impulsivity is probably kept in check. But why isn’t anyone in the village curious about what would happen if, say, the speed limit were raised to 30. Or if people had conversations about the times they had to drive faster, and maybe learned a bit about each other along the way, instead of holding back the partial evidence for future attack.

Curiosity is the first step towards action and greater understanding. This is one way that modern people have created progress in the world, by encouraging free thought and openly dreaming about a better world. When you notice curiosity, be thankful for it.  When you see it disappear, be concerned.

 

 

 

 

I’m taking another day break from Montaigne, which might become a more frequent occurrence now as I transition from riffing off of his work to writing personal essays in his style, without his words. Today is a holiday and therefore a day for gatherings, and I know most people aren’t having them today. But the normal rituals put me in mind of a movie that begins and ends with holiday gatherings, Woody Allen’s 1986 masterpiece “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

I think people who want to cancel Woody Allen at this point are fully justified, and I’m not opposed to the idea of putting artists who grossly violate human beings into early retirement. But I’m going to ask for a special waiver in the case of Hannah, because it goes a long way to making the case that Woody is an extremely dark character.  The movie basically predicts the road ahead for Mia Farrow in the next seven years, and if for nothing more than the forensic value, it’s worth preserving.

There are other reasons to watch the movie, of course. It’s funny in some extremely inventive ways. Sometimes Woody is guilty of letting only his alter ego make the wry observations, but here every character is in on the gig. The arguments between Hannah’s mother and father, in particular, are incredibly harsh but insightful. And it’s an amazing collection of characters and performances. Both Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Oscars for their roles, but so too could have Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Maureen O’Sullivan and, especially, Max Von Sydow. And that’s not even the full list of memorable turns.  Sam Waterson, Carrie Fisher, Tony Roberts, Daniel Stern, Lloyd Nolan and Julie (Marge Simpson) Kavner turned into brilliant cameos. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black and John Turturro made appearance too.

Most shocking for contemporary viewers is the fact that nearly all of Mia Farrow’s children, including Soon-Yi, are in the film, which is hard to watch. But that’s exactly why the movie is still essential viewing. You can see from the film’s first frame that Woody Allen desired, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy Mia Farrow and her family. His contempt for her comes through in the numerous lines from multiple characters calling her stand-in Hannah too perfect, who lives beyond the ability of any normal human to emulate, or even just support. Just as Larry David’s character in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is appealing to those close to him because his awfulness makes them feel better about themselves, Hannah is such an angelic figure that she drives everyone around her insane and eager to harm her in horrific ways.

Woody bifurcates himself into two lead characters in the movie (possibly three if you count Von Sydow’s Frederick, but that’s not important at this point) and they take turns being Hannah’s husband. Mickey fails as Hannah’s first spouse because of a low sperm count and, apparently, because the couple asks his best friend Norman (Tony Roberts) to donate sperm for IVF, and this drives a wedge between them. It’s handled rather abruptly and unsatisfactorily, but I’m sure Woody didn’t feel like dwelling on his real issues with Mia head on at that time.

For that, he brings on the second husband, Elliott (Michael Caine), who opens the movie with the most out-of-his mind case of infatuation (for Hannah’s sister Lee, played by Barbara Hershey) that I’ve ever seen on film. It’s one of Woody Allen’s most brilliant set pieces. What Elliott is doing in these early scenes is objectively monstrous. But it’s also, for anyone who’s felt a rush of passion completely beyond their rational ability to control, impossible to condemn. Elliott behaves exactly like a stupid 15 year old boy suffering his first crush, and he has the same awkwardness of a teenager, which makes him oddly appealing. It’s a testament to Caine’s acting that he can keep Elliott likable while behaving reprehensibly by any social standard, and the movie never brings him to account for it. He isn’t even forced to suffer through the kind of guilt trip you would expect for a man who betrays his wife so viciously.

