About a year ago, I came across some lines from American philosopher Richard Rorty in his book “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity,” that had a big impact on me. I was being treated for depression and had been on Cymbalta for about nine months. I couldn’t stand the drug and wanted to get off anti-depressants entirely — Cymbalta left me vaguely contented with life, but I also felt stoned constantly and had great difficulty writing, therefore working. I was also participating in the “talking cure,” and was on my third therapist in under a year.
I didn’t mind the talking part of therapy so much as the talking-about-myself part — my last psychiatrist noted that my personality changed markedly when the subject turned to ideas. Ideas change the tenor of my voice and the speed of my delivery … and I care about them quite a bit more than the tired stories of my childhood.
I kept wanting to bring ideas into the discussions and somehow in my frantic Amazon Kindle book buying spree, I came across Rorty. His words had special resonance for me because his subject was the personal narrative, that same, frustrating topic that I felt obliged to recall for 45 minutes every week. Writing a particularly insightful analysis of Friedrich Nietzsche, Rorty interpreted Nietzsche to believe that the process of understanding your personal narrative is akin to creating an entirely new language:
The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language – that is, of thinking up some new metaphors. For any literal description of one’s individuality, which is to say any use of an inherited language-game for this purpose, will necessarily fail.
Defining myself as a writer, I found this description fascinating. Rorty went on:
To fail as a poet – and thus, for Nietzsche, to fail as a human being – is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems. So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language.
I read these passages to my therapist and he agreed that this was the basic aim of psychoanalysis — to perform an exegesis of your inner narrative and to reject it for a new one, a narrative that is purely your own, not borrowed from your parents or anyone else, and not weighed down with ancient misconceptions.
I continued to struggle with this concept because it seemed somewhat artificial to me. I can accept that my current personal narrative is a fallacy, but how do I know that the new narrative won’t be just as much of a fiction? Unless the narrative has some kind of foundation, it can’t have meaning. Or so I thought. Interestingly enough, in between the two quotes noted above, Rorty actually addressed this issue:
Only poets, Nietzsche suspected, can truly appreciate contingency. The rest of us are doomed to remain philosophers, to insist that there is really only one true lading-list, one true description of the human situation, one universal context of our lives.
I wanted that description of the human condition and couldn’t accept the validity of psychotherapy without it. My doctor basically prescribed that I take up writing not only as a profession, but an avocation as well — I needed to find time to write for me, he said. It was good advice, but I didn’t think there was anything more to learn from him, my 10 insurance paid-for sessions for 2010 had run out, and I decided that I was going to ween off the antidepressant and focus on that one big idea, write for me.
At the same time, still eager to find that definition of the human condition, I dove into the deep end of philosophy. In the past year, I’ve read a staggering amount of it — not just Nietzsche, but also Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Kant, Descartes and several contemporary philosophers too, including Charles Taylor. This long trail of great thinkers somehow led to Montaigne.
The trail to Montaigne also included a prolonged effort to ween off Cymbalta, which finally succeeded at the close of 2010. Newly energized, I finally felt capable of taking on that major writing project. And then it occurred to me that if I really wanted to learn from Montaigne, I needed to do more than read his words, I needed to chart his path, take on his life’s work with my own writing project.
Montaigne would never pledge something as foolhardy as recrafting his entire corpus in 107 days, but that was the gimmick I adopted at the start and that I’ve remained faithful to all the way to the end, which is today. I’ve been trying to come to terms with my own narrative through Montaigne’s. Today, I have to assay my success.
According to Rorty, Nietzsche would have advised me, if deemed worthy, to keep reading him but stop reading all other philosophers and to take up poetry thereafter. Montaigne is just as skeptical about the value of philosophy — but he also understood the hunger that leads some people to it:
No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge. We assay all the means that can lead us to it. When reason fails us we make use of experience – By repeated practice, and with example showing the way, experience constructs an art…. It is only our individual weakness which makes us satisfied with what has been discovered by others or by ourselves in this hunt for knowledge: an abler man will not be satisfied with it. There is always room for a successor – yes, even for ourselves – and a different way to proceed.
Montaigne’s essays are packed with excerpts from and descriptions of great thinkers of the past. He understood not just the hunger to learn from others, but also the desire to seek out that elusive universal context for living:
No powerful mind stops within itself: it is always stretching out and exceeding its capacities. It makes sorties which go beyond what it can achieve: it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows; its inquiries are shapeless and without limits; its nourishment consists in amazement, the hunt and uncertainty, as Apollo made clear enough to us by his speaking (as always) ambiguously, obscurely and obliquely, not glutting us but keeping us wondering and occupied.
From Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, I took away limitations of language to express what is deep within us. But as Montaigne points out, the deeper one dives into philosophy, the more entangled one becomes in the language games:
Our controversies are verbal ones. I ask what is nature, pleasure, circle or substitution. The question is about words: it is paid in the same coin. – ‘A stone is a body.’ – But if you argue more closely: ‘And what is a body?’ – ‘Substance.’ – ‘And what is substance?’ And so on; you will eventually corner your opponent on the last page of his lexicon. We change one word for another, often for one less known. I know what ‘Man’ is better than I know what is animal, mortal or reasonable. In order to satisfy one doubt they give me three; it is a Hydra’s head.
What does Montaigne recommend instead? Well, it actually reads quite a bit like modern psychoanalysis:
Anyone who recalls the ills he has undergone, those which have threatened him and the trivial incidents which have moved him from one condition to another, makes himself thereby ready for future mutations and the exploring of his condition. (Even the life of Caesar is less exemplary for us than our own; a life whether imperial or plebeian is always a life affected by everything that can happen to a man.) We tell ourselves all that we chiefly need: let us listen to it. Is a man not stupid if he remembers having been so often wrong in his judgement yet does not become deeply distrustful of it thereafter?
Learning to be distrustful of one’s judgment is important, but not sufficient, says Montaigne:
I learn to distrust my trot in general and set about improving it. To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing: we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads.
I realize that this is a translation of Montaigne, but I can’t help but connect it to Samuel Johnson’s famous quote that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Giving away a massive writing project like this one for free — even if you are only getting the first draft — would likely fall under both Montaigne’s and Johnson’s definitions of a blockhead.
Returning to Montaigne, he suggests in his final essay an alternate course for philosophy, one that becomes, as Nietzsche later suggests, more like an autobiography. Not long after Montaigne, Descartes comes along — then later Kant — turning philosophy into a grand species and name system of thought. Montaigne sees that philosophy has lead people to contemplate when they should be paying attention and enjoying:
Go on then, just to see: get that fellow over there to tell you one of these days what notions and musings he stuffs into his head, for the sake of which he diverts his thoughts from a good meal and regrets the time spent eating it. You will find that no dish on your table tastes as insipid as that beautiful pabulum of his soul (as often as not it would be better if we fell fast asleep rather than stayed awake for what we do it for) and you will find that his arguments and concepts are not worth your rehashed leftovers. Even if they were the raptures of Archimedes, what does it matter?
Perhaps it all could have turned out differently if Montaigne had only called his essays a form of philosophy:
The learned do arrange their ideas into species and name them in detail. I, who can see no further than practice informs me, have no such rule, presenting my ideas in no categories and feeling my way – as I am doing here now; I pronounce my sentences in disconnected clauses, as something which cannot be said at once all in one piece. Harmony and consistency are not to be found in ordinary base souls such as ours. Wisdom is an edifice solid and entire, each piece of which has its place and bears its hallmark.
We’re ordinary base souls, but we’re also in a constant state of becoming, which is a philosophical school of though that goes back to Heraclitus, was picked up by Nietzsche and is now the dominant thought in postmodern philosophy. As mentioned in yesterday’s essay, even looking back at past photos can lead us to discover ourselves in an unrecognizable state:
Everywhere death intermingles and merges with our life: our decline anticipates its hour and even forces itself upon our very progress. I have portraits of myself aged twenty-five and thirty-five. I compare them with my portrait now: in how many ways is it no longer me! How far, far more different from them is my present likeness than from what I shall be like in death.
So that’s Montaigne’s analysis of philosophy, but now, in closing out his life-affirming project, he’s now in the mood to offer us a final summation of his theory of life. It’s not a system … and neither is it a day-by-day rulebook for living. Rather, it’s a way of focusing ourselves and saying yes to every moment in life. Nietzsche toiled to find the contentment that Montaigne outlines here, but he lacked the lightness and innate joy necessary to pull it off:
When I dance, I dance. When I sleep, I sleep; and when I am strolling alone through a beautiful orchard, although part of the time my thoughts are occupied by other things, for part of the time too I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the delight in being alone there, and to me. Mother-like, Nature has provided that such actions as she has imposed on us as necessities should also be pleasurable, urging us towards them not only by reason but by desire. To corrupt her laws is wrong.
Note that Montaigne is not rejecting desire — he wants us to find a balance in life between reason and desire and to understand how moderating desire is not a rejection of it, rather it’s a way to make it more meaningful. How do you find this balance? Montaigne suggests that if you pay close attention to your life — recognize what brings lasting pleasure and pain — nature will tell you where the balance lies:
If you have been able to examine and manage your own life you have achieved the greatest task of all. Nature, to display and show her powers, needs no great destiny: she reveals herself equally at any level of life, both behind curtains or without them. Our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials for a book: not to win provinces in battle but order and tranquillity for the conduct of our life. Our most great and glorious achievement is to live our life fittingly. Everything else – reigning, building, laying up treasure – are at most tiny props and small accessories.