Instead, the mid-movie lectures about their crumbling marriage focus on Hannah, and how she gives everyone the impression of having no vulnerability and needing no one’s support. We get to see Mia Farrow basically apologize for being strong and caring for everyone, for sacrificing her own needs for everyone else’s. It’s brutal to watch — but I also find it amazing that Mia didn’t read this script and freak out at Woody, just like her character Hannah did when her other sister Holly writes a play that condemns her invulnerability. Maybe Woody slyly pre-empted Mia’s attacks by making the expected counterattack another layer in the film.

Eventually Lee is overcome with guilt for what she’s done to her big sister. She doesn’t confess, but she does dump Elliott and move on to a new boyfriend. Elliott doesn’t confess his sins either. He finally gaslights Hannah sufficiently enough to elicit some vulnerability in her, at which point he shrugs and returns. He didn’t end up annihilating Hannah, as he wished at the beginning of the film, but he does get to make her bleed just enough that she requires his care, which allows him to feel noble for his newly needed emotional support.

Hannah, at the end of the film, seems content in her reborn marriage with Elliott. She gets to throw another Thanksgiving gathering that this time includes her ex-husband newly married to Holly. It’s Woody pulling one last unconscious act of gaslighting on Mia’s Hannah — see, you were just sensing your ex-husband forming a bond with your sister, you shouldn’t have been worried about your current husband running off with your other sister. Little does she know that Elliott, fresh off his chase of Lee, now is eyeing the then 12 year old Soon-Yi … but maybe that’s just in my imagination. Ahem.

In truth, I find the last scene of “Hannah and Her Sisters” cloying and impossible to accept. The movie really needed a “Rosemary’s Baby” like send off, where all the characters gather and agree that they’ve hated Hannah all along and wish her to join them in a ritual murder so she could share in their depravity. But Woody, probably sensing that he had a very rare commercial hit on his hands, gave in to Hollywood and even brought Mickey’s dead sperm back to life.

That’s ok, it doesn’t ruin the movie. In fact, it’s better in a way that the movie retains the same feckless tone throughout. It makes it easier to understand how Woody could later contemplate and act out in such reprehensible ways. He made it obvious in the movie, after all, he’s beyond responsibility. He’s going to chase his darkest whims and let them do their worst. Because, in the end, he always gets away with it.

 

 

 

Montaigne is famous for his skepticism and many of his essays include a variation of the phrase “what do I know?” It’s possible to trace his changing opinions on scores of matters across essays written years apart. But one thing Montaigne never did was write an essay directly challenging one he had written before.

My guess is that Montaigne simply considered a previous finished essay done and forgotten. It’s the approach I have taken to my 107 essays written in 2011 — I have revisited them sparingly since then and have only read a few in the course of preparing this project. And I think it would be a waste of time to rewrite or reconsider any of them at this point. They are snapshots in time.

Yet, I feel compelled to take on one of the essays I recently completed, the one I entitled “Catch Me If You Can.” To date, it is the most widely read of my new essays, owed in part of the fact that one of my readers apparently checked in and re-read it 16 times. I don’t know what to make of that. Should I be concerned for that reader? I’m hoping it was a computer glitch or perhaps a cat hitting a refresh key.

There’s nothing technically false or misleading in the essay. As an intellectual effort, I’m rather proud of it. Perhaps that’s the problem. This was an essay created with an audience in mind. It was designed to demonstrate that I faced up to a recent challenge, learned valuable lessons and moved on. It’s what old school rappers would call fronting.

What’s missing from the essay is emotional truth, which I wasn’t even aware of until I watched another movie, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” That 2019 film, currently available on Hulu, was so emotional bare, brave and honest that it made me feel ashamed for my previous essay. I could imagine a version of ‘Portrait’ where Marianne looks back and sees her love affair with Heloise as a long act of procrastination and evasion from the real work at hand, which was capturing her subject’s essence and putting it on canvas. It might have even been an interesting character study. But it would have been a lie.

I’m going to do a really weird thing now and, instead of quoting Montaigne,  quote myself. Maybe I anticipated the emotional evasion I was about to attempt when I wrote this:

Once you have dedicated yourself to Montaigne’s approach, you have embraced his solitude and are playfully alive in his examination of personal folly, you inevitably reach a fork in the road. Do you express yourself in moderation or do you take an edgier approach?

In fairness to myself, I took many chances in the essay — publicly admitted some youthful mistakes that I had never done before. Furthermore, all but the final two paragraphs were an accurate description of my most recent therapy experience and the confounding mental state in which it left me. But those two paragraphs need serious re-examination.  First this one:

In the end, my therapist did leave me with one last useful insight and maybe she had rewatched the movie recently and saw elements of my personal life in the story too. I still admire her work. And I believe my last therapy relationship ran upon the rocks because I did not, to paraphrase Montaigne, find my place and draw a line. Our relationship danced on edges and boundaries and seemed to revel in its foolish pointlessness. There is a bit of the folly that Montaigne writes about in there, and perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to judge that most human of tendencies to avoid work with play.

Yes, it is fine to say that I should have found my place and drawn a line. It was a professional relationship designed to help me deal with long-term challenging issues, most of them based on emotions and life-long behavioral patterns created to cope with them. But that is like saying Marianne’s task was painting a portrait of Heloise. It’s technically true, but it misses everything important. Marianne’s task was to bring Heloise to life, to break through her emotional defenses, at great personal risk to them both.

And that’s what happened in my therapy as well, and I have not shown enough gratitude to my therapist for being brave enough to crack through my emotional walls. What I called “foolish pointlessness” in my last essay was, in reality, the real work that needed to be done. I needed to feel my yearnings and observe the empty spaces. None of the supposedly important practical work of therapy would have any meaning without a clear expression of the emotional need for change. I tried to give myself a bit of a break in that final sentence — so kind of me — but I failed to see that the only play that took place in the relationship were in moments devoted to anything other than what was happening in the room. But I shouldn’t call it play — it was pointless drama, and in truth, not the slightest bit fun.

But still, that paragraph isn’t terrible — a bit off-target, perhaps, but not dishonest.  It’s the final paragraph that is the reason for this essay. It sounds like I’ve prepared a speech to demonstrate I’m ready to be released from a psych ward:

What Montaigne says about moderation, however, in his final and greatest essay On Experience holds great wisdom for me. Striving towards flashy rewards, whether in an early career where corners are cut, or in therapy where playacting a fake relationship takes precedence over working on a real one, might give an adrenaline rush for a time. It is not a sustainable way to live, however, and is not a real way of using your inner world and solitude effectively.

Reading this, I become genuinely angry at myself. “Playacting a fake relationship” — is that really how I want to remember the experience? Forming this attachment was risky for me. It offered no hope of eventual reward, not without warping it into something completely different from what my heart yearned for. Voicing my feelings to my therapist took courage, the type of courage people around me have told me my entire life not to show.  Keep your feelings to yourself, be strong so others can feel safe and secure, don’t put yourself in a position to be hurt. I had to fight through all of these voices. And it wasn’t fucking playacting.

Then I called it an “adrenaline rush.” I don’t remember any of those highs. What I do remember were daydreams of contentment and belonging. It wasn’t about a quick fix or acting out frustrations, I knew better than to describe it that way. It just sounded easier for serious people to understand and nod, declaring that I had made good use of the experience.

The last sentence focuses on a sustainable way to live. As if I really had the answer to that. I should know better than to write something so haughty. How can I use my inner world and solitude effectively? It’s a great question and I try to examine in on this site every day. But I can’t pretend to have answers.

One thing I do know is that there’s a false ending to my recent experience. It declares that it’s perfectly fine to dismiss the last six months and walk away to the next experience with nothing more than object lessons on what to avoid. Hang some paintings on the wall, listen to some music, and dull any emotions that the experience might evoke.

I don’t know a lot about how to live, but I can state definitively, that’s a really sad ending.