Throughout my essay about Montaigne’s essays, I’ve set Montaigne and Nietzsche against each other. They’ve been battling it out for my philosophical soul. Nietzsche is a great believer in agon … he glorifies the struggle and the reach for greatness. He wants humanity to evolve and create the overman. In the following paragraph, Montaigne anticipates Nietzsche and defeats him:
You can indeed, using artifice rather than nature, make your journey more easily along the margins, where the edges serve as a limit and a guide, rather than take the wide and unhedged Middle Way; but it is also less noble, less commendable. Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upwards and forwards as in knowing how to find one’s place and to draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding.
While Montaigne is defeated Nietzsche in one area, he’s creating space for him in another, lashing out at the ascetic ideal that he supported in many past essays that glorified the stoics:
The most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being. If anyone desires to set his soul apart so as to free it from contagion, let him have the boldness to do so (if he can) while his body is unwell: otherwise, on the contrary, his soul should assist and applaud the body, not refuse to participate in its natural pleasures but delight in it as if it were its husband, contributing, if it is wise enough, moderation, lest those pleasures become confounded with pain through want of discernment.
Instead of following Socrates’ lead and using philosophy to know ourselves, we venture out in search of an overman or, for today’s techno-Utopians, an technology Singularity that will reshape everything. And it’s all a grand waste of time, according to Montaigne:
It is an accomplishment, absolute and as it were God-like, to know how to enjoy our being as we ought. We seek other attributes because we do not understand the use of our own; and, having no knowledge of what is within, we sally forth outside ourselves. A fine thing to get up on stilts: for even on stilts we must ever walk with our legs! And upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.
And that’s where Montaigne’s life leads Montaigne’s ideas, to an acceptance of the limits of his self knowledge and everyone’s self knowledge. But where does his wisdom leave me?
Today not only marks the end of the Montaigne Project, it also would have been my dad’s 74th birthday. He died six-and-one-half years ago of cancer, and a big part of my personal narrative is the incomplete relationship between us.
My parents divorced when I was 11. My older sister, younger brother and my mom moved from New Jersey to Oklahoma soon afterward — my mom remarried the owner of a truck stop in Tulsa. But my dad had no idea that we were moving. In fact, he thought that he and my mother were getting along better, perhaps nearing a reconciliation.
He called our house in New Jersey the day before we were scheduled to fly out to Tulsa to say he’d be coming for a visit in the afternoon. We were taking nothing with us but suitcases, so there was no sign that we were going. My mother told us that we had to keep it quiet. I was distraught. My mom called my soon-to-be stepfather, he asked to talk to me and told me to “be strong for my mother.”
So my father came and, dutifully, I didn’t mention a word. We watched some talk show, Mike Douglas I think, and he had the Toastmaster General on. At some point I asked why the Postmaster General was telling jokes on TV, which made my dad laugh and helped me mask the barely held back tears. We all promised to see him again soon … and the next day we boarded a Braniff flight from Newark. Other than a few days at a time on holidays, I barely saw my dad again until I went to college.
Jump forward now to the last day of my father’s life. He was in a hospice in Henderson, NC. I had been visiting him for about 10 days as had my brother and sister and some of his closest friends. We all knew the end of was near. My dad and I both love baseball and we’re Yankee fans — God forgive us. The Yankees had given us both more than our fair share of good days, but this was not one of them. This was October 20, 2004, game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
My dad looked horrible — and horrified. He had a breathing tube, so he couldn’t talk. But worse, he had a terrified look in his eyes. But maybe the real terror was mine. I sat in a chair about 10 feet from him, watching this horrific baseball game, where our team was on the brink of blowing a 3-0 series lead, the first time anyone in MLB history had done such a thing.
At some point, I should have pulled up a chair and held his hand … said something other than some idle talk about the game. But I lacked the courage. I left his room to drive back to my sister’s house and said something about seeing him again tomorrow. But tomorrow didn’t come for him. He died about an hour later.
My mother’s voice has, for too long, narrated the story of my father’s life. For this reason, my memories of him tend to be sad. I see him as someone who just didn’t seem to make much of his life. And I don’t think I was prepared, in 2004, to say the things that he need to hear on his way out of this life.
But Montaigne is helping me with this one, so I think I’m up for the task. Dad, you lived your life the way you wanted, even if it didn’t always turn out the way you wanted, and I’m proud of you for that. To the end, you remained your own man. And although you never lived to see them, you have three handsome, hopelessly independent grandsons with the Conley name who share your spirit.
I feel bad that you dwelled so much on your failing and faults in life, because I do that too. Let’s hope that the kids don’t inherit that. You were never shy to tell me how much you loved me and how proud you were of me. My greatest regret it life is that I never shared the favor with you, even when you need it the most. I’m sorry for that. That’s something else that I hope not to pass on to your grandsons.
I have no idea why I felt obliged to write any of these 107 essays, but I dedicate all of them to you dad. Happy birthday and rest in peace